Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Little Joe, Superstar: by Michael Ferguson

Little Joe, Superstar: The Films of Joe Dallesandro, by Michael Ferguson. Laguna Hills, CA: Companion Press, 1998. ISBN 1-889138-09-6, Trade paper, $18.95.

Monique von Vooren was mesmerized by his “translucent skin”; Sylvia Miles called it “the warmest in the world.” To Holly Woodlawn he was “a nice guy” and “a real gentleman”; to Paul Morrissey, a “great actor” on par with John Wayne. Andy Warhol said, “In my movies, everyone’s in love with Joe Dallesandro.” Even stuffy rags like the New York Times were uncharacteristically earthy in their reaction: “His physique is so magnificently shaped that men as well as women become disconnected at the sight of him.”

For legions of 1960s gay men, “Little Joe,” as his famous bicep tattoo identifies him, was a fantasy fuck without peer, familiar initially from drool-inducing images in physique magazines and a few hardcore loops made before his “rise” to the underground at the Warhol Factory at the tender age of 18. Working-class Joe, born in 1948 and a product of New York’s foster homes and reform schools, was unique among Warhol’s menagerie of pathologically self-deluded, speed-talking “superstars.” If most of them made up in personality what they lacked in looks or humanity, Joe was just the opposite — a sweet, shy, deliriously sexy cipher whose unflappable calm provided its own kind of campy counterpoint to Warhol’s shrieking harridans and maniacal drag queens. While Mary Woronov, Viva Superstar, Holly Woodlawn, Ultra Violet, and others have extended their cinematic self-love-fest with an endless stream of autobiographies, Joe reversed the trend by staying mostly silent and out of the public eye after the Warhol/Morrissey years.

Michael Ferguson’s Little Joe, Superstar: The Films of Joe Dallesandro, then, comes as a bit of surprise. Loosely modeled on the famous The Films of…series from Citadel Press, and heavily illustrated with pictures — including full frontal nude — and poster art, this long-overdue book was made with its subject’s cooperation and features an almost alarmingly forthcoming Joe. In the biographical section at the beginning, he talks extensively about his troubled personal history. It’s not hard to see Joe’s enigmatic smile and quiet cockiness as a natural defensive response to having a mother in the state pen for auto theft, and a father who cared but couldn’t cope and put him and his siblings into foster homes. Growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island, Joe says he “started getting bad around 12 or 13″ — brawling (often after remarks about his short stature, officially 5’6”), stealing cars, assaulting a school principal, and living on the streets, where he eventually turned to modeling and hustling to support himself.

The book documents his problems with booze and drugs, his difficult marriages and hetero affairs, and his stormy relationship with Warhol and Morrissey. On the latter subject, Joe sensibly insists there’s no reason for him to be bitter about being exploited in the eight films — from The Loves of Ondine (1967) to Blood for Dracula (1974) — they made together; after all, they made him famous. (This doesn’t prevent him from calling Warhol’s art “idiotic.”) Ferguson draws an amusingly weird picture of the strange production circumstances of the films, with Warhol and Morrissey too cheap to use a decent camera or lights or a script or to pay their actors more than a pittance even when the films were hits. He also lets Joe clear up some longstanding misconceptions — e.g., the idea that Joe was actually shooting drugs in Trash.

Ferguson authoritatively describes the films’ worldwide reception and censorship problems, star tantrums and rivalries, and a group of shocked Arizona tourists who stumbled onto the set of Lonesome Cowboys, where the mock-rape of Viva by a bunch of New York queens dressed in western drag brought the law. The book uncovers ultra-rarities like the 1968 “AIP beach movie satire” San Diego Surf (with Joe, Viva, and Taylor Mead). The fact that this was never released and isn’t likely to be makes its appearance here welcome indeed. Devout cheapskates Warhol and Morrissey kept their major superstar busy when he wasn’t making films for them, relegating him to Factory receptionist, handyman, and watchdog, aided by a stuffed Great Dane placed menacingly at the door.

His post-Factory career has a few highlights, including Louis Malle’s Black Moon and Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’aime Moi Non Plus, but mostly it’s low-budget European actioners, most of which (judging from the descriptions) failed to take advantage of what the Warhol/Morrisey films knew was Joe’s lure: his tantalizing flesh. The book devotes at least a page, and often more, to these obscurities.

Little Joe: Superstar supplies a lot of fresh information about his early career in southern California exposing his charms for companies like Athletic Model Guild, but true aficionados will be disappointed — particularly given his admission here that he considers himself bisexual — that his hustling, porn work, and implied gay affairs are either glossed over or ignored. Still, with its energetic text, wealth of anecdotes, and numerous pix of our hero’s mesmerizing smile and eternally erect nipples, Little Joe: Superstar is well worth the price.