Photograph by David Shankbone
Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro
Over the last few weeks, Lily and I have had the fortune to speak with several directors whose films are being screened as part of the epic Underground USA Series happening at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. The series, which highlights key films of the American independent cinema movement of the 1980s, can boast a wide collection of acting talent whose careers were launched by many of these films, but yesterday, I got the chance to speak with a woman whose career as an actress should be the model for that era’s independent spirit, Mary Woronov.
A published author and accomplished painter, Mary Woronov began her career in films at Andy Warhol’s Factory starring in films such as Chelsea Girls, and throughout her career, which spans over six decades, she has achieved a status as a “cult film” star, but to me, her overall body of work represents much more and is deserving of more respect than it has been given.
Over the lively conversation we had today, Mary and I discussed her work as a painter and her influences within that medium, her time with Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, the state of contemporary art, as well as some of her collaborations with actor/director Paul Bartel, including Eating Raoul, which is screening tonight at Cinefamily, and the “unofficial Los Angeles film school” that is Roger Corman. Mary was extremely fucking awesome and forthright in every way during our long talk and am so proud to share this with you.
Generoso: I’ve been a visual artist my entire life as well, and I took a look at your paintings that you have documented online. I love your style, and I see a lot of Max Beckmann there. How did you define your own aesthetic, which is so different from pop art, which is the major movement that you witnessed and are often affiliated with?
Mary Woronov: I was not influenced by pop art at all. I understood it, and I enjoyed it, and I especially admire Andy Warhol because he is a little different from pop art. He actually says something about how it’s just not all about making crazy designs, and I have written extensively about him.
|Smile by Mary Woronov|
I am not anywhere near a pop artist; I’m very much Max Beckmann and very much Francis Bacon.
I do many paintings like these people because I admire their work, but I try to put my own twirl on it to try and help me understand where I myself want to go.
I feel that my paintings are very me.
They are very emotional, but people don’t like that now, for contemporary conceptual art is not emotional. Mine are very emotional, and, not only that, they are also story driven.
So, that means that they are illustrations, but they actually are not; they are just good paintings that you understand. They are about people.
That is the Beckmann part as he was very much about the human condition.
Mine are about the human condition too. You know, I am very good at abstracting the human figure, but I don’t go into total abstraction. I won’t because it doesn’t mean anything to me. Most work doesn’t have any emotion today. Not only art but also rock and roll has no emotion these days. Not only that, but even the new opera has no emotion. I mean it’s just absurd; are they just getting rid of it? I only like things with emotion because it’s a way of talking without talking, and people react to emotion; they don’t react to a puzzle.
The other thing is that, in most of my early paintings, I veer away from the face. I just cannot handle the face, and I am really good with the body. Now, I am suddenly so into faces that I cannot believe it, and they’re so easy to do, and they mean so much. I have even gone so far as to blow up a copy of the Mona Lisa in order to study why people love this face so much. The effect of the face in Mona Lisa is the same as well with da Vinci’s Lady With An Ermine; it is such a great painting, and I wanted to have in my abstraction of the face the same kind of emotion coming out. I mean, you know what she is thinking and feeling, and you cannot believe that this is on a piece of canvas. Faces are a great thing to play with, especially if you like emotional work like I do.
|Bad Boys by Mary Woronov|
We were just at the new exhibition at the Hammer museum, Leap Before You Look, which featured works from John Cage, Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Ray Johnson, and Robert Rauschenberg. Both my wife, Lily, and I adore Rauschenberg as many do. In fact, that exhibition had three pieces by him that we had never seen before that were completely different from one another and were overwhelmingly successful. As I understand, you visited his studio before you visited Warhol’s?
Yes, I did know Rauschenberg and did have interactions with him. Well, first of all, on the gay subject, I found him depressing. He acted very, very straight, and I was used to Warhol who approached people and acted so infantile and gay just to insult them because homophobia was so rampant at that time.
I felt that Warhol did something about it because when you went to his studio, it was full of drag queens and gay people. Also, when Andy would show his movies he loved putting someone like Jackie Curtis right next to them just to make them horribly uncomfortable. (laughs) On the other hand, Rauschenberg would completely act like a straight man, so that part of him, I didn’t like.
I did like his paintings for a while, and they did influence me, but now I don’t. The person whose work I really loved was his lover who was downstairs, Jasper Johns, whom Rauschenberg didn’t help at all. I understand that it was only by accident that Leo Castelli went downstairs and saw Johns’ work that he finally got a show. Johns I consider a great painter! Unfortunately, he has now started with those flagstones, and they’re hideous. He is really interesting to me as to how such a great painter can become so bad. Johns became instantly famous the moment that the critics saw his work, like Rauschenberg, but then the creativity somehow leaves them.
I mean, even Rauschenberg got a little soft, but Johns just completely lost it.
