Sunday, 6 October 2019

Reflections on ... Andy Warhol's Heat (1972)


From the Facebook event page:

Together the inspired trio of pop art visionary Andy Warhol, director Paul Morrissey and leading man / homoerotic beefcake icon Joe Dallesandro collaborated on three notorious underground films. Cinema’s Sultan of Sleaze John Waters has hailed Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972) as “the trilogy that changed the rules of male nudity in modern-day cinema both underground and in Hollywood.”  While all three movies are gritty, sordid classics of style and substance, I’d argue that Heat (the final and most polished of their efforts) is the most entertaining – and it’s this month’s Lobotomy Room film club selection! Wednesday 18 September!

A freaky and twisted black comedy, Heat is a loose remake Sunset Boulevard (1950) set amidst the desperate low-rent fringes of Hollywood’s underbelly. Dallesandro stars as a coldly calculating wannabe actor and hustler who finds himself caught between an aging washed-up actress (the magnificent Sylvia Miles – who died this June aged 94) and her mentally unstable daughter (doomed Warhol Superstar Andrea Feldman). Trust me - you’ve never seen anything quite like Heat! If you enjoy the squalid early “gutter films” of John Waters, Heat is a must-see!

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love, specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the camp! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt! We can accommodate thirty people maximum on film nights. Remember: the film is free so you can buy more cocktails! (One drink minimum).


“The New Hollywood in Andy Warhol’s Heat was a sleazy motel, frequented by has-been hustlers, sadistic lesbians, and moronic porn stars who masturbate by the pool, and run by a grossly overweight, sexually voracious tyrant in a ponytail and muumuu (wonderfully played by Pat Ast, whose couture muumuus were made by her boss, Halston). The only escape from this sun-bleached insane asylum is that haunted Hispano-Hollywood horror on the hill, the mortgaged-up manor of the formerly famous Sally Todd. (Actually, the house was formerly Boris Karloff’s). That’s where Joe ends up, in bed with his hostess. He’s pursued there by her emotionally disturbed daughter played by Andrea Feldman, another denizen of the motel, where she shares a room with her baby and a girlfriend who uses other women’s bodies as ashtrays.”

/ From Bob Colacello’s memoirs Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up (1980) / 

“The film is like an open wound, and Sylvia is a kind of cross between Lana Turner and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, eating her way through the movie like an emotional barracuda and leaving everyone around her for fishbait. The film is such a milestone in her career that everything else in her life is now referred to as “B.H.” (Before Heat).”

/ Rex Reed’s review of Heat /

“In [Paul] Morrissey’s Heat (1972), Dallesandro is cast as a washed-up child star angling for a comeback amid the hothouse improvisations of Sylvia Miles and Pat Ast. He has moved even further into a kind of waiting catatonia, but even at his most sedentary and unresponsive, Dallesandro signals that he is always on the make, occasionally throwing out a zinger when you least expect it just to prove that he can pay close attention to what’s going on around him when he wants to (but he usually doesn’t want to).” 

/ Dan Callahan's analysis of Joe Dallesandro’s performance in Heat in of The Chiseler /


(The following essay is cobbled-together from my onstage introduction to Heat, plus some additional random reflections)


Heat - the concluding chapter in the groundbreaking trilogy of frankly homoerotic underground films producer Andy Warhol, director Paul Morrissey and leading man Joe Dallesandro made together - is routinely cited as a parodying Billy Wilder’s macabre valentine to Old Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard (1950). It certainly shares the earlier film’s basic premise: a hungry, cynical young hustler (Joe Davis, played by Dallesandro) latches onto significantly older fading actress Sally Todd (Sylvia Miles) against the backdrop of jaundiced dog-eat-dog Hollywood.


But at least Norma Desmond – the deluded silent movie diva of Sunset Boulevard portrayed by Gloria Swanson – had once been genuine Hollywood royalty. In contrast, the seedy realm of Heat is the grubbier, low-rent fringe show business of minor players, losers, has-beens and never-weres, barely clinging-on. This is the toxic, destructive failure-haunted Hollywood of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, the hard-scrabble existence of Edward D Wood Jr, the website Decaying Hollywood Mansions and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Other characters (chiefly her sarcastic ex-husband and Jessie, her wayward daughter played by the doomed Andrea Feldman) derive great pleasure in denigrating Sally Todd as "an aging, practically unknown star," and an untalented one at that. A former child star now unemployed in adulthood, the zenith of Joe’s career was appearing in two TV series: Mousetime USA and the Western The Big Ranch. (The latter evokes Barbara Stanwyck’s 1960s TV Western vehicle The Big Valley, or Bonanza).


For her part, Todd frequently mentions guest-starring on “game shows”, which suggests Hollywood Squares, a kitschy refuge for show business has-beens in the seventies. Can’t you picture Sally slumming it in the square next to fellow panelist Paul Lynde? Todd’s wealth, it is clear, is chiefly as a result of marrying (and divorcing) well rather than her accomplishments as an actress. (This aspect is autobiographical for Miles herself. Married three times, she seemingly scored great divorce settlements and lived in high style in Manhattan in a covetable apartment overlooking Central Park – not the kind of lifestyle afforded by appearing in Warhol films or playing supporting roles in horror movies. After her death, it was reportedly discovered Miles was significantly richer than anyone anticipated).


Rex Reed is astute in referencing Lana Turner as well as Gloria Swanson in his review. Two queens of a certain age with a profound understanding of camp, both Morrissey and Warhol were well-versed in Golden Age Hollywood cinema and wittily draw-upon that knowledge in Heat. To Joe’s indifference, Sally occasionally launches into grand, wistful soliloquies about the demands of being an actress and how it compromised her maternal responsibilities. In these grandiose monologues (tinged with a Tennessee Williams flavor), Sally recalls Turner’s similar speeches in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 masterpiece Imitation of Life (which also covers the fractious relationship between an actress mother and her adolescent daughter, with both vying for the affections of the same man. Also, in real life Turner shared Sally Todd's erotic interest in Italian-American rough trade: recall her ill-fated romance with Johnny Stompanato).


/ Sylvia Miles as Sally Todd. Andrea Feldman as her daughter Jessie /

Interestingly, Morrissey himself has claimed that Heat was primarily inspired by The Blue Angel (1930), Josef von Sternberg’s cruel Weimar Republic-era study of sexual humiliation. In Morrissey’s gender-fucked variation, he positions Sally as a substitute for the pompous professor played by Emil Jannings, whose bourgeois life and stability is destroyed after a dalliance with an amoral heartbreaker (Joe standing-in for Marlene Dietrich’s jaded nightclub chanteuse Lola Lola. The comparison with Dietrich is illuminating: Morrissey’s camera obsessively fixates on Dallesandro’s enigmatic beauty just as surely Sternberg’s did with his glamourpuss muse decades earlier).


One more possible allusion to Sunset Boulevard too delicious not to mention: when she takes Joe on a tour of her mansion, Sally mentions that at one point it belonged to a crazy old silent actress from the 1920s with a huge menagerie of cats. That passing reference can’t help but conjure the phantom of Norma Desmond.


Some further fun facts about Heat: the film was rated X, but – unlike Flesh and Trash – there is no full-frontal nudity this time.  Warhol’s infamous trio of drag queen Superstars (Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis) are also notably absent.


/ Examining this photo more closely: is it just me, or was Miles originally topless in this shot and a censor scribbled-on a black "boob tube" with a Sharpie marker? /

Sally Todd’s palatial 36-roomed mansion formerly belonged to Boris Karloff (aka horror movie icon and the screen’s definitive Frankenstein's monster).

The soundtrack is composed by John Cale of The Velvet Underground.

Jess’s much-neglected baby is played by Joe Dallesandro, Jr – Joe Dallesandro’s own son.

The filming of Heat took place on location in Hollywood in July 1971 (an anomaly for a Warhol film, which were usually made in New York) and lasted two weeks.

Warhol himself wasn’t present for the filming in Los Angeles (he was occupied with business at The Factory). His creative contribution was to phone the three lead actresses every night to anger them up and pit them against each other. The ploy worked beautifully: their interactions onscreen seethe with palpable hostility.

The emphasis on glistening, rippling sun-dappled blue swimming pools – and beautiful semi-naked men swimming in them – rivals anything found in a David Hockney painting from the same period.



In commercial terms, Heat was a triumph. It cost somewhere between $50,000 - $100,000 to make and recouped a reported $2 million at the US box office alone. But this success never led to any interest from major studios. Perhaps the oeuvre of Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol and Joe Dallesandro was simply too barbed, abrasively strange and flagrantly queer to assimilate into mainstream Hollywood.



Thoughts on the main players in Heat: bear in mind that the dialogue is improvised. Morrissey would sketch out the action and what was required in a scene, and the actors adlibbed the rest. The performances are genuinely remarkable. Let’s examine the lead actors in greater depth.

Here’s the tribute I wrote online when Sylvia Miles death was announced in June 2019:  



Sad to read that wild, volatile and utterly distinctive character actress and New York scene-maker Sylvia Miles (9 September 1924 - 12 June 2019) has died aged 94. Instantly recognizable for her nasal nicotine-stained rasp, lion’s mane of disheveled bouffant blonde hair and raw-boned jolie laide beauty, Miles could give masterclasses in scene-stealing and had the volcanic, uninhibited disposition of an American version of Mediterranean actresses like Anna Magnani or Melina Mercouri. Like Magnani, Miles is one of those actresses who never seemed to be young: she didn’t get her big break until she was middle-aged and she is forever fixed in the popular imagination as the overtly sexual, borderline shrew-ish “woman of a certain age”. (I joked when introducing Heat, it’s easy to believe Miles was born already aged 42, with a cigarette in her mouth). 



Miles, of course, made an indelible impression (and won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) for her six-minute appearance as a brassy middle-aged hooker in Midnight Cowboy (1969). (“I'm one hell of a gorgeous chick!” she furiously raves, correctly). I have no affection for Midnight Cowboy (overrated, sentimental, casually homophobic and misogynistic film with a condescending attitude towards the Warhol underground milieu) but for me Miles slays it! Forget Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman: I wish the film had been all about her!



/ Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy (1969) /

Infinitely superior is the Andy Warhol-produced, Paul Morrissey-directed black comedy Heat (1972), a loose remake of Sunset Boulevard with Miles in the Gloria Swanson role as an aging, insecure actress hustled by unscrupulous young stud Joe Dallesandro. Both Miles and Dallesandro spend long swathes of the film in various stages of nudity, and both are fearless and magnificent. In fact, I need to play Heat at one of my Lobotomy Room film clubs – it’s essential! The last thing I ever recall seeing Miles in was a 2002 episode of Sex and The City as a geriatric borderline bag lady in a diner, sprinkling lithium on her chocolate ice cream. She’s meant to represent a warning to Carrie Bradshaw (if she grows old and single in New York, this could be her fate). I’d argue you could do a lot worse than grow old to be Sylvia Miles! "I have always had the temperament of an actress, which is just an excuse for volatile behavior,” Miles explained to People magazine in 1976. What a woman! If you only read one obituary for Miles, read New York gossip columnist Michael Musto’s frank, funny and affectionate eulogy. He recounts a possibly apocryphal anecdote about Miles at New York’s Russian Tea Room: “a waiter allegedly asked, "How do you like your coffee, Miss Miles?" Sylvia saucily replied, "Like I like my men." The waiter shot back: "Sorry, we don't serve gay coffee.”” 




/ Sylvia Miles as Sally Todd in Heat (1972). Visible in background: Andrea Feldman as Jessie /


As I argue above, Miles is fearless in Heat in multiple ways: she’s unafraid appear nude onscreen – with her lush but mature and imperfect body - opposite the impossibly buff, considerably younger Joe Dallesandro. But she’s also unafraid to risk looking desperate, needy, shrill and even grotesque (see also: Susan Tyrrell). Her performance is a torrent of raw emotion and Heat is Miles’ finest moment.


It’s difficult to conceive of anyone but Miles as woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Sally Todd, but apparently at one point desiccated, hard-drinking Golden Age Hollywood casualty Veronica Lake was considered for the part. At the time erstwhile 1940s film noir femme fatale Lake was emerging from her destitute and alcoholic wilderness years (her autobiography was published in 1969. She appeared in her last-ever film – the mortifying low-budget horror movie Flesh Feast – in 1970). Pictured above: Lake at a cocktail party with Warhol, Superstar Candy Darling and Paul Morrissey in 1971, presumably discussing Heat. Fascinating as the thought of Lake as Sally is (would she have consented to the nude love scenes with Dallesandro?), ultimately Miles owns the part. Lake died in 1973 aged 50.


