by EJ Dickson
About ten minutes into The Room, a film that is considered the worst ever made, the actress Juliette Danielle has to make love to her fiancé, who is played by the film’s writer and director, Tommy Wiseau. They are atop a bed of rose petals. Soft R&B; plays. The camera lingers over Johnny’s pale bottom. Cascades of mermaid-length black hair spill over his back cleavage. As he thrusts into what seems to be Lisa’s belly button, she looks at him chidingly, as if he’s a soused comic who’s just told a fairly racist joke at an open mic.
Like most soft-core sex scenes, the love scene in The Room is a little awkward and profoundly un-erotic; the whole time you want to give the man a haircut and the woman a hug, or a fistful of Valium. Yet at the Lower East Side’s Landmark Sunshine Cinemas, which hosts now infamous midnight screenings of The Room on the first Saturday of every month, the scene elicits an entirely different reaction — one that borders on absolute malice.
As Johnny and Lisa go at it onscreen, the audience jeers and claps in time to the music. They scream “Focus!” when the camera’s lens goes blurry, and “Unfocus!” when it zooms in on Johnny’s rear or Lisa’s breasts. They laugh uproariously when Johnny tells Lisa she’s beautiful. At a recent screening, one woman behind me said “Nom nom nom” when Lisa pulled Johnny in for a kiss, both actors smacking their lips and grunting. At one point, Lisa’s belly appears in a shot, and someone broke into what sounded suspiciously like the Free Willy theme song.
In the ten years since shooting this scene, Juliette has learned how to laugh with Room fans, even while they’re laughing at her. She attends Room Q&As; and fan conventions. She posts polite, smiley face-laden responses to people that quote the movie on her Facebook page. But she will not, under any circumstances, attend a public showing of the film that made her famous.
“I just don’t feel the need to subject myself to that,” she said when we spoke recently. “What is it that Tommy says in the movie? ‘Express yourself and do whatever you want, just don’t hurt anybody.’”
She laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “Well. It hurts.”
Like Elizabeth Berkley, who played the be-tasseled Nomi Malone in Showgirls, or any woman who appeared in a Russ Meyer film, Juliette Danielle will likely forever be known for appearing topless in a bad movie. Filmed on a $6 million budget by aspiring auteur Wiseau (who supposedly financed the film by exporting leather jackets to Korea), The Room was intended to be a cinematic tragedy. Well, it was. What he ended up with was a film so bad in so many ways that it has prompted millions of gimlet-eyed cultural ironists to gather at midnight screenings to revel in its awfulness.
“The earnestness of it all is perfect, the fact that all the actors are so much into it that they don’t even blink,” Matt, a writer who has seen The Room in theaters 20 or 30 times, told me at the screening I went to. “Every single time I watch it, I find something new that’s wrong with it.” Alexin, a Room fan from Los Angeles, put it like this: “It’s just shit wall-to-wall and it’s funny to make fun of something shit wall-to-wall. That sounds horrible to say, but it’s true.” (Wiseau maintains the film’s failings were intentional: he now refers to The Room as a “black comedy.”)
At the heart of the phenomenon is Juliette. As the devious Lisa, Juliette lies, cheats and sleeps around with impunity, with no internal motivation other than, as she explains to one of the other characters, to “make it more interesting.” An apple-cheeked blonde with spray-tanned legs and the build of a wanton farmer’s daughter, Lisa is the ultimate early-aughts bitch goddess, a schemer in a Spandex shell tank and miniskirt.
Part of the humor of the performance arises from how miscast Juliette is: The character comes off less like a cold-hearted seductress and more like a spoiled teen from the San Fernando Valley. “There was something about the miscasting that was just genius,” said Mike Justice, who later directed Juliette in his feature The Trouble With Barry. “She was playing this sort of middle-aged femme fatale scheming-wife character that Joan Collins would’ve played in the 80s, but instead she looked like Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions or something.”
Juliette’s corn-fed appearance and munificent curves are also a source of amusement for Room fans, who body-snark her at every given opportunity. “The characters always talk about how sexy and beautiful she is and she’s a nice-looking woman, but she’s not like this incredible beauty,” said Fred Bonheim, a video production assistant and frequent Room screening attendee. “That makes people criticize her more than they probably should.”
