Saturday, 3 September 2011
Reflections on Andy Warhol’s BAD (1977)
“The final film released under the Andy Warhol moniker is a much more polished affair than Flesh, Trash or Heat, but preserves the oddball wit and eccentric flair that made those films so memorable. A New York housewife has to support a houseful of relatives on her own. She pays the bills by operating an electrolysis service out of her home and by running a murder-for-hire service staffed exclusively by women.” Allmovie Guide
When you watch BAD, “polished” is definitely not the word that spring to mind, although admittedly it’s all relative. And the above description seems to underestimate the poetry of Paul Morrissey’s admittedly rough and unvarnished but frequently beautiful earlier films, which cover similarly lurid subject matter but feel entirely different to BAD (which was directed by Andy Warhol’s then-boyfriend, Jed Johnson, rather than Morrissey). While BAD certainly has a significantly higher budget than the Morrissey films, it frequently feels inept, the performances are mostly grating and it has the smudged, dark, murky and ugly look typical of low-budget films of that period (see also: the el cheap-o drag queen comedy Outrageous! also from 1977 -- perhaps the only true Canadian cult film), although for some that could be part of BAD’s grungey allure.
BAD aims to be a satirical exercise in deliberate bad taste, but (for me) it misjudges the tone. It’s a botched black comedy with gratuitously nasty violence (I’m the first to admit to being ultra squeamish when it comes to violence). BAD’s most notorious sequence shows a woman throwing her baby to its death from a high rise balcony (obviously a doll, but still distressing!). A scene where one of the hit women kills an illegal immigrant mechanic by crushing him under a car and then cutting off one of his fingers (presumably as proof she’s completed the job) is pretty grim, too. (The scene is so badly-lit you mercifully can’t see much, but I can’t get the bone-crunching sound effects out of my head!).
John Waters has always been voluble about how as a youth watching Warhol’s trailblazing 1960s underground films like Chelsea Girls (1966) shaped (twisted? Corrupted?) his aesthetic sensibility. With BAD, it feels like the Warhol crowd was now taking cues from Waters himself, and trying to catch up with the prince of puke. BAD captures the nihilism of early Waters like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (like BAD, 1977), but with his gleefully campy verve, wit and humour mostly surgically excised. Instead, BAD is just grindingly unpleasant, brutal and bleak.
(Pedro Almodovar was clearly an acolyte of Waters in his scabrous early films; maybe he also saw BAD. If BAD reminds me of any film, it is Almodovar’s deliberately offensive feature debut Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980), made during the post-Franco punk era in Madrid. It’s probably my least favourite film by Almodovar, who I revere).
Bear in mind I’ve always wanted to see BAD (it’s only just recently been reissued on DVD in the UK after being long unavailable). I remember reading about BAD in Danny Peary’s book Cult Films as a teenager and almost physically yearning to see it! And I’m a hardcore Warhol fanatic: I used to watch Warhol double-bills at the much-missed sleaze palace The Scala cinema in London’s Kings Cross. I’d stay until the bitter end of, say, Lonesome Cowboy (1968) when the cinema was virtually empty after most people had long since drifted out, exasperated. (Read this great blog with a contrasting point of view about the merits of BAD).
Warhol films were traditionally enlivened by the presence of his charismatic and freaky stable of Superstars, but their era had come to an end by BAD. Glam rock scene-maker and Max’s Kansas City habitué Cyrinda Foxe (whose admirers included New York Doll David Johansen, David Bowie – she’s featured in his "Jean Genie" video -- and Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler) plays RC, one of the hit women. Foxe looks sensational, a 1950s platinum blonde rockabilly bombshell (in one of the early scenes, she sashays down a Queens street while a group of garbage men hoot at her – it recalls Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It!). But Foxe is no actress, and her mystique evaporates every time she speaks.
Similarly, Perry King as LT, the sole male hit man in Hazel’s doll squad, looks great: a chiselled dark-haired hunk in a muscle shirt, if you squint he resembles Joe Dallesandro (apparently the role of LT was conceived with Dallesandro in mind). But King completely lacks Dallesandro’s strange, torpid almost Robert Mitchum-like magnetism. He may be a charisma bypass, but King does have one nice moment, when he announces completely straight-faced, “I committed suicide last year.”
What BAD can boast is the presence of a genuine Hollywood star, albeit a somewhat faded one down on her luck at the time. Carroll Baker plays homicidal Queens housewife and beauty salon proprietor Hazel Aiken (a role originally intended for Shelley Winters; the fact that Winters, an actress not exactly known for quality control, turned it down speaks volumes. Weirdly, I’ve also read the role was offered to Vivian Vance – Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy sidekick Ethel Mertz! Now that would have been mind-blowing casting).
Caroll Baker as Hazel. Photo Via
Baker first caught the public eye in the 1950s in the deluxe family melodrama Giant (1956) co-starring alongside the likes of James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Later that year Baker created a sensation as a prototype Lolita in the scandalous Tennessee Williams adaptation Baby Doll, along the way getting nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and enraging the Catholic Legion of Decency. (John Waters has recalled the nuns in his Catholic school in the 50s warning him that to see Baby Doll was a guarantee of going to hell). With the exception of The Carpetbaggers (1964), Baker’s subsequent films (like a 1965 biopic of Jean Harlow) bombed and after legal battles with Paramount she re-located to Rome to salvage her career with kinky / arty Euro-sexploitation giallo films like The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and Paranoia (1969).
Pouty and perverse: the famous image of a thumb-sucking Carroll Baker in her crib in Baby Doll (1956)
Returning to the US to star in BAD, the film finds Baker long past her Baby Doll prime: Photographed unflatteringly, she looks frumpy and matronly. To her credit, though, Baker seems to revel in Hazel’s callousness; she re-invents herself as a mature character actress and nails a witheringly aggrieved, acidic delivery. (Baker has a nice Joan Crawford moment towards the end when she snarls at Perry King, "I don't have the luxury of being sensitive!"). And at one point, when alone in her bedroom and feeling nostalgic, Hazel takes a luxurious white fur coat out of the closet and wraps herself in it you suddenly get a brief glimpse of Carroll Baker in her 50s sex kitten heyday.
I tell a lie: there is one true Warhol Superstar in BAD. Amongst the grotesque freak show of clients who hire Hazel’s hit women, blowsy Warhol stalwart Brigid Berlin (aka Brigid Polk) is on blistering form as the racist, misanthropic Estelle who hires the sociopathic sisters Marsha and Glenda (“You’ve got to kill a dog, and you’ve got to do it viciously!” she screams). BAD sparks to life every time she appears: Berlin gets the film’s best lines, and sinks her teeth into them with venomous zeal. “People stink – all they do is eat, fuck and watch TV!” she philosophises. Later, when Estelle violently attacks one of her neighbours, her hateful foul-mouthed tirade (“You dirty old shithead! You Irish bastard!”) includes, “You welfare recipient!”
Another high point is provided by Geraldine Smith and Maria Smith (real-life sisters) playing the sneering, sarcastic killer sisters with Dorothy Hamill haircuts, Glenda and Marsha. (Geraldine had already been memorable as Joe Dallesandro’s venal wife in the 1968 Warhol / Morrissey film Flesh). They maintain deadpan, contemptuous expressions and flat nasal Brooklyn-accented voices (think Penny Marshall in Laverne and Shirley) even while killing and committing arson.
Maria and Geraldine Smith as sullen killers-for-hire Glenda and Marsha. Photo Via
Susan Tyrell also makes a strong impression as Hazel’s much-abused, downtrodden daughter in law Mary. A tremulous, wincing mousey depressive constantly trying to console her crying baby, Mary is apt to lament, “I just can relate to smoking. It’s the only thing that’s always there ...” and then burst into tears.
It’s the traumatised Mary who nails the film’s whole ethos when she whines, “People are so sick. The more you see them, the sicker they look.”
In retrospect, perhaps Andy Warhol's BAD's lasting contribution is ... it made for a great t-shirt.