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A Reader Request

A regular reader of this "blogue" recently wrote:

I have been curious to know if you have seen films that have depicted Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the "scenes" that I am unfortunately too young to have enjoyed and possibly any other people you may have known over the years. Have you seen, "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Basquiat", "Factory Girl"...? What is your opinion of the interpretations of the people and the times in these films?

Good question. When I arrived on the scene as a youngster, I had the funny feeling that I was late—I mean, I had missed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Silver Factory, and Edie Sedgwick. Some of the characters I met, such as the legendary Ondine, had clearly seen more brilliant days. But later I began to think, "Oh well, maybe it's for the best I came when I did. At least I never injected methamphetamine like Lou."

Here I am interviewing my friend Jean-Michel Basquiat on my cable-access show TV Party in 1979:

I remember being contacted in the '90s by the Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, who wanted to make a film about Jean-Michel. I did everything to discourage him, saying that it would be almost impossible to capture his personality, and reminding him that Jean-Michel hadn't been gone ten years. To drive home my point I brought up the problem of casting.

"I mean, who could you get to play him?" I said, oozing sarcasm. "Terence Trent D'Arby?"

Two days later I read in the New York Post's Page Six that filmmaker Lech Majewski was trying to sign Terence Trent D'Arby for his Basquiat film project. Sometimes sarcasm doesn't translate.

This, as well as my feelings about such films as Clint Eastwood's Bird (1988), caused me to write an essay called "The Alexander Nevsky Theory," in which I argued that a real person should be dead for approximately 900 years before their life is made into a drama. Alexander Nevsky, of course, being the Russian Prince who defeated of the German Teutonic Knights near Novogriod in 1242, as well as a film of the same name by the great director Sergei Eisenstein. He created a masterpiece at a time when Russia was again threatened by German invasion, and the battle scene on a frozen lake is probably the most spectacular depiction of combat in cinema history:

Of course, my point was that Nevsky was dug up at the right time, for the right reasons, and his family and friends certainly wouldn't mind.

But Basquiat with Basquiat gone only a few years… I could see what was happening. It would be the same old suffering-artist story—a little Van Gogh, a little Jimi Hendrix. The real Jean-Michel was so complicated, how could somebody capture him? Especially someone who didn't know him?

Enter Julian Schnabel, who did know him, but who was hardly his friend. Schnabel took over the project. I was approached by Michael Holman, a bandmate of Basquiat's in Gray, whom Julian had hired to write a screenplay. He wanted to talk to me. I told him I didn't want to participate and I expressed my doubts as to whether anything resembling our mutual friend might come to the screen. He shrugged off my comments and that was that.

I was working as creative director at Island Records at the time Julian Schnabel's Basquiat was completed. Island had recently released an album of the artist singing songs he had composed, and was also about to release the soundtrack album. So Julian screened the film for me. Later, on the phone, he asked me what I thought and I remember how it started: "I know you meant well…."

Actually, I was exaggerating. I see that film as Schnabel's pre-emptive strike on art history, an attempt to position himself as the wise mentor to the unstable protégé, when in fact, of course, Jean-Michel is, as T.S. Eliot would put it, "il miglior fabbro."

Schnabel does show the well-known incident in which J.M.B. pissed on the floor of his studio, but he depicts it as if he were a stoner, stumbling into the wrong spot, unable to hold his water, when in fact he was the alpha dog marking his territory.

Jeffrey Wright is, of course, a genius, and he does Basquiat as well as he can be done given the script and the intentions of the director. Despite having little resemblance to the artist, Wright delivers an uncanny reading of his mannerism and speech patterns. David Bowie does less well portraying my old boss Andy. In fact I was moved by Basquiat and I Shot Andy Warhol to write posthumous diary entries depicting Andy's activities as a ghost, haunting Manhattan—"Excerpts from the Andy Warhol Diaries, Summer 1996." Here's a bit:

"July 19, 1996: Keith Haring finally dragged me to see that film where I get shot. (Cab $10, tickets $16.) Just seeing the marquee gave me the creeps. I can't believe I let that English girl who directed it hang around the office. She was so polite I couldn't tell she was really mean. And I was so nice to her. The kid who plays me—Richard Harris's kid—is kind of cute but I come off like a big nothing. I guess it could have been worse. She made Fred and Paul into dumb and dumber. And Cand is so butch, she's going to really hate it…I wanted to leave but Keith made me stay. It was so mean I had to go to the bathroom during the scene where Valerie shoots me. It hurt just thinking about it. I can't believe they gave it a good write up in Interview. I don't get what people like about it. I guess it's the first dyke action film."

"August 1, 1996: Went to the opehning of Julian Schnabel's film with Jean-Michel. (Cab $12.) He was so mad. He kept calling Julian a "bad fool." He said the movie was a fake and a distortion. I think he was really mad because he thinks Jeffrey Wright isn't good looking enough to play him. Jeffrey Wright is cute but not as handsome as Jean Michel. He was even madder because Julian cast Gary Oldman to play Julian. I said "Did you really think he'd have somebody fat play him?" Gary Oldman was pretty good but Steven Seagal would have been even better.

