Junkies, queens, washed-up B-movie hags – these are the scintillating “family values” advocates that campmeister and right-wing Republican Morrissey serves up.
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Much of the myth, if we can call it that, surrounding Paul Morrissey comes out of his early relationship with Andy Warhol’s Factory and its glittering, damaged denizens. In a world of stylized weirdos, Morrissey was the straight businessman, always looking for the commercial possibilities inherent in a scene where few believed any existed. Viva called him “a real nine-to-fiver” and Warhol biographer Stephen Koch said he was “an anomaly at the Factory.” Morrissey’s drive and ambition made it possible for him to rework the Warhol aesthetic evident in conceptually rich but unbearably dull experiments like Sleep and Empire into more accessible, coherent, and committed works like Trash, Heat, Mixed Blood, Blood for Dracula, and Women in Revolt. The “great film achievements” of Warhol belong, for the most part, to Morrissey, who wrote, produced, and directed them while Warhol contributed no more than his name above the title.
Morrissey, who was born in 1938, was making films before he stumbled into the Factory. His early efforts were a combination of anti-narrative experimentation and camp. Civilization and Its Discontents (1962), which featured “a hood in a pea jacket strangling a fat albino,” among other things, has been described as “slapstick neorealism.” In Mary Martin Does It (1962), a bag lady throws a murderess under a large street sweeper. A few years later, Morrissey was “collaborating” with Warhol on equally innovative and bizarre films like My Hustler (1965) and The Chelsea Girls(1966).
Warhol’s “invisible artist” persona may have influenced Morrissey in his decision to find strong personalities and let the camera run on them, with far less intervention than a filmmaker usually applies. Not that the films aren’t scripted, but Morrissey’s faith in his performers, his reluctance to assume a godlike position of directorial control, always takes precedence over his desire for narrative coherence. His combination of trust in the actors, fascination with urban subcultures, and extremely flexible, improvisation-laced scripts, gives a feeling of freshness and power even when scenes run past their dramatic point or technical mistakes intrude.
Morrissey’s films invariably feature powerful, shrill, unassimilable personalities starving for self-expression – disillusioned drag queens, churlish fag hags, washed-up B-movie actresses, frustrated queen vampires. (It’s hardly coincidence that this also describes most of the “superstars” of the Factory – one of Warhol’s legacies to Morrissey.) Alongside these female or female-coded types is a balancing, usually passive, beautiful butch male. In Mixed Blood(1984) it’s the semi-moronic gang leader Thiago, too dumb to realize he’s being manipulated by his domineering mother. The ultimate representation of this type and an icon of gay culture from Flesh, Trash, and Heat is hero-hustler-superstud Joe Dallesandro.
The loose, often episodic dramas these characters find themselves in often have obvious roots in the actors’ own lives. In Heat (1971) Joe Dallesandro’s role as “Joey Davis,” a washed-up TV child actor from “The Big Ranch” works in part because he is the kind of Hollywood fringe character the film describes, intensely appealing but too trashy to make it even in trash-loving Hollywood. In Trash (1970) “Holly” (transvestite Holly Woodlawn) is as tough and resourceful and smashed down as she was in real life. Like many of Morrissey’s characters, these actors use their real names, or a close variant, pushing realism into the fictional frame.
Morrissey’s absurdist bent is sometimes tempered with a surprising poignancy, as in Trash, in Holly’s beer-bottle masturbation scene, or in Flesh (1968), when the naked, sleepy Joe is excluded from his wife’s newfound lesbian relationship. Sometimes Morrissey is only absurdist – which is good enough in films like the hysterical Blood for Dracula (1973), with Udo Kier’s endless frustration at being duped into thinking he’s drinking virgin blood, only to find himself puking his guts out over the toilet. From this film comes Kier’s unforgettable shriek: “The blood of these whores is killing me!” (Blood for Dracula is also notable for Joe Dallesandro’s bitchy Marxist handyman, alternately screwing the daughters of the house and upbraiding them in Brooklynese for their bourgeois attitudes. He calls them “tramps” and “dopes” and expresses shock that they’ve never heard of the Russian Revolution.) Heat, a comic rip-off of Sunset Boulevard, features another frustrated character, a wealthy B-movie slut (played by the vigorous Sylvia Miles), who’s cursed with a crazy daughter, a sagging career, and a faithless gigolo.
The rarely screened Women in Revolt (1971) brutally satirizes women’s liberation with a sort of Valley of the Dolls update played by drag queens Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis. The trio forms a group called P.I.G.S. (Politically Involved Girls). Jackie starts out as a fund-raiser and ends up hiring male prostitutes and becoming just another mad housewife. Candy, a socialite, screws her way to the bottom of Hollywood, ending up in sexploitation films like “Blonde on a Bum Trip.” And Holly becomes a Bowery drunk. Morrissey’s camera stands back while these three intense personalities – backed up by an army of demented, parallel-universe types – go at it. His combination of trust in the actors, fascination with the extremes of human personality isn’t limited to drag queens – another major type consistently featured is the drug addict. Mixed Blood shows with acute accuracy the petty details of drug addiction, from the endless queues “waiting for the man” to the grim particulars of needle injection. This is one of Morrissey’s specialties – the fine details of a seemingly alien subculture, whether it’s the hustlers of Flesh and Trash, a fading European dynasty in Blood for Dracula, or the kiddie Brailizian drug gangs of Mixed Blood.
After the “Warhol period” ended in 1973 with Blood for Dracula, Morrissey attempted more commercial projects – Spike of Bensonhurst, Forty Deuce, Beethoven’s Nephew, and the little-seen Madame Wang’s. The failure of these films may indicate his inability to interest the culture in his personal concerns outside the safe realm of camp
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Morrissey, not necessarily relevant to the brilliance of the films, is his political profile. Yes, the maker of Trash, Flesh, and Heat is a right-wing, reactionary, Catholic Republican! Writer Maurice Yacowar has quoted him as follows: “Without institutionalized religion as the basis, a society can’t exist. All the sensible values of a solid education and a moral foundation have been flushed down the liberal toilet in order to sell sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” Whew! Since it’s impossible to reconcile these knuckle-headed views with Morrissey’s unique body of work (which could never have been made in the kind of fascist theocracy he seems to desire), I mention it merely for the convenience of completists.