Jerilee Randall (Pia Zadora) is an innocent schoolgirl living in the San Fernando Valley area of California with dreams of becoming a famous screenwriter. Shortly after winning a trophy for her creative writing, she meets Walt (Kerry Shale), the son of famous screenwriter Walter Thornton (Lloyd Bochner), at a party. She goes home with him, along with some other friends, and during a late evening pool party, one of Jerilee's friends (played by Ray Liotta in one of his first roles) beats her, slaps her and then sexually assaults her with a garden hose nozzle.
Walter arrives after the assault has taken place and saves Jerilee from further attacks. A friendship, then a love affair, develops between them, and they soon marry, despite the disapproval of Jerilee's mother (Bibi Besch). The marriage begins to fall apart when Jerilee rewrites one of Walter's scripts and is told she had improved it greatly. (She had actually only added the word, "Why?") Despite this, the revised script works well for the actress delivering the line and she thanks Walter for it.
Divorce is inevitable when Walter scorns Jerilee during an argument and accuses her of enjoying having been raped all those years ago. After the divorce, Jerilee has several love affairs while trying to get her own screenplay produced, using her sexual charms to pave the way to recognition, with revenge thrown in the end for good measure. One affair, with actor George Ballantine (Jared Martin), quickly ends with her pregnant; upon realizing he would not support her, she gets an abortion. While meeting club owner Vincent Dacosta (Joseph Cali), who has contacts to agents who can help produce a screenplay, Jerilee ends up working for him as a waitress for a short time. Eventually she has an affair with him as well, and when visiting the agent he had promised would possibly approve of, she realizes that she has been had and that he sent her there to have sex with him and another woman. After confronting Vincent about this, he gives Jerilee her screenplay back, laughing about it while on drugs with two other women. Jerilee finally has a nervous breakdown in a sequence wherein she sees the callous people of her past appear as faces on the keys of her typewriter.
After spending a few days in a mental facility, Jerilee rewrites her screenplay. Upon meeting director Guy Jackson (Anthony Holland), he does help her get her screenplay produced successfully; however, once again she's expected to have sex, this time with Mrs. Jackson. At the live awards telecast, Jerilee ultimately wins a prestigious award for her screenplay of a film titled The Hold-Outs. On stage, she admits to her ex-husband Walter Thornton that she has never learned "the meaning of self-respect" and bluntly speaks out about the Hollywood system in which women have to "fuck [their] way to the top". Jerilee then refuses to accept the award, and walks out of the auditorium with her newfound dignity.Pia Zadora as Jerilee Randall
Lloyd Bochner as Walter Thornton
Bibi Besch as Veronica Randall
Joseph Cali as Vincent Dacosta
Anthony Holland as Guy Jackson
Jared Martin as George Ballantine
Ray Liotta as Joe Heron
Kerry Shale as Walt Thornton, Jr.
Sandra Dickinson as Nancy Day
Glory Annen Clibbery as Marion
Lou Hirsch as Bernie
Ed Bishop as Doctor Baker
Shane Rimmer as Adolph Fannon
Universal Pictures purchased the filming rights for The Lonely Lady in 1975, one year before the novel was published, hoping to release the adaptation in 1976. Susan Blakely, who had signed a three picture pay or play contract with Universal, accepted the role of Jerilee, being able to approve the screenplay and director. However, despite multiple drafts by Robert Merrill and Dean Riesner, Blakely was never satisfied with the script and eventually opted out of the project. The Lonely Lady only eventually entered production as Israeli multimillionaire industrialist Meshulam Riklis joined the production in 1982. Riklis had already funded Butterfly, released that same year, to serve as vehicle for his wife Pia Zadora, and wanted The Lonely Lady to have the same purpose. Riklis was reportedly supplying approximately half of the film's $6-7 million budget, along with completion costs, but refused any mention in credits. Robert R. Weston, responsible for the previous Robbins adaptation The Betsy, was the producer. Butterfly director Matt Cimber would write the script, before being replaced by Ellen Shepard and the duo John Kershaw and Shawn Randall.
Principal photography began on June 14, 1982 at a villa near Rome, where various Los Angeles landmarks and architecture were constructed, from the exterior of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to local supermarkets, although some exterior photography was also planned for Los Angeles.
The Lonely Lady was heavily panned by critics. Roger Ebert opened his review saying that "If The Lonely Lady had even a shred of style and humor, it could qualify as the worst movie of the year. Unfortunately, it's not that good." Janet Maslin of The New York Times complimented that Zadora "[has] got spunk", while still being "the tiny centerpiece of a badly acted slovenly looking movie that isn't even much fun."
Harold Robbins said shortly after the release that he had not seen the adaptation of his novel, criticizing the casting of Pia Zadora, who he claimed that "seem[ed] like a nice girl, but not my idea of the main character" and concluding that "the movie will be a bummer, everyone will lose money. Except me. I got six hundred thousand dollars before it opened." Robbins' then assistant and future wife Jann Stapp reports in her book Harold and Me that Robbins only saw a rough cut at Universal's screening room, telling her afterwards that he slept during the projection, derided Zadora as "not an actress, she can't carry the picture", and summed up the production as "It's crap, I don't know what they did in Italy but it turned into shit". Zadora herself said that The Lonely Lady was "a real turkey, done very badly" that she "knew it was bad all along" that despite being taken seriously by its director became a "camp classic, one of those movies that's so bad it's funny." She added that she attempted to prevent the release: "I wanted my husband to buy it, to buy the whole thing and hide it somewhere. That movie certainly didn't help my credibility problem."
The film was nominated for 11 Golden Raspberry Awards and won six: Worst Actress, Worst Director, Worst Musical Score, Worst Original Song ("The Way You Do It"), Worst Picture, and Worst Screenplay. When questioned about the awards, Zadora stated that "I would have hated to be nominated and not won [sic]". It was also nominated for a Razzie as Worst Picture of the Decade, but lost to Mommie Dearest, and as Worst Drama of the Razzies' First 25 Years, but lost to Battlefield Earth. Zadora won Worst New Star of the Decade for this film along with Butterfly. She was also nominated for Worst Actress of the Century, but lost to Madonna. John J.B. Wilson included it in The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever. In its entry, he notes how being hired for the promotional campaign was "one of my alltime favorite assignments as a trailermaker" given he knew it was a potential Golden Raspberry winner, and even convinced producer Robert R. Weston not to cut an infamous scene where Jerilee has a breakdown, hoping to use the clip in Razzie ceremonies.
The movie was nominated for a Stinkers Bad Movie Awards for Worst Picture.