POIGNANT: David Bowie (right) as Warhol in Basquiat
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” Andy Warhol is quoted on the US Post Office stamp commemorating him in 2002, “just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
What an ideal subject he would be for a movie: unabashedly superficial and empty, and yet people still demand to know what he means. It’s surprising, then, that Warhol as a character appears in so few films.
I haven’t seen the latest, George Hickenlooper’s Factory Girl (it hadn’t screened in Boston at press time), ostensibly the story of Warhol superstar/victim Edie Sedgwick. Gary Susman, who caught it in New York, describes it as an accidental bio-pic of the artist. Prior to that, Warhol himself directed The Andy Warhol Story (1967), in which art critic René Ricard (himself a character in Basquiat) plays the artist as a self-lacerating mess opposite an accusatory, drugged-out Sedgwick. Warhol the character also appears in numerous films (Death Becomes Her; Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery; 54) as a gag or a period detail. He plays a bigger role in Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) as — what exactly? The Devil? The mirror of excess? A vampire? Or, as he insisted, nothing at all?
In The Doors, he seems to be the diabolical tempter of Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) on the Lizard King’s road to the Palace to Wisdom. Played by Crispin Glover, who if anything is weirder than Warhol himself, the artist looks a little long in the tooth for 1966, a cross between Uriah Heep and Norman Bates’s mother. In the infernal red-lit and silver orgy of the Factory, despite warnings from his California band mates (“It’s a freak show!” “They’re vampires!”) and visitations from his Indian shaman guide spirit, Morrison confronts the jabbering cipher and tenderly removes Warhol’s glasses. Childlike, exposed, Warhol hands Morrison a phone and says, “Edie said I could talk to God on this. But . . . I didn’t have anything to say. So, now you can talk to God.” Access to God or not, Warhol’s gift of divine vacuity, unlike the hits of peyote Morrison took in the desert, ends up robbing the rock star of his essence.
Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) in I Shot Andy Warhol thought she was robbed too. Played as a sad baby man by Jared Harris, Warhol here is first seen deconstructed. Harron introduces the artist as a hand reaching out to a phone; cut to a pair of Beatle-booted feet twitching on the floor and then a silver wig carried out by a policeman like some noisome object. Solanas, the marginal, brilliant sole member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), has just shot him, thinking he’s stolen her life. In fact, he has merely lost her screenplay of Up Your Ass. (Perhaps if she’d approached John Waters, things would have been different.) Or did Warhol drop his nihilist Olympian detachment and cross the line from voyeurism into involvement?