“I don’t live in a harem either, but well, God, I did for awhile …”
My first viewing of Pink Narcissus (1971) took place in a Gay and Lesbian Theatre and Film class at Tufts University. Uncomfortably cocked in a chair in a crowded viewing room, I was unexpectedly whisked away into a world of glorious excess and artifice that titillated both my senses and curiosity. A brief lecture revealed the film, signed “Anonymous,” as the work of James Bidgood. Bidgood was noted for his opulent dress designs for masquerading debutantes as well as photographic tributes to young men that appeared in mid-century physique pictorials under the pseudonym Les Folies Des Hommes, in homage to the Folies Bergère.
My interest ignited, I began to research further, discovering that after Bidgood’s unique photographs of ephebic beauty were published in 1964 (in an issue of AMG’s Physique Pictorial), he set out to make his chef d’oeuvre and only film using an 8mm camera and spectacular handmade sets painstakingly crafted on the premises of his tiny midtown apartment. Pink Narcissus would tell the homoerotic escapist fantasy of Bidgood’s favorite model, a young hustler he christened “Bobby Kendall.” This labor of love would take the next seven years to complete. Unfortunately, by 1971 when the film was ready, a great deal had changed. Bidgood proclaimed his original vision destroyed in the hands of the editors, and in reaction he chose to release the film anonymously. He hoped this would increase Pink Narcissus‘ legend and popularity as viewers sought to unmask the unknown director. Instead, it was erroneously contributed to both Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger and brushed off as outdated campy erotica in the same year that Wakefield Poole’s hardcore erotic thriller Boys in the Sand completely changed the gay porn industry and viewers’ tastes. Aside from a brief resurgence in the early 1980s at gay film festivals, Pink Narcissus faded away and Bidgood was largely forgotten as an unmentionable member of the mid-’60s New York underground.
Fortuitously, while having dinner with friend and American Repertory Theatre Associate Artistic Director Gideon Lester in the midst of piecing together my research, James Bidgood resurfaced — his photographs had been used to inspire a production concept at the theatre a few years before. Thank to Gideon, I began an exciting telephone dialogue with Bidgood on his career and life. Still living in his beloved New York City, Bidgood is finally coming into the limelight as a recipient of a Creative Capital grant that will allow him to continue his photographic work which is just starting to garner attention as an overlooked and influential part of gay iconographic history. On the weekend of November 20, 2005, I headed to New York, and surrounded by immense portfolios of photographs and ephemera in a small apartment in the East Village, I was honored to record this interview as Pink Narcissus celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2006.
Sean Fredric Edgecomb: What was New York like when you first arrived here in 1951 as a young man?
James Bidgood: Well, you’d better fix the man part (laughing.) Actually it was like … you don’t know who Carlton Carpenter was … he was in MGM movies, and I think that if you were like me from Wisconsin, and blond and could get away with it, you would try to pull off that “farm boy” innocence — with the batting the lashes, but that did not mean that you didn’t do nasty things, it just meant that I would play the farm boy when I had to, I was just trying to pass.
How do you see your life as a filmmaker?
Well, most life is a movie, or a play or a musical or whatever. It’s amazing, and I don’t think enough people know this … every day of your life is just another dream.
When did you know that it was your calling to be a photographer and filmmaker?
I guess I had a lot of physique magazines — so, one day I [asked] why are all these boys standing in front of the same frigging fireplace with the same funny little piece of jersey over their dingies? You know, why aren’t there sets and Folies Bergère? Why not this glory going on around them, and why aren’t they being idealized, that way, rather than in a sort of tawdry way? I had a sensitivity about it, I just felt it should be “Ziegfeld!” you know. That’s what it was about, he glorified the American girls supposedly … well I sort of tried to do that with boys in my own little tiny way.
What does the word “beautiful” mean to you?
Well, that’s a fun question! What does beautiful mean? Well in terms of what … flowers, boys? Cause it’s all the same. Beautiful is a funny word, it could apply to just about anything, and it can be a beautiful turd … it depends where you’re coming from.
When we spoke on the phone you mentioned that in creating Pink Narcissus you wanted to make something that was beautiful …
I meant the general idea of what’s beautiful. Oh, you mean soul? It didn’t have much to do with soul I don’t think. Aesthetic beauty, yeah — but, see it came out with soul, so I don’t know that people can leave certain things behind…. I do have a spiritual side. I’m a nice person if you can ever get that far, if you can put up with it for that long. Well, for instance I just realized walking over here I did not take advantage of most of those boys, which was a parcel of the whole thing if you were any of those other photographers. I don’t think half of them used the photographs. I think they got ads of boys so they could ball them and then put the film in the can. I didn’t say I didn’t partake of a few of them, but I mean it wasn’t first on the list. It was never the criteria whether I photographed them or not.
