Out West


Left: Andy Warhol, Lonesome Cowboys, 1967–68, color film, 109 minutes. Production still. Photo: Paul Morrissey. Right: Andy Warhol, Harlot, 1964, still from a black-and-white film, 66 minutes.

“VACANT, VACUOUS HOLLYWOOD was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into. Plastic. White-on-white,” Andy Warhol writes of Tinseltown in POPism (1980). Obsessed with Shirley Temple as a child, Warhol continued his fascination with luminaries of the silver screen (the more tarnished their legends, the better) in his films, in the process creating his own stable of movie stars at the Factory—a reimagining of Hollywood archetypes on view in MoMA’s eleven-film series “The West: Myth, Character, and Reinvention by Andy Warhol.”

In September 1963, Warhol, with his silent 16-mm Bolex in tow, took a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to see his “Elvis” canvases at the Ferus Gallery. While in LA, he made Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of (1964), starring Taylor Mead, who had already established his underground-cinema star status in Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), as an especially nelly King of the Jungle. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes in his indispensable biography of Warhol, part of the artist’s project was a “concerted homage to offbeat, diffident manhood, a tribute that climaxed in the films he made with Taylor as star.” In Tarzan, Mead halfheartedly beats his chest, more focused on how much lower his loincloth will droop; Warhol himself appears later in the film, smacking Mead’s bare bottom.

When Warhol began making sync-sound films in 1964, he frequently let charismatic chatterboxes structure his movies: “I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie,” he notes in POPism. His first drag-queen superstar, Mario Montez, a performer in Jack Smith’s films who was a post-office worker when not on-screen, plays the lead in three of Warhol’s greatest movies about actresses undone by scandal or early death: Jean Harlow in Warhol’s first sync-sound feature, Harlot (1964), Lana Turner in More Milk Yvette (1966), and Hedy Lamarr in Hedy (1966). Muscular, thick-jawed Montez has no interest in starlet mimicking (unlike future superstar Candy Darling); with a few incongruous props—a banana, a hamburger—he transforms screen-goddess worship into a fantastic, perverse, and inimitable ritual.

“The West: Myth, Character, and Reinvention by Andy Warhol” runs May 6 to June 26 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For more details, click here.

Melissa Anderson