Unknown Forces: Judy Davis as Joan Lee in “Naked Lunch”
“A report on the murder of Joan Lee by unknown forces…”
So begins Bill Lee’s typewritten essay on the William Tell-inspired death of his wife Joan as he prepares to enter the Interzone in David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William Burrough’s novel Naked Lunch. “Unknown forces” might also describe Judy Davis’s astonishing performance as Joan Lee, a figure once removed from Burrough’s wife Joan who’d died under similar murky circumstances. Davis’s soul-extirpating work as Joan Lee permeates the first act of Naked Lunch as she conveys the essence of a character who’s truly at the abyss of self-extermination and is loving every second of it. Davis’s parched, ghostly and haunted physiognomy renders a creature as strange and poignant as the talking typewriters and mugwumps in Cronenberg’s imagining of Burrough’s strange trip to the other side.
Judy Davis returns in the second act of the story as Joan Frost, a resident of Interzone/Tangiers; sort of an evocation of Jane Bowles, Joan Frost completes Bill Lee’s act of literary and mental extirpation of the rational world. In both roles, Davis is powerfully impressionistic of the world Cronenberg creates and the film works largely because of her stylized acting, but she also humanizes the two Joans just enough to evoke the tragedy of their outcomes. The images of Joan Lee shooting up “bug powder” and reaching her “literary high” create both a palpable etching of a character trapped by addiction and a reinforcement of the film’s arc in which Bill Lee’s character reaches, through the fates of the two Joans, the literary illation of what will become Naked Lunch.
Judy Davis as Joan Lee: