A true-crime yarn told largely by the criminal, with supporting testimony from his curiously forgiving victim, Crazy Love comes billed as a documentary. But it can’t really be considered journalism—unless you count as journalism the sort of lurid tabloid exposé whose hundred-point headline blurts, “ACID-ATTACKER MARRIES HIS VICTIM!”
As New York Mirror devotees will never forget: In the summer of ’59, Bronx lawyer and jilted lover Burt Pugach paid thugs to throw a jarful of lye in the face of his ex-girlfriend Linda Riss, who was blinded and disfigured as a result. To make a very, very long story short, Riss ended up wedding Pugach six months after he was sprung from jail in 1974. Now, despite some cute-old-couple squabbles that surface whenever Mr. and Mrs. Pugach stop for a bite at their favorite diner in Queens, they’re living happily ever after.
Extra! Extra! Violence against women has its upside! Riss, sporting huge cat-eye shades and a Liz Taylor wig, puffing a long cigarette and emoting with her eyebrows, tells the camera that her attacker, for all his eccentricities, was the only man in whose company she could feel OK about taking off her glasses and exposing her scars—the implication being that, for women, men are positively essential to living. Riss, now 68, is a product of the ’50s, and, for all intents and purposes, so is Crazy Love. Not counting the opening Lacan quote that’s used to solicit quick sympathy for the obsessive, psychology gets shoved aside in favor of
the playful shrug. “Even Hitler has friends,” concludes Pugach’s jocular buddy, a frequent (and frequently irritating) talking head. “Whaddya gonna do?” As if in response, publicist-turned-director Dan Klores cues up Elvis’s “hunk o’ burnin’ love” for the end credits. A hunk o’ burnin’ lye in her eye? Crazy, man!
That there’s enough “plot” in this bona fide melodrama to fill a dozen docs is conducive to the movie’s near-total evasion of outside perspective. In 90-odd minutes, Pugach, Riss, and their handful of friends—let’s call them enablers—have just enough time to recount all the black-comic manifestations of lunatic love in the pair’s half-century of association. “I had never seen a girl as beautiful as her,” recalls Pugach of spying on Riss—whom early photos capture as a cross between Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren—while driving through the Bronx on Rosh Hashanah. “I had to have her.” That’s for sure. Pugach puts his baby-blue Caddy, airplane, nightclub, and famous associates in the service of winning Riss, whose modest roots had her “impressed” with his privilege. But before long she finds out he’s married. Then she learns he fabricated divorce papers in order to keep her in the relationship, so she splits. He charms her back, then forces her to prove her virginity through medical examination. She gets tired of waiting for a ring, splits again, meets another guy, and gets engaged. Pugach harasses her—and then has her maimed.
And that’s just the beginning. Pugach defended himself in court, and Klores invites him to do the same thing here. “Those paddy wagons were terrible— there were no windows!” Pugach whines. However sick this tabloid star may be, Crazy Love is a celebrity doc by definition, with all its attendant trade-offs, and even the director admits that his access wasn’t free. “Quickly I realized that with Burt,” says Klores in the press kit, “if I treat him with respect, which of course I would, I’m going to be able to go everywhere I want.” Yes, of course the documentarian would treat this monstrous bully with respect. For an encore, maybe Klores should direct The O.J. Simpson Story.
To be blunt, Crazy Love is a snappy, upbeat movie about sexual violence. It’s already proven irresistible to plenty of people, including women: The “stars” got huge applause after the first screening at Sundance (let’s hear it for marriage?), and Klores, despite failing to shoot even talking heads in focus, got a distribution deal. What his movie sells—at a time when women are staying single more than ever, scaring those who prefer the clearer rules of engagement—is a way of life whereby the acceptance of brutish “romance” may be crazy, but easier than putting up a fight.