Juliette was 20 when she shot The Room, and she wasn’t supposed to play Lisa. A former elementary education major from Sugarland, Texas, she had recently moved to L.A. with her mother and sister when she was cast in the supporting role of Lisa’s friend Michelle. After the original Lisa was fired (“she had a weird accent that didn’t quite fit,” Juliette said), Juliette was promoted to her first leading role in a feature film. (Greg Sestero, who plays Mark, with whom Lisa has an affair, wasn’t supposed to be in it at all, but stepped in when the original actor was also fired. Sestero will release a book on the film this October.)
“I was so excited to get it. I called and told everybody,” she said. “And this is when you paid per phone minute on your cell phone, and nobody had the all-inclusive plan, so it was a pretty big deal.”
Juliette didn’t find anything suspect about the script for The Room. She had already auditioned for a slew of low-budget productions, and Wiseau’s screenplay didn’t seem that bad in comparison. “There are all kinds of student films and non-union films and maybe the scripts are not the best, but you’re excited to get the job, you know?” she said. Wiseau didn’t give the cast the full script, however — and some of what Juliette did see she definitely found suspect.
She did also question the effectiveness of some of Wiseau’s direction, which consisted solely of telling her to watch Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. “I still don’t know what he was trying to do there,” she said.
With no other explicit assistance from Wiseau, Juliette independently prepped for the role by writing letters to the Room characters from various perspectives, “to try to work through what Lisa would be feeling.” She also bonded with the other cast members, including Philip Haldiman, who played the manchild Denny. “We seemed to get along in real life as our characters did in Room-land,” said Haldiman, whom Wiseau often sent with Juliette to pick up Subway takeout for lunch. “We were sort of like a dysfunctional family, in a way.”
The Room premiered on June 27, 2003 at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Theater. Wiseau spared no expense for the event, arriving in a white limo and hiring someone to shine a spotlight into the sky. In photos from the event, Juliette is radiant in a floor-length black dress with a jewel-encrusted back, looking every inch the movie star. It was the first time that a group of people approached her for an autograph. “I was like, “All right! This is awesome!” she said. “And of course, I hadn’t seen the movie yet.”
Juliette sat in the front row with her mother. At the lengthy love scenes between her and Wiseau, “my jaw dropped,” she said. “I thought it was gonna be this beautiful fifteen-second montage, but they went on and on and on,” she said. “That was the hardest part for me at that premiere: just trying to speak with everyone afterwards as if everything was fine.”
The Room grossed $1800 at the Laemmle. Juliette returned to an office assistant job she had held at a real estate management company. She refused to let her family and friends see The Room. Obviously the film would disappear on its own. It didn’t.
One of the (let’s just call it “several”) sucky things about The Room: people making light of breast cancer on EVERY post of mine. 🙁
— Juliette Danielle (@julietted80) May 31, 2013
One of the things that makes The Room “worth it?” Meeting fans. It’s pretty friggin awesome how cool you guys… http://t.co/I9HWGsDQjR
— Juliette Danielle (@julietted80) May 29, 2013
In 2003, there were 455 movies released in the U.S. that earned any domestic box office, according to Rentrak. Most of them have withered from the public consciousness. That’s part of the system: last year, 20% of films took in 95% of the year’s box office, according to the MPAA. A few of those not in the 95%, like a Showgirls or Troll 2, eventually stumble on audiences that appreciate them not for their quality or craftsmanship but for their failings. In this irony-drenched age, where camp is king and the term “guilty pleasure” has its own Wikipedia page, The Room is a singular oddity in the already-singularly odd world of cult film: a movie whose awfulness is only paralleled by its earnestness.
“The reason why The Room stands out is two-fold: first of all, it is incredibly badly made, much more so than, say, Snakes on a Plane, or Showgirls, and it is also completely void of tongue-in-cheek irony or hyperbole,” said cult film historian Ernest Mathijs. “Add to that a heartfelt sincerity of the effort itself, and the realization that this is, really, a film that is in its clumsiness so close to everyday life that it makes you reflect on just how conditioned our ‘normative’ movie responses are. The Room just blows the ways we usually react to movies out of the water, and laughter, derision and also (and I would say importantly) a deep self-reflective blush is the result. It’s like Plan Nine From Outer Space: a ‘naive’ film, and that stands out in this day and age of ‘self-awareness.’”
