By the mid 70s, Lola Falana was at the height of her fame in the United States, having already established herself as a star abroad. She was a Tony nominated stage actress, the ground breaking face of Faberge’s Tigress perfume, had cut multiple successful singles, and was one of the biggest draws in Las Vegas.
While she was a regular guest star on television, film stardom was the one realm she hadn’t conquered. She received some respectful notices appearing alongside mentor/former lover Sammy Davis Jr. in 1966’s A Man Called Adam and appeared in a few minor Italian films—including receiving top billing on spaghetti western Lola Colt. Her home country’s film industry was a tougher nut to crack. Black actresses, even talented multi-hyphenates, struggled to gain respect and more substantiative mainstream roles, and Ms. Falana found herself working in supporting parts in B grade potboilers (The Liberation of L.B. Jones, The Klansman).
American top billing finally arrived with Blaxploitation item Lady Cocoa, directed by former Mr. Jayne Mansfield, Matt Cimber. The production had his usual shoestring budget, and was shot on location in North Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Coco (Lola Falana) has been sitting in prison for a year and a half for her refusal to testify against her boyfriend, smooth talking possible racketeer Eddie (James A. Watson, Jr.). Sick of prison, she cuts a deal with the district attorney’s office. If they want her testimony, she wants 24 hours of freedom in a luxury casino hotel. Over a barrel, the D.A. agrees to her terms. As her security detail, they send grizzled near retiree Ramsey (Alex Dreier), and an uptight young beat cop, Doug (NFL player Gene Washington).
Matt Cimber had apparently not learned too terrible much from 1966’s Single Room Furnished, as a decade later he still shows the same over reliance on static shots and talky exposition. The first hour of the film is spent in and around the hotel room, as the stunningly gorgeous Lola takes advantage of her position to indulge in shopping, shouting, and confusing the room service staff. The hotel itself has a kitschy Medieval theme, but the lack of narrative momentum and the cramped quarters feels airless, the slightly more visually interesting snowy landscapes and casino floor footage feeling imported from a tourism brochure or an industrial film.
There are some minor joys in watching the infinitely spunky Coco hassle the terminally humorless cops, but Mikel Angel’s script confuses a pile of showy idiosyncrasy for characterization. In between diva demands and misquoting books she read in jail, Coco takes constant showers that have little narrative purpose aside from requiring the film’s beautiful leading lady to saunter about in a towel.
This theater influenced, character study structure could have made for effective comedy, but both Drier and Washington turn in flat performances that make what should be verbal ping pong into arthritic shuffleboard. Lola Falana is left to carry the punchlines on the back of her considerable charm and charisma.
While the over the top nature of the Coco character sometimes works— Coco daffily proclaiming strawberries “a steady” but the painting on the wall “a fuck up” as if it were a wine and cheese pairing—the lack of a strong straight man to volley off of leaves her bratty behavior more shrill and unsympathetic than it ought to be. It’s obvious from their opening scene together that Coco and Doug are earmarked for the “enemies to lovers” trope, but what we see doesn’t particularly support that forgone conclusion.
Eddie’s silent hitmen (NFL star “Mean” Joe Greene and a cameo from Cimber himself) lurk about very early on, but they don’t touch the main narrative until almost an hour into the film. Lola’s impulsive acceptance of a dinner invitation from another pair of young marrieds causes her to spot Eddie’s thugs from across the dance floor. Coco doesn’t necessarily know if they’re there to rescue her or rub her out, and it provides some much needed tension that could’ve easily been introduced earlier in Lady Cocoa‘s runtime.
Things do brighten up a bit in the final act, when Cimber abandons all of the airless chatter for some off kilter action setpieces. There’s a bonkers bathroom shootout that ends in a truly nonsensical “twist”, a car chase through the indifferent patrons on the casino floor, and some cat and mouse games on Lake Tahoe Marina (goofily intercut with an oddly timed sex scene). It’s unfortunately far too little and too late to push Lady Cocoa past footnote status in a subgenre that has some of exploitation’s most dynamic female protagonists.
While not quite as much of a flatfooted misstep as 1977’s Chatterbox, Lady Cocoa has a similar missed opportunity feel, with a beautiful and charismatic lead pouring her energy into trying to make a lame duck script tread water. Lola Falana was poorly utilized in most of her film credits, and she reliably revives rather dull affairs (including this one) whenever she’s on screen. What’s really criminal in all of Lady Cocoa‘s legal trouble related hijinks is saddling such a radiant and talented screen presence with spouting silly factoids and belting out infinite variant arrangements of (alternate) title tune, “Pop Goes The Weasel”.