After spending several weeks cataloging our latest entertainment acquisition, I thought I had become desensitized to the many iconic props and costumes that were paraded before me. After all, when you’ve touched more than one screen-used artifact from Aliens or had lunch right next to Gene Kelly’s shoes from An American in Paris – their historical and pop cultural significance can slowly become part of the everyday landscape. However, one piece of movie history that caught me completely by surprise was hidden innocuously within a black garment bag. The tag read: “Jamie Lee C – True Lies.
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As a huge fan of Academy Award-winner Jamie Lee Curtis, I thought I had thoroughly reviewed every item that was even tangentially connected to her films in our collection. Not so! While the information on the tag did not reveal what was inside, my mind could only fathom one thing: THE DRESS. The slinky, black cocktail dress that Curtis wore so memorably in one of her most iconic film moments. What else could it be? The bag did indeed contain the famous frock – and as I stood staring at it sprawled out on the table, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional.
True Lies (1994) was a rare action film from the early 90s that had an integral female character who was not simply arm candy. Curtis’ Helen Tasker, the bored wife of a software salesman, is a complicated and self-aware protagonist who experiences an endearing transformational arc. Unbeknownst to Helen, her husband Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent – and her disenchantment with their marriage thrusts her into his latest adventure. When the somewhat dowdy wife and mother are tasked with a staged mission to seduce an agent (her husband in disguise), she dresses in what she thinks is a flattering cocktail dress. Catching herself in a hotel mirror, she makes a last-minute decision to rip away the ruffle accents and wet down her old-fashioned coif. Through movie magic and Curtis’ brave performance, these minor changes create a stunning real-time makeover that transcends mere “Bond girl” tropes.
Curtis’ “dress moment” and the following seduction scene provide a master class in physical comedy. These scenes could have easily been perfunctory moments in a male-driven action film, but her immersive dedication to the work (and writer/director James Cameron’s smart script) creates an indelible mark in action film history. Whether she’s performing an improvisational dance before a “stranger” – or dangling from a helicopter, Curtis wears that dress like Schwarzenegger wears his swagger. The simple velvet frock, which still contains the loose threads from where the unsightly ruffles were removed, is at once slight and innocuous – yet extraordinary and complete. Much like Helen’s secret identity, Doris, it’s a symbol of the dynamic action heroine who was always a part of her. An apparent contradiction… A true lie.