Joe Dallesandro – the Marlon Brando or more accurately, the taciturn Robert Mitchum of Warhol’s Factory – is now 70 and the sole star of Heat still alive. In his youth Dallesandro was dismissed by critics as a male bimbo or mere eye candy, but in recent years he has been reappraised as a genuinely compelling actor. Onscreen he is a gloriously deadpan, utterly casual and riveting presence: just try to tear your eyes from him.  Conventional mainstream actors like Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck or Matt Damon would kill to possess an iota of Dallesandro’s nonchalance and effortless animal grace. In his lyrical appreciation of Dallesandro’s persona, Dan Callahan of The Chiseler notes that “Like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Dallesandro knew exactly what to offer to a still camera, assuming all the attitudes from Back Off to Come Hither to Take Care Of Me. And always, essentially, he is distant and removed, which is his real trick, the thing that keeps people coming back for more. Often fully naked on screen, Dallesandro offers all of that bounty to the camera, but he keeps himself to himself.” In contrast to the histrionic performances of the women in Heat, as predatory stud Joe he is an oasis of calm. Dallesandro is far too cool to ever project or emote.



/ Joe Dallesandro and Pat Ast in Heat / 

Briefly: before falling into Warhol’s orbit in 1967, Dallesandro (born 1948) had already endured a bumpily eventful life as a tough Italian-American teenage juvenile delinquent (according to Wikipedia: "at age 15, he was expelled from school for punching the school principal"), who stole cars, clashed with the police and spent stints in foster homes and reform schools. Sigh. Who doesn’t love a bad boy? Of course, Dallesandro was blessed with sensational looks and a muscled physique so exquisite it recalled Michelangelo’s David (but with tattoos, and if David spoke with a surly Noo Yawk accent). No wonder Morrisey and Warhol were instantly awe-struck by him. As a teenager he may have hustled older gay men for money (Lou Reed certainly implies this in the lyrics to “Walk on the Wild Side”. I think Dallesandro has gone on the record to dispute he was ever a sex worker). But Dallesandro certainly modeled nude and baby-oiled for vintage beefcake homo porn photographers like Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild. 



/ Dallesandro by Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild /

Post-Heat, Morrissey and Dallesandro would collaborate on two gruesome Euro-horror films (Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula, both 1974). Then Dallesandro would remain in the Continent, working in intriguing low-budget European art and exploitation films. These obscurities are frequently difficult to see, but I do have fond memories of Je t’aime, moi non plus (1976) directed by none other than France’s dissolute Marquis de Sade of pop, Serge Gainsbourg. Back in the US, Dallesandro would struggle with alcoholism, heroin addiction and periods of obscurity and poverty. (Being an underground film cult figure and gay icon isn’t lucrative – who knew?). In the 1980s when the acting gigs dried-up Dallesandro made ends meet working as a chauffeur. Happily married and now a grandfather, today he manages an apartment building in Los Angeles.


With her snarling, eye-rolling and bitchily acidic line deliveries as Lydia the sexually insatiable hotel proprietoress, Pat Ast (1941 - 2001) strikingly anticipates the shout-y antagonistic acting style associated with the cinema of John Waters.  (Ast would have slotted effortlessly into a Waters film like Desperate Living (1977). Watching her as Lydia, you can easily imagine Divine playing this role). Ast was a character actress and model / muse of the fashion designer Halston in the disco-era (like Divine, Ast knew how to rock a caftan). Aside from Heat, probably her most noteworthy other film is the women-in-prison exploitation film Reform School Girls (1986). (She portrays a sadistic lesbian prison matron, needless to say). Ast more than holds her own in Heat, whether flirting outrageously with Dallesandro or in in her furious show-downs with Miles and Feldman. Sadly, she died aged 59 from diabetes complications. What a fierce presence Pat Ast was! Heat is a testament to her talent and charisma.