Did you choose the title Pink Narcissus?
Pink Narcissus came about because he was a narcissist … who was very … pink.
What were some specific influences on the film?
Well, it’s always about MGM musicals and all that kind of stuff. And a movie like The Red Shoes, which was at the time such a phenomenon. God, that picture! They tried to make it into a musical, but it bombed, Jule Styne wrote the music, and they tried it, because it’s really such a terribly corny story … and it is so fabulous…. It’s about a girl that’s in a ballet that they do called “The Red Shoes” [with Russian accent], the Russian guy, the director of the ballet “The Red Shoes,” and it’s about a girl who puts on these magic red shoes and then dances to death … cause she can’t take them off. And that’s pretty much … what the movie is about…. She ends up dying in the end, but they still give the ballet but [whispers] with just the shoes!… [gasps] So then he comes out and cries, oh, it’s so fabulous…. But the color! There had never been a movie with color like that. They did such wonderful things, it was like gelatin floating down, like gelatin, oh, like floating down! It was incredible! I don’t know that there is even a decent [print]. I’m sure they let it go to hell, you know, nobody cared about anything like that, nobody thought it was art until it was too late.
And then there was all the MGM musicals and all that stuff, Tony Duquette I think had a lot to do with that…. I don’t know for sure, cause I keep trying to find where he was involved, but I always understood that he was [MGM dress designer] Adrian’s assistant, and he designed jewelry and I think that he designed all of those kitsch things that they dance around, like old window display units with feathers. And you know I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s a piece of a window and sort of a tree sticking out, but it turns into feathers, and instead of coconuts there are big diamond balls, you know. That was a Tony Duquette thing. Then that turns into a chandelier with lights in it, and then that turns into a headdress…
So with the specific types in the film, for example the Harem scene with the dancing boy, did something specifically influence that?
Maria Montez! I loved Maria Montez! Any little fag in the forties I think was enamored with Ms. Montez. The woman had the best face in the world. She was so cute, looked great in a sarong. No, now she would look like a dog, because they didn’t have chins then.
What about the Roman Slave scene? Where you influenced by movies like Ben Hur?
I hated Ben Hur…. All of those Christian movies had a lot of Romans in them … in those cute little outfits. But I think that most sissies were into them little leather flappy things. I was trying to do, it wasn’t so much homage to that stuff … it was largely an homage to gay whack-off fantasies. But on the other hand, what do we whack off to but what are kind of like bulls, plumbers, just anyone who is not ever gay. That has a little fantasy about it to begin with. Most of us don’t live in the [notorious gay sex club in the 1980s] Mine Shaft, or one of those dungeon places with the slings. That is someplace we have to go. I don’t live in a harem either, but well, God, I did for awhile.
Upon its initial release Pink Narcissus was erroneously credited to Andy Warhol. What do you think of Warhol’s films?
I don’t. I’m not a real big Andy Warhol person, except for the things that aren’t the things that really represent him. Most of the people who change everything … I don’t belong in this crowd, but anyway, when they tell me I did I said I didn’t like my own work either, and I usually don’t. All of those people that supposedly change the way things were, I never really thought much of any of them, I love what they did, in that they got us all thinking in a new direction, but what they used to get us there — it never really much impressed me. I must also tell you I’ve been very rooted in what was rather than what is. I’m only now beginning to enjoy the music of the fifties. In the fifties I was into operettas. Looking way back…Pink Narcissus doesn’t look anything like Warhol. First of all he would never put that much effort into anything, and that always annoyed me, the first reason that I don’t like things. That’s why I’m a very old corny guy, because if my Aunt Mabel could do it, it ain’t worth doin’, and for God’s sake, I loved my Aunt Mabel, I just figure if you’re going to be in a gallery, you should be able to do more than my Aunt Mabel could do.
When you speak to creative people, it seems as if they are consciously disciplined about doing their work. Is your work something that you must do?
