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An Unlikely Sex Symbol : Idealized Romance, Compassion Bring Out the Beauty in 'Beast'

January 28, 1988|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

The women of America have fallen in love with a Beast.

When CBS asked Ron Koslow to create a television series based on Jean Cocteau's 1946 film "Beauty and the Beast," the network and the writer-producer expected the show, like other fantasy programs, to appeal most strongly to a female audience. The network was banking on that attraction when it scheduled "Beauty and the Beast" to air at 8 p.m. Fridays as lead-in to its two veteran soap operas, "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," which also attract a large female viewership.

But no one expected that Vincent, the Beast of this romantic fantasy-drama, would become TV's most unlikely sex symbol.

Fan mail for Vincent has recently been flooding the production office at a rate of several hundred letters per week. The show, which opened the season ranked 44th in the networks' prime-time ratings, has recently inched up to 36th. It has won its time slot every week against regular series programming, though it has occasionally lost to specials aired opposite it.

"Beauty and the Beast," first unveiled at the annual meeting of representatives of CBS-affiliated stations here last summer, was met with suspicion by the mostly male group, some of whom called it "that weird show." Network executives soothed them by explaining that the series could have the same appeal as the bizarre 1978 hit "The Incredible Hulk."

Instead of comic-book aficionados, however, "Beauty and the Beast," a Ron Koslow Films and Witt/Thomas production in association with Republic Pictures, has attracted women--women who have willingly forsaken the monosyllabic Don Johnsons, the slick Harry Hamlins, the sensitive tough-guy Tom Selleck types and the roguish Bruce Willises because they're dazzled by the beauty of the Beast.

Who is this guy, anyway?

The actor behind the Beast is Ron Perlman, 37, a family man best known for his portrayals of a prehistoric tribesman in the feature film "Quest for Fire" and the tragic hunchback in "The Name of the Rose," adapted from the brooding Umberto Eco novel.

Koslow, who wrote the show's pilot episode, created the character. Rick Baker designed the elaborate Beast makeup, which takes five hours to apply.

Koslow, Perlman and Baker all love Vincent enough themselves to offer their own unscientific theories on why women have fallen for the 6-foot-2, 205-pound, excessively hairy gentleman with the cascading blond locks, the feline face, the superhuman strength, the heart of platinum and the dulcet voice that seems created solely for reading Browning's "Sonnets From the Portuguese."

And though it may not have been the first notion to occur to the network's research department, experts on the psychology of relationships call the outpouring of feminine passion as natural as rain.

First, a few details of Vincent's history: The Beast is a freak of nature, born grotesquely deformed and left to die but miraculously rescued by a man he calls Father (Ray Dotrice). Father, a scholarly recluse who had created his own world in a maze of steam tunnels beneath New York City, gave Vincent a classical education, a noble spirit and shelter from the pain and ridicule he would have experienced in the world above.

Vincent is in love with Catherine Chandler, a wealthy socialite lawyer played by Linda Hamilton. In the pilot episode, Catherine was attacked in the street, her face brutally slashed. Like Vincent, she was left to die until rescued and nursed back to health by the Beast; she did not see her savior until the bandages came off.

Shocked at first, Catherine came to appreciate Vincent for his heart rather than his appearance. The two continue a secret, chaste and tragically impossible romance. Moreover, Vincent can sense Catherine's emotions and instinctively knows when she's in danger.

Psychologist Lonnie Barbach, a member of the clinical faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the recently published book "Erotic Interludes: Tales Told for Women" and seven other books on relationships and sexuality, said the Vincent-Catherine relationship perfectly fits most women's romantic ideal.

Barbach said the beauty-beast relationship is a classic one in which two lovers are separated by an insurmountable barrier--in this case, being from different species.

Some writers have suggested that the chaste romance might be particularly apt in the era of AIDS; Barbach disputed that theory, saying that such appeal is historic and timeless.

"That's why the romance novels are so popular," she said. "There's often a great deal of disparity between the two people--a poor woman and a very wealthy man (for example). It's purer than pure. The women who are looking to these novels are looking to be rescued, to be taken care of--to being nurtured, to being treated as if they were some precious jewel."

Barbach added that the fact that the romance cannot be consummated only adds to its appeal. "He adores her and he cherishes her. Who cares about the sex?" she said.

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