Do you feel that Johns continued to work in a similar style because that’s what his audience was expected of him? Do you think that he got pigeonholed?
No, I feel that he lost it. Nobody continues to do work just because of their audience. He really felt what he was doing, and then he stopped, and then he started with the flagstones; he was really trying to do something different, but it just didn’t work. Maybe that happens to some people. That did happen to Susan Rothenberg, another artist that I liked. It certainly happened to Neil Jenney, whom I loved, but then he started doing those paintings in the black frames, and they were hideous. He was, at one point, the new American folk artist because his paintings were so funny, and they were so American like him. Oh well.
Now, to get back to your question, when I went to Rauschenberg’s studio, it was the opposite of Warhol’s, it was totally white. It was big, and it was marvelous, and the people he had around him like Deborah Hay, the dancer, and Alex Hay, that wonderful, American boy who worked with Merce Cunningham, were just totally the opposite from Warhol, who was furious about how gays were being treated, and he fought against it very, very hard for his entire career.
|Nico, Mary Woronov, Andy Warhol, and Susan Bottomly|
Warhol is not like the person that the public knew; you know, that weird person with a wig who was always flipping you off.
No, if you read the book that was written by Warhol’s nephew, James Warhola, Uncle Andy was a regular guy. He taught all of the kids how to paint and was very open and loving to them. That other persona, the public persona, was like an act and it swallowed him. He just couldn’t get out of it; you get caught there.
For your whole life, you’ve been a fine artist, and eventually, you found your way into Warhol’s factory, where you not only did visual art but also began acting in his films. Now, I’m thinking about tomorrow night, when you will be presenting Eating Raoul with your co-star Robert Beltran. How do you feel that your personal journey prepared you to star in such idiosyncratic films?
I started acting in the Theatre of the Ridiculous, but to be frank, I have been acting since the fifth grade. But yes, The Theatre of the Ridiculous was very gay and very illegal, and we were always worried about getting arrested. It was based in New York City, and that is where my acting career really took off.
I knew the underground filmmaker Jack Smith, and Warhol picked me from there. But, it was easy because the first movies that Warhol did were scripted by Ronnie Tavel, and he was the director of The Theatre of The Ridiculous, and he let his plays get turned into movie scripts, but the original work wasn’t a movie script; it was Warhol riffing on a play, and that’s why the Hanoi Hannah role in Chelsea Girls that I played had nothing to do with me. It was just that I had memorized my lines, which no one else did, and those were from a play by Ronnie Tavel, which was a great play. You should read my book which is now out on Kindle, Swimming Underground: My Years In The Warhol Factory, which details a lot of my experiences there.
Staying with the question of how your background prepares you for working in cult film…Tonight night you will be appearing with Robert Beltran, your co-star from Eating Raoul, who I understand was a trained Shakespearean actor. For Robert, how do you go from Shakespeare’s writing to Paul Bartel’s? Did you yourself find a home working that kind of cinema given your experience with The Theater of the Ridiculous and Andy Warhol?
And he (Beltran) did so well at it!! (laughs). I myself could do more “regular” plays; I received The Theater World Award for a Joseph Papp play that was performed at the Lincoln Center called In The Boom Boom Room, but it bored me. It was totally boring, and I resent being told what to say (laughs), but in these other things, like the Warhol films, I could totally say what I wanted to say, which was a tremendous relief for me, and I loved it.
Now, Paul Bartel, who also lived in New York and was friends with my husband at the time, had made the most paranoid movie that I had ever seen in my entire life. It was black and white, and he later redid it in Technicolor. It was no good; it was called Secret Cinema. I did, however, still think that he was a good director. But, the big thing that happened when Paul and I met through my husband was that Paul believed in ad-libbing! I mean he called it ad-libbing, and I called it a way of life. Both of us were really good at it, and he (Bartel) called me up and said that he was going to do a movie in Los Angeles for Roger Corman called Death Race 2000, and he was positive that if I wore really tight pants that Roger would hire me, and that’s how we got started.
And did you feel once you actually started working with Bartel that he still appreciated your ad-libbing?
Absolutely, all of Eating Raoul was ad-libbing because the script sucked. Everything in the film, I ad-libbed, and Beltran ad-libbed everything too. What was on paper was some kind of a porno movie. Well, not really a porno movie; in fact, the script was pretty dull, and I feel that I can say that now because Paul is dead. I mean, he wasn’t a great director, but he was a great ad-libber, and he did a movie with me for Roger Corman that was directed by Allan Arkush called Hollywood Boulevard, which no one saw, and there, Paul plays a gay director of this mad movie, and he is hysterical. I play the lead actress in the film, so I kill all of the girls who try to come anywhere near me. He is so fucking funny in the way that I have never seen anyone send up gay up the way he did. He really was a good actor.
|Paul Bartel and Mary in Eating Raoul|
I’ve read that you are not a fan of the 1989 film that you were in with Paul that he directed, Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Though you don’t like it, I think that you, Robert Beltran, and Jacqueline Bisset are great in it.