I think that it is something that you can’t not do, you feel so guilt-ridden or wasteful. Meanwhile, I live in a pigsty, I mean the debris is up to my waist … because I can’t be bothered … I would actually be doing something a great deal more constructive if I cleaned house, because when I’m writing and thinking about all of the photographs that I’m gonna take and writing down all the details, and doing choral pieces … nothing’s ever gonna come of that. So that’s really a waste of time, but I can’t get that through my head.
How did you find all of the different boys that were featured in Pink Narcissus?
Well, there was a fellow that I know by the name of Don Brooks, who is in the movie, actually he was the Angel … We’d be working there on the set and stuff, Don would go out, sometimes at one or two in the morning, and sometimes would not be seen (I think he went home and took a nap) because he was gone for hours, but he would go out on a “talent search.” It was the day of the flower children, you know, and he would bring back sometimes a very large group of people they found on the street. One guy, one night a gun fell out of his pants on the floor. I mean they could have killed us all. And my God, they were straight, half of them had never done anything like [that] … and they did it, they marched through it. Those were the days. I don’t want to be one of those “those were the days” [people], but that was a very unique space and time … The ’60s and ’70s were really an amazing time.
Do you think the fact that many of your models were straight…
Well, not all of them, but a lot of them were…
…does that heighten the fantasy of it?
No, I don’t think so … I don’t think that has anything to do with anything. Well, I really don’t … I never even thought about it.
So it was a choice based solely on aesthetics?
I thought they were beautiful or they were as beautiful as I could get that day. Cause it’s not like there was a line of them waiting out in the hall. And also, some other photographers would send over their “stars,” you know. It wasn’t that they weren’t beautiful, but there was a look in their eye that I thought, well, this fellow is not going to want to sit around for eight hours in make-up. You know you had to have a little kind of fascination with the whole thing. If you were a hard-hearted Hannah, you weren’t gonna work with me, cause sometimes it took days to get one little thing.
Charles Ludlam, founder of the “Theatre of the Ridiculous,” makes several cameos in the film. How did you come to know him?
He [was] a very nice man. How did I know Charles Ludlam, let’s see … Oh, friends of mine took me to see Turds in Hell, and there was another one over there at this funny theatre he was at, at the time. We went to an opening night of one of his plays … The curtain did not go up until about four in the morning, because they had to get the [lead] actor to unlock the door at home and talk him into coming to the theatre, and get him into make-up — this is true. So we sat there, and we sat there, of course there [were] a lot of drugs, so who cares … But finally they started the play, and nobody knew anything about what they were doing, but it was fabulous. They were very strange plays. Also, if you were really straight and watching them, you would have trouble following them…. It was just this troupe of players, but it was a company, and he would write plays and then they would put them on. I think that’s kind of wonderful. Kind of like devotion to the ideas he was trying to put forth, that they didn’t care if they were done with crepe paper. It was just, it wasn’t how well they were done, it was just that they had to do them. I just [thought] it was all boring and tedious as it was, it was just remarkable. Could you do that stuff today? Is there a Charles Ludlam anymore? I just wonder about things like that. I wonder if Charles Ludlam is the product of a time and a social situation … I wonder if you are a Charles Ludlam or a Jim Bidgood and you come to New York City, where do you live? How did I do it? I don’t even understand how I did it when I did it. How would you do it now?
Sometimes contemporarily Pink Narcissus is referred to as subversive. How do you feel about this labeling?
Well, I like that … and I am.
You speak with great respect for people who go above and beyond in their artistic pursuits. When you look at your own work, do you see that?
I can’t think any other way. I just said the other day, anything I do it would be better to get it to happen right away because the longer that I think about it the more expensive that it is. Because I keep going, oh, what I could do over in this corner … and that’s another four years’ work. I really love to be able to go and look at something one hundred times and people write me … a lot of people write that they just discovered something on their eightieth viewing of Pink Narcissus. I wish they had something better to do, but I think it’s just lovely that they finally noticed something. And it may be something that I forgot I did, because I’m very into all that. I’ll have a thought and I’ll put it in, you know. If there’s a whole lot of stuff going on in the thing, I call it the “layers of the onion,” but I love that … I love having four levels to something. Most things have.
So from what I understand you were not happy with the way Pink Narcissus appeared in its release …
I can’t even hardly look at it.
What made you decide to put your name on the re-release?