"It was really funny seeing David Bowie play me. He was so nelly that it made me feel like a he-man. I can't believe the Foundation loaned Julian my hair…I thought my wig was the worst part of the film, and there were a lot of worst parts…"

Yes, Bowie was dreadful, but we love him so all is forgiven. Such a big sissy as Drella. I remember the day Dave came up to the Factory to sing "Andy Warhol" to Andy, who didn't know if we should let him in. He wasn't famous in America, yet, but I told AW he was famous in England, so he sat there and was nice. At the end he didn't know whether to like it or hate it. (I didn't either, but he meant well.)

Here's some footage of their introduction:

Last night there was nothing on the tube so I checked in on I Shot Andy Warhol again. It's still awful. Allow me to quote myself from an old essay entitled, "Shooting Andy Warhol Again":

"Without changing the cast and the set too much, writer/director Mary Harron could have made a pretty good attempt at the Fran Lebowitz Story. Lili Taylor would have had to gain some weight and switch to Lark cigarettes, but the rest she had down pat." I knew Valerie Solanas, and Harron's Valerie is more like Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show than Valerie Solanas, a truly scary and twisted person who is depicted here as a warm-and-fuzzy though a little misguided feminist hero."

Stephen Dorff tries heroically to be Candy, but he's just not the actor for the part. Maybe Johnny Depp could have pulled it off, but Dorff was out of his depth. Quoting myself again:

"The revisionist Warhol gang is a bunch of decorative losers and stoned-out poseurs. Stephen Dorff gives his all to animate the character of Candy Darling, the most glamorous of Warhol's drag queens. It's not his fault that the complexity, the edge, the twisted wryness and mordacious wit and true glamour of the original Candy is lost. This Candy lacks the femininity, the queenliness, mostly the attitude and dialogue of the original. Mary Harron couldn't turn a phrase with a tugboat."

I find it a contemptible film. Quoting me again:

"In an interview with New York magazine, Lou Reed wondered out loud if a film called "I Shot John Lennon" would have been met with such acceptance. Reed's point…is that Andy Warhol still doesn't get the respect he deserves."

As for the other Drella impersonators, I must say that Jared Harris did a creditable job with Andy's intonation, and a pretty good job with his posture and body language, although he never would have offered his hand for a shake. Guy Pearce's turn as the boss in Factory Girl, which will go down as one of the worst movies ever made, would have greatly amused Andy. Not only is Pearce a handsome devil, he plays Andy with that I-know-I'm-hot meanness that must come naturally to him.

Andy was, of course, a loser nerd who would have fit in with the trenchcoat mafia in high school, and he had none of that air. He said of the Factory that it wasn't people hanging around him, he was hanging around them.

The most bizarre Andy is, of course, Crispin Glover in Oliver Stone's The Doors. He has nothing to do with the real Andy, but Glover is such a compelling actor that his creepy character, which sees Andy as quite abstract as if on acid, oh so unlike him, is still quite amusing.

I read the script of Factory Girl by Captain Mauzner and discovered that the writer thought Gerard Malanga was "Gerald Malanga." He was also unsure if Richie Berlin, Brigid's sister, was a boy or a girl. In the lot of these movies there are very few interesting performances, the exceptions being Michael Imperioli (best known as Christopher in The Sopranos) as Ondine in I Shot… He captures a lot of that manic spirit and brilliant manner. And Michael Wincott does a fair job as Rene Ricard, given the lines he has to speak.

At least we have Andy's films and quite a bit of him on tape to preserve a sense of the historical record, although I'm constantly amazed by how much credence people give these films. You always have to wonder why a film was made.

I happened to wind up in the same restaurant as Schnabel one night around the release of the film, which I had not yet seen. Diego Cortez was there that night, too, and Julian came and sat with us for a minute. Diego and I had as much to do with Jean-Michel's career as anyone and I knew we weren't in the film, so I asked Julian, who played Diego in the film. He said something like, well, a screenwriter sometimes has to combine certain characters and change things for dramatic reasons. Then I asked who played me. Same answer. Then I asked who played him. "Gary Oldman."

That reminded me of a story about Julian making a phone call to a mutual friend, rather urgently looking for a number for Willem Dafoe. It was reported to me that he said, "Gary Oldman is in rehab and I need someone to play the lead in my film?"

"The lead?"

"Yeah, me."



so funny I just encountered the mastercard schnabel baloney like one hour ago! God I hated that movie.. I watched the tv party documentary last night - loved it.

Eloquent as always Glenn! Thanks so much for some insight on these interpretations of the people and the times. It is a shame there are not better representations of these great people in such an interesting period. I guess all we have now is their art to enjoy.

I think it is interesting how you mention Julian and his intentions on making the film, Basquiat. I have always heard that he was Gary Oldman's character, but you put it into perspective by asking why a film is being made in the first place. That really changes things for me.

If anybody, who do you think are some of the great artists today in New York? Is there really an identifiable art movement, or "scene" if you will, or does more time need to pass before we can really step back and see what was happening?

Glen, have you ever considered writing a memoir?

Some friends and I were recently discussing the current fascination with Warhol, his superstars and Manhattan from the early sixties to the mid-eighties. We came to the conclusion that, having been born in the seventies, we all feel as if we barley missed being "contemporaries" to such interesting people and times.

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