/ Not exactly mother of the year: Andrea Feldman as neglectful mommy Jessie /

Andrea Feldman (1948 – 1972) plays Jessie, Sally Todd’s bratty daughter. Like Edie Sedgwick before her, Feldman was a profoundly troubled poor little rich girl with drug and mental health problems whose parents couldn’t cope with her and who latched onto Warhol’s Factory scene as a surrogate family. Also like Sedgwick, she was doomed to die young.  Feldman first encountered Warhol in 1967 and had already played small roles in a few Warhol films before Heat (as a young starlet on the ascent she makes vivid appearances in Imitation of Christ (1967) and Trash (1970)). Off-screen Feldman was a notorious amphetamine-addled exhibitionist whose penchant for black or blue lipstick prefigured punk fashion. As a fixture in the grungy New York nightclub Max’s Kansas City she used to climb atop tables, belt-out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and strip naked for attention. She committed suicide aged 24 on 8 August 1972, three weeks before the premiere of Heat, leaping from the 14th floor window of 51 Fifth Avenue in New York at 4:30 pm. Feldman reportedly jumped clutching a Bible and a crucifix (accounts vary: some say she held a can of Coke in one hand and a rosary in the other), so her suicide was evidently staged as a kind of pop  / performance art statement. (Apparently, her suicide note declared, “I’m going for the big time! I hit the jackpot!”).


Warhol, is of course, routinely accused of exploiting his vulnerable superstars and many find Feldman in Heat problematic. Certainly, when we see Feldman very convincingly cracking-up in Heat, it’s hard to gauge whether it’s acting or real distress. What can’t be denied is that the feral Feldman is a genuinely funny, strange and original comedic performer.  That flat, irritating whiny voice! The whiplash mood swings! She’s a freaky naïve “outsider actress” in the same elite tradition as John Waters regular Edith Massey. No drama school on earth could teach someone to act like Massey, or like Feldman does in Heat.  Who knows what Feldman could have achieved post-Heat? Her acting garnered mostly positive reviews (Judith Christ of New York magazine praised her performance as “a mass of psychotic confusion, infantile and heart-breaking”). All these decades later, Andrea Feldman still confounds.


The most disturbing actor in Heat arguably isn’t Feldman, though – it’s the impish Eric Emerson (1945 – 1975) as the most perverse resident of Lydia’s hotel complex. (The cute but seemingly perennially stoned Emerson had already appeared in Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1967) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968)). As “Eric”, he plays one of two brothers who perform an x-rated nightclub act where they have sex together onstage. The hunky other brother emerges as relatively sane, but Emerson plays his role as a creepily childlike, mute village idiot unselfconsciously jerking-off poolside while wearing knee-socks and a white babydoll dress. (His androgynous little girl attire heralds the “kinderwhore” style that Courtney Love would sport in the 1990s. The golden-haired Emerson is considerably prettier than Love, though). In the context of Heat, Emerson would appear to embody what Morrissey and Warhol interpret as Hollywood’s corrupt id.

In conclusion: in my introduction, I suggested that if there was sufficient demand I'd happily screen Flesh and Trash at future Lobotomy Room film clubs. Considering only four (yes, four) people came to our presentation of Heat, that won't be happening! I'm still glad I showed Heat, though.



The next Lobotomy Room film club:


Attention, Scream Queens! In honour of Halloween, for the October Lobotomy Room film club presentation we’ve scheduled the apogee of the “hagsploitation” genre Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) starring Bette Davis at her most frenzied! Wednesday 16 October! Come and settle-in for an evening of spine-tingling Southern Gothic horror in the Tiki splendour of Fontaine's Bamboo Lounge!

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love, specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! (Our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People!). Remember: admission is FREE so that you can buy more cocktails! (One drink minimum).


Further reading:

Read my reflections on Andy Warhol's BAD (1977) here.

In August 2018 I spoke my brains to To Do List magazine about the wild, wild world of Lobotomy Room, the monthly cinema club – and my lonely one-man mission to return a bit of raunch, sleaze and “adult situations” to London’s nightlife! Read it - if you must - here. 

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"Like" and follow the official Lobotomy Room page on Facebook if you dare! 
 

I have serious issues with the frankly homophobic, puritanical, hypocritical and censorious Tumblr these days, but you can follow me on there.

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