I didn’t. I’d been outed and I didn’t care. You could have found out in 1971 who did it, but no one bothered to ask, because of the company releasing it and the way they did it and that they put “Anonymous” on it. See, why I took my name off of it was that I was protesting, which I’d heard at the time that’s what you did…. I’d take my name off and then they’d go “Mr. Bidgood took his name off because…” But it turns out they kept me in the closet, and all you had to do was ask anybody who’s been in it and they’d say, you know, “Jim did this.” It wasn’t like a big mystery, but you would have thought, and then years later I was “outed.”
What do you love about living in New York?
I don’t know what I love about it. I only know that (I’ve heard a lot of people say this) sometimes I wonder if I can tell these things anymore because I think it was in that movie Sleepless in Seattle and when they touched they knew that’s where you were meant to be. Well, I got off the bus and the minute my foot hit the sidewalk I knew I’d come home, and I think they even used that line in the movie. “When I touched your hand I knew I’d come home…” Well, home is a very important word in the things I write. I like to use that word because home is kind of like “mother” … — certain words that are supposed to make things happen and give you a sense of peace, or a woody, or whatever…. I never felt like I was coming home when I went back to Madison, until I stepped of the bus in New York, I knew I was home, and I don’t like being out of the city. I’ve gone on location to those “green places,” I can take the green for like a little while, but I love the concrete, I love New York City
So to appreciate these decades, do you think it has to be retrospective?
You know I was just saying, everything we did today and everywhere you go in hindsight will have different lighting — there will be a straw gel over it or it will have an “amber-ness.” It will have a romance about it. Our memories are really nice that way. They lend this kind of comfort to everything, and it softens it all. Maybe it’s just all softer …
Is that why your photographic style has such a soft aesthetic style?
I don’t know, that may be … I don’t know. I’m a sissy through and through I guess.
A lot of your work embraces the artificial. Do you consider Pink Narcissus to be camp?
Well, yeah I guess so. I don’t even know what that it — there are movies that are called camp, but I don’t even know why they are called camp, I think they’re Vegas, ice-shows, Sonja Henjie movies, all glittering, chiffon, and feathers, but for some of us that is a great deal more real and it’s sweet.
How do you want your work to be remembered?
Actually I don’t care about the memory part, I just wish people would pay more attention to what I wanted to do. What I did was not that [important] really, it was because of when I did it, a lot of attention is unduly being paid to something. I’m not saying it wasn’t nifty in its own little teensy weensy way, and I’m certainly glad it’s paying my rent right now, but it didn’t pay that rent for a long time. I just wish that it was easier, but there’s all these things — I thought I would come to New York and ten minutes later, next thing you know you’re singing and dancing on Broadway. You know, you arrive on the bus and next thing you know you’re meeting the guy who wrote the show and he falls in love with you … it’s very naïve, but I like to thrive in naïve conceptions, they’re nice. As a farm boy I came to the big city and thought, oh, I’m gonna be in a big show! Of course I ended up a drag queen.
What was that like?
I went out on that stage every night thinking it was the Zeigfeld Theatre … I wasn’t in a drag show, I thought I doing a Broadway musical and the other queens couldn’t stand me. Because I wasn’t a drag queen, I was a person who put on a dress so that she could perform. That’s really what it was … I wanted to be in a show and I love being in a musical, and I loved being a woman — it was great fun being a lady on the stage. But, it’s the same with crossing the road as an old man. It’s great fun to be an old man crossing the road with his groceries. To do another kind of thing for a little while is fun, like a release. I don’t stand and think about these things, I just do them. It’s like breathing.
So are your photographs and your work your own contribution?
…because I want to put my memories or what I think are beautiful ideas, or thoughts, or feelings, sadness and joy — I want to put those in you, because I love them so much.
Do you think that Pink Narcissus had any political message, like the Times Square scene?
Well, actually it had better things in it, because … it had all these burnt stick figures … because at the time I made the movie, everywhere you looked on Eighth Avenue there were all these people passed out on drugs, hanging over cars, in the doorways, and there is a thing where you give blood in the movie. Well, there was a place on 42nd street where everyone who was poor went every day to give blood because they got their money, their seven dollars or whatever — that was before AIDS, but it was sort of horrible that these people were selling blood in order to eat.
How did you balance the beautiful with the grotesque in Pink Narcissus?
The skyline itself — you know how an echocardiogram goes like this? [makes motion] Well, I echoed it. The skyline is like the echocardiogram of the city of New York — the heart’s going up and down in a jagged line. I would hate me if I wasn’t moving on … I want to do something a little more further on down the road. Also, I’d like to use my power to gain access to say something to an audience that I haven’t had the opportunity to do.