Valerie Solanas Scored her 15 minutes of fame on June 3, 1968, when she strode into the Andy Warhol Factory, in Manhattan, fidgeted while the owner — the original white zombie — took a call, and then blasted him three times in the chest and belly with a 32-caliber automatic she had stowed in a paper bag. At the hospital, where Warhol was first pronounced clinically dead, doctors massaged his heart and operated on his ravaged organs for five hours to save him.
Solanas, the author of a manifesto called SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), was hustled to the cracker factory and did three years in prison for reckless assault. “I shot Andy Warhol,” she told the cops, claiming the pope of pop art had “too much control over my life.” Warhol had promised to produce Solanas’ play and then refused, she said, “to pay attention to me.” Written off as an unstable lesbian rage-aholic without the looks, cash or connections to sustain Warhol’s interest, Solanas died broke in 1988 — a year after her former patron. While Andy-mania escalates in exhibitions, books, Web sites, documentaries (Nico Icon) and the upcoming Basquiat, with David Bowie as Warhol, the Val gal was a forgotten footnote.
Until now. Director Mary Harron’s immensely entertaining and provocative first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, gives Solanas another shot at the spotlight. Dub it an affectionate pat to a rabid pet. Harron and co-screenwriter Daniel Minahan see Solanas as a sharp thinker ahead of the Curve. Never mind that Solanas’ SCUM manifesto calls for death to the male, a thing “obsessed with screwing; he’ll swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.” The film raises a thorny question: Was the shooter really a savvy pre-feminist driven nuts by the scorn of Warhol and his druggy, gender-bent Factory? Harron, an Oxford-educated Canadian and self-proclaimed Warhol-obsessive who worked as a rock journalist and documentarian for the BBC, finds sly wisdom and satirical wit in the male-bashing SCUM manifesto. Without justifying Solanas’ brutal revenge on Warhol, Harron makes the case for SCUM as a wakeup call for female empowerment that predated the women’s movement.
In other words, the crackpot was a prophet. Buy it or not, you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from Lili Taylor as this abrasive avant-gardist. Taylor’s brilliant breakthrough performance is the stuff awards are made of. Since her 1988 film debut opposite Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza, Taylor has made her greatest impact off-Broadway (she formed her own theater company called Machine Full), in supporting roles on the big screen (Born on the Fourth of July, Say Anything, Short Cuts) and in leading roles on the film fringe (Household Saints, Dogfight, The Addiction). I Shot Andy Warhol should turn the cult of Lili Taylor into a full-scale parade. Her butch, bile-spewing Solanas is rich in impish humor and a vulnerability as moving as it is unexpected. Taylor, her eyes flashing with insight and incipient madness, finds the tormented soul of an outsider the Warhol crowd rejected as a “horrendous monstrosity.”
Although Taylor rightly dominates the movie, Harron sees to it that I Shot Andy Warhol is not a one-woman show. The recreation of the effete and surreal Factory era is done in quick, telling brush strokes, enough to reveal what would attract a guerrilla fighter like Solanas to a holy fool — some say a holy terror — like Warhol. Jared Harris, the son of the wildman actor Richard Harris, plays Warhol with just the right blend of gee-whiz naiveté and casual cruelty. His killingly funny and observant portrayal dodges glib caricature and locates the artist and the alien in Andy Warhola, the fragile Pittsburgh-born son of Ruthenian immigrants. This shy, lonely pansexual was never the life of the party, even his own.
Solanas could relate to that. Nobody expected much of a radical lesbian who turned hooker while in college. When she couldn’t sell her body, Solanas tried hawking her conversation ($6 an hour) or copies of her manifesto. Harron intersperses the film with Taylor delivering selected SCUM monologues right at the camera. Olympia Press chief Maurice Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau) dangles a book contract, but Solanas longs for Warhol to produce her play, Up Your Ass.
Her entree is a transvestite friend, Jimmy Slattery (Stephen Dorff), whom Warhol turned into the underground film superstar Candy Darling. Dorff, a bit bland as the pretty boy in Backbeat and S.F.W., radiates surprising emotional warmth and erotic languor in a blond wig and heels. There is not an ounce of drag-queen camp in his performance, which catches the breathy voice and faraway gaze that endeared many to the star of Warhol’s Flesh and Women in Revolt, a Lana Turner throwback who died of cancer in his late 20s. In one of the film’s comic highlights, Candy and pals run through Solanas’ gross-out play at a Nedick’s restaurant while the Warhol gang does its own snickering reading at the Factory.
At first, Warhol was drawn by the primitive in Solanas and by their similar sense of detachment. She pushed and he laid back, but he and Solanas were kindred spirits, alone in any crowd. It was Solanas’ impatience that turned Warhol off. And his vague musings (“Gee, you should come type for us”) were too little for a female warrior eager to hit the front lines. Warhol stalled by giving Solanas an acting role in I, a Man, which inspires Harron to show us, with jaw-dropping verisimilitude, what it was like to make a Warhol movie — complete with stationary camera, bare lighting, amateur acting and very long takes.
Luckily, Harron doesn’t use the same approach in her film, which views the Factory scene through Solanas’ eyes, not Warhol’s. The ground breaking cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon, Unzipped) lights the film to reveal more than the surfaces so loved by Warhol, though the Factory gets a droll tweak from David Robinson’s costumes and Therese Deprez’s production design. The camera even notes the tinfoil that gave the Factory the silver sheen Warhol favored.
Without imposing her own moral judgments or stooping to showoff pedantry, Harron digs deep into the Warhol Zeitgeist. Her ambitions sometimes splinter the film. You can feel her straining to get everything and everyone in. Look, it’s Viva (Tahnee Welch), the underground superstar Warhol was chatting with on the phone when Solanas shot him. And there’s the purple-haired Ultra Violet (Myriam Cyr) and the acid-tongued methhead Ondine (Michael Imperioli). And over there Brigid Polk (Coco McPherson), the daughter of the Hearst president Richard Berlin, is sitting bare-breasted and popping pills; Factory manager Billy Name (James Lyons) is taking photographs; and moneyman Fred Hughes (Craig Chester) is making deals. Filmmaker Paul Morrissey (Reg Rogers), who directed such Warhol films as Flesh and Trash, stands by the camera while Warhol whispers conspiratorially in his ear. Few of the actors manage to register strongly in these walk-on roles. Still, it’s hard to ignore Donovan Leitch as Gerard Malanga, who starred in several Warhol epics. Leitch does a wicked dance to the music of the Velvet Underground (played by Yo La Tengo), the band that Warhol managed.
How are the surviving members of the Warhol Factory dealing with the film? The Underground’s Lou Reed refused any cooperation, while his former band mate John Cale composed the evocative score, and Billy Name served as a consultant. Whatever the controversy ahead, Harron figures she stayed 95 percent true to the facts and insists that she never condoned the shooting. When Taylor won an award for her performance of Solanas at the Sundance Festival, she dedicated her prize “to Valerie.” Looking upward, Taylor added mischievously, “Rest in peace, and please don’t hurt anybody.”
It’s unlikely anybody will be hurt by I Shot Andy Warhol. Harron’s stylish pop time capsule isn’t meant to revive SCUM and eradicate men. Harron doesn’t relate to the crazy Solanas who picked up that gun. What she does relate to is the pointed mockery Solanas used to remind women of their power to immobilize a nation if they choose to and their need, in the words of the manifesto, “to grab some thrilling life.” Thanks to Harron’s intuitive film and Taylor’s impassioned performance, Solanas is back rattling cages.