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Sybil Danning pumps iron

On one of the coldest nights of winter, Sybil Danning came chattering into a Sichuan restaurant wearing skintight leather pants and a blazer that was cut all the way down to the South Pole.

"It's by a Japanese designer named Kansai," she explained. "I bought it in Rome. I put it on and couldn't take it off."

"It's what Madonna would wear, if she had style," explained Dacy.

In order for you to understand the world of Sybil Danning, we had better stop right here and explain about Dacy. He is an exuberant young man, somewhat innocent-looking, like a graduate student of some particularly idealistic field of study. Dacy is his last name. I have never been quite sure what his first names are.

At some point in the past, Dacy was a newspaperman in Canada, but then he met Sybil Danning and knew that his life's mission was to make her famous. Or, as Dacy would put it, even more famous. Dacy is the kind of guy who leaves telephone messages to tell you that he will be calling you next week with news about Sybil Danning.

As for Sybil Danning, you know all about her from her famous cover of Playboy, in which she posed in the leather harness, and from her celebrated feud with her co-star in "Hercules," Lou Ferrigno, who let the other gladiators take off their cloaks, but made Sybil keep hers on, for fear she would upstage his muscles. And that was before Sybil had muscles of her own, which she certainly does now.

"Look at this," said Dacy, unrolling a poster of Sybil wearing a camouflage bikini and carrying a machinegun, her muscular calves astride the jungle.

"Sybil, you've been pumping iron," I said.

"This is the poster for my own video line," she said. "It is called 'Sybil Danning's Adventure Video.' I do the wraparound, introducing each movie and discussing it after it is over. We're going to release four movies every two months. The first four are out in January. What I do in the wrap around is like what Elvira does with horror movies, and Joan Collins with her video line."

"What movies will you be introducing?"

"My range is very wide. Westerns, period pictures, chase and gangster movies, something for everybody. I wear different costumes suitable to the films. For 'Space 1999,' for example, I have a silver outfit and I carry a ray gun."

"I must have missed 'Space 1999' when it came out," I said.

"Sybil comes on," Dacy said, "and says, I'm Sybil Danning. No man, no war, no country can stop me from being your host on this series! It's a little tongue-in-cheek. The response has been encouraging. We've been asked if we'll also start a cable series, but I think that's a bad idea. You want buyers to know they're getting something they couldn't get on TV. Joan Collins, for example, has actually been detrimental to video sales. Why should they pay for her when they get her free?"

Sybil ate some hot and sour cabbage, very spicy, and said she had made several basic decisions about her image in the movies. From now on, she is going to play mean. A woman of action, capable of violence.

"I've done so many sexy roles, but I always wound up being the victim," she said. "Now I'm declaring my independence from that. I feel we women can go out and do more than just work with our bod ies. Hollywood is making action pictures, and we can do action, but the industry doesn't want to admit it. Who would you rather watch in an action scene? Me, or Sylvester Stallone?"

"Case closed," I said.

"I made a movie called 'Playing with Fire,' catering to the young audience. I was a high-school teacher who seduced my student as part of a murder plot. I thought it would pay my bills while we worked on what we really wanted to do. The picture played one week. I called the exhibitors. They said it opened great and then it died. They said the audience came to see me kick ass, and they were disappointed."

"There aren't a lot of women who kick ass in the movies," I observed.

"A few. Sandahl Bergman in 'Conan the Barbarian.' Grace Jones in 'Conan.' Look how they messed up 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle' by giving the role to Tanya Roberts. Remember her in her snakeskin bikini? If you knew how I wanted that role."

"How would you have interpreted Sheena differently?" I asked.

"She could have been catlike, animalistic, strong, sexy, dominant - she could have really been queen of the jungle!"

"I see," I said.

"You have to be yourself in the movies. Your personality. Tanya didn't have that animalism. I'd like to see her get dirty sometime. That's why I'm so happy with my 'Adventure Video' series. I want to be an example for women. A role model. In sexy roles, you have to be passive. In action roles, you get to be the dominant person. And you can still be sexy. Imagine Rambo with a large bra. The way I'm built, nothing I do is not sexy.

"With me, this is almost an ideology. I don't see my career as being an actress anymore, but spreading the message that women can be free to realize their fantasies."

"I share that vision," Dacy said, spooning Sichuan chicken onto his plate. "We are on a subversive mission to change the image of women in action films. The first time I saw a James Bond movie, I fell in love with the movies, and eventually I knew I had a choice between staying and writing about them, or trying to change them. My choice was clear."

He opened his briefcase and spread glossy photographs of Sybil all over the table. Several waiters made detours to examine them.

"I have a lot of new muscles," Danning said. "Building muscles consists of putting pain on yourself. I'm going through hell, and Hollywood isn't ready for that yet. I've got a few weak spots. My biceps, my calves. I'm an ectomorph. Slim limbs, strong trunk, chest and back. My fans say, 'Don't lose your boobs!' But I have enough to spare. For the men who are attracted to me, sexuality is not in the measurements."

"Men want to adopt her into their families," Dacy said. "Fans write her things like, if she's ever in Albuquerque, she can stay with them."

"Men are afraid of me," Danning said. "I was out once with this major, major studio executive, and when he dropped me off at home, I asked him in for a cup of coffee, and he was terrified. I don't know what he thought I was going to do with him."

"I can well imagine," I said. "I'll bet you don't have a lot of dates - if, for that matter, you and Dacy are not, as I have long suspected, actually in love."

"Actually, we are," Sybil said, and then she actually blushed.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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