Thank you. But, I really don’t like the film. It has nothing to do with ad-libbing, which I love. It was so bizarre; he didn’t want me to ad-lib anything in that film, which made no sense. I didn’t understand it at all. I think that Paul was in love with movies, and he wanted to change himself, but that’s not how you get to people. You are yourself, and they come to you.
|Mary and Wallace Shawn in Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills|
The weird part for me is that Paul Mazursky was acting in the film, and I felt that Paul was perhaps trying to make something like Mazursky. I will say that like Mazursky, Bartel’s films, such as Eating Raoul are about poking fun at the current or even the previous generations.
Yes, Eating Raoul is definitely about the fifties and sex in the fifties!
So, to me, Scenes From the Class Struggle is Bartel’s poking fun at and condemnation of the 1980s greed generation.
It is poking fun at it, but it didn’t work as a movie. And, one of the reasons is the casting. Do you know the actor, Frank Langella?
Oh, I do. My sister paid to see him in Dracula like six times. She had the biggest crush on him.
Right. So, Frank Langella told Paul that he wanted to play the role that Ray Sharkey eventually was cast in, and Paul said, “No!” Why? That would’ve made that movie. I mean that is the biggest mistake that I have ever heard of, and that really hurt the film. Could you imagine Frank Langella and Jacqueline Bisset? You wouldn’t understand that. There was nothing between Bisset and Sharkey. In Scenes From the Class Struggle, Paul did make some mistakes like that.
Do you think that film was Paul’s desire to attract a more “serious” audience during that late 1980s era when more personal independent films were reaching a wider audience?
No, Paul loved humor, and his humor was wrapped in camp. I mean, how could you put your sense of humor away when you are doing a comedy movie? I know that when you were working with Paul, all you had to do was say something funny, and if laughed, he would go with that. And, that was the way that I collaborated with him on Eating Raoul. In Class Struggle, I did not have that level of interaction with him.
You have been making independent film since Warhol through your years in Corman productions, which are truly independent films. This series that Eating Raoul is a part of at Cinefamily is called Underground USA, and there are some cult and camp films included, but this series mostly focuses on the beginnings of American independent cinema from the 1980s that is considered more personal and less sensationalistic than cult cinema. How do you feel that the rise of independent arthouse cinema affected the production of cult film here in the United States?
I can say that these films were truly independent films, but we were never recognized for the work that we did, Paul and I. No one recognized Eating Raoul or Death Race 2000.
I mean Roger is finally doing Deathrace 2050, and he is doing it differently from how Paul did it. Paul put humor in the film and it worked. I mean, people liked what we did. Look at Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, though, people still come up to me to say that it’s their favorite movie, but then they say, “Were you in it?” I don’t get it why people didn’t notice it. And Roger Corman, we did like five movies together, and he has had a huge career, but no one really acknowledges him either. No one ever talked about him back in the day because he was making cheap movies, but truthfully, his movies are so loved by Los Angeles kids for how cool they were.
|Mary in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School|
He did movies that people could watch and not be offended or rejected by; they were just these great movies, and he used all of these amazing actors, but no one ever writes about him.
I agree. Corman did get a “Special Oscar” a few years ago, but it was given to him prior to Oscar night in a small ceremony that no one saw. Also, as far as your statement about how loved Corman is in Los Angeles, as part of this Underground USA series at Cinefamily, Roger introduced the film, Piranha, that he produced and John Sayles wrote, and everyone in the place lost their minds when Corman was introduced.
Piranha is awesome, isn’t it? But, yes, the major press doesn’t recognize him. I mean, this man is so very L.A. I am very New York and a little scary, but Corman is not. He is so very flat that you could run a car over him, meaning that he is not going to send you up or offend you in any way. He is charming and very wonderful; he really is. One of the major things that he did was not really pay anyone while letting the people who were in his films do whatever they wanted to do, and, for some reason, that kind of worked. I mean look at all of those actors who got their start by working with him.
I know. Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson to name a few.
The industry really just seemed to hate Corman. And now, the industry just puts out superhero crap; they don’t let the actors speak, and they are in this scenario where they just keep churning out the same thing over and over again. It has become all about fighting, and that is just maddening. I hate the movies now, and I just don’t go anymore.
I hear you there. I also think that as far as Corman is concerned, we are at a place now with the digital revolution where people could make film easier than they ever could before, but back in Corman’s day, for these young kids to just be able to get their hands on a professional 35mm or even 16mm camera was a big deal. He made that possible for them, even though he didn’t pay them. I’ve often said this, but Corman was Los Angeles’s unofficial film school.
That is so true. As for Eating Raoul, I am so happy that it is being screened tonight. I think that it works on so many levels, and I think that it’s Paul’s best film.