The first Los Angeles screenings of The Room took place in 2004 — not long at all after its premiere. Juliette was volunteering at a feline rescue facility and had just started dating her soon-to-be husband, a British video game programmer. Then she started hearing stories about the screenings — there were features in NPR and Entertainment Weekly, long before Tom Bissell’s famous Harper’s magazine story. Eventually she saw Alec Baldwin mention The Room in an interview.
“I turned to my husband and said, ‘Okay, Alec Baldwin has seen my boobs,’ Juliette said. “He’s like, ‘It’s gonna be all right. That’s actually kind of cool.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I dunno if it is.’”
At first, Juliette was stung by the press attention, particularly when it focused on her physical appearance. “On the Rifftrax” — that’s the downloadable accompanying heckling track, led by former “Mystery Science Theater” host Mike Nelson — “they called me the ‘bloated corpse of Britney Spears,’” she said. “It’s funny when it’s somebody else but God, I was just in no way prepared for that.” A scene in which Juliette appears to have a bulging vein in her neck also received a great deal of attention, with fans yelling, “Kill it before it dies!” at the screen.
Eventually, Juliette set up a Facebook profile. There she wasn’t heckled. Fans started posting photos on her wall of themselves dressed as Lisa; they told her how much joy the film brought them, how much fun they had at screenings; they quoted The Room to her and Juliette, to her surprise, found herself quoting it right back. She started watching cult movies like Troll 2 and Birdemic, and found that they gave her a renewed appreciation of The Room. She started attending Q&As; after screenings. She started to entertain the notion of returning to acting.
“For a while I expected it to go away and I think that just would’ve made me a really unhappy person, waiting until I’m 75-years-old for this thing to go away,” Juliette said. “So I found that when I embraced it, it certainly made me a lot happier and more secure about the whole thing.”
After ten years at her real estate management company, Juliette left her job last fall. She now has a manager, and has spent the last nine months going on auditions and shooting various films. She recently wrapped a role in Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws, and also appears as a gum-chewing gym attendant in The Trouble With Barry, a feature that celebrates cult B-movies. She also recently started taking improv courses, and has appeared as “Juliette Danielle, aka Lisa from The Room” at the Improv Space in Los Angeles. “She’s actually a really funny character actress, like the next Paula Prentiss or something,” said Justice. “Based on her cult reputation alone, I can’t figure out why nobody has taken her and put her in more character parts.”
Much of the work Juliette has booked since coming “out of hiding from The Room,” as she put it on her website, has been tangentially or directly associated with her performance in the film. Unlike Elizabeth Berkeley, who has sternly disavowed her association with Showgirls, Juliette has embraced her cult legacy.
Berkeley’s Showgirls co-star Rena Riffel, who appeared in The Trouble with Barry with Juliette, has also made a career out of turning cinematic lemons into lemonade, appearing at Showgirls conventions nationwide and writing, directing, and starring in a sequel, Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven. (She has also appeared in Caligula’s Spawn and Mulholland Drive.)
“As an actress, you’re always trying to brand yourself,” Riffel said. “Instead of doing 20 independent films that no one’s heard of or seen that didn’t get distribution, you’re in this movie that’s stuck around for so long and has developed such a following. It’s a wonderful and very rare thing, and you should embrace it instead of being mad about it.”
Justice, who wrote the Barry part specifically for Juliette after reaching out to her on Facebook, sees her association with Lisa in The Room as an asset instead of a liability. “I kinda feel like The Room is this two-hour ride you go on and get to have fun with other people while you do it,” he said. “Being cast in that movie is the opposite of a stigma. Like she got to be part of this weird, crazy project that people are fucking in love with, and I think of her being in it like somebody being in a Woody Allen movie, like, ‘Wow, what a unique experience they had!’”
No matter how many Q&As; Juliette attends, and no matter how many times she responds to her fans’ Facebook comments, it’s built in to the phenomenon of Room enthusiasm that she can’t quite be in on the joke. You can’t shriek with repulsion as a vein bulges in your neck, or scream “unfocus!” as a decade-younger version of yourself strips on-screen. Ten years is enough, though, for her to be okay with the fact that we do.
EJ Dickson is a writer whose work has been published in Salon, Nerve, Guernica, and Heeb Magazine. She enjoys doing crossword puzzles and writing about boys who rejected her in high school. You can follow EJ on Twitter. She lives in New York City and does a spectacular impersonation of 90s R&B; star Macy Gray. Premiere photos property of Juliette Danielle.