Hail Mary: Actress, Writer, Artist and Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov Comes to SF

by Dennis Harvey

At one point in her hypnotically vivid 1995 memoir Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory  (which recently got republished as an e-book), Mary Woronov quotes a fellow scenester in that very peculiar mid-60s Manhattan scene as he drunkenly describes her:

“You are a beautiful girl, beautiful, but you don’t act very attractive, you know, and it scares people. Yeah, I mean you don’t act cute like a girl, you act like a guy. You know, people ask me all the time if you’re a guy in drag and I laugh at them. But you are very powerful. I mean, we know you’re a kinda shy, really nice girl from Cornell, right? I even know you’re a virgin ‘cause I can tell. But when most people see you, oh, they just assume you’re mean, mean as a snake.”


A page later, Woronov adds her own reflective two cents. “I may have been beautiful, but I was also six feet tall, flat-chested, and foulmouthed, not to mention extremely rude to anything I was attracted to.”

No wonder she was a Warhol Superstar.


That brief but indelible period in the now 70-year-old Woronov’s serpentine path—from Cornell University art student to cult actress to author and acclaimed painter—will be celebrated next week in a special two-night event presented by SF Cinematheque in association with Frameline and SFMOMA. Naturally entitled “Mary Woronov, Warhol Superstar,” it kicks off Thursday, November 6 with a Castro Theatre screening of 1966’s three-and-a-half-hour split-screen Chelsea Girls. The next night will bring an even rarer revival of the same year’s 70-minute Hedy at YBCA Screening Room. Ms. Woronov will be not only onscreen but in the flesh for both programs. Word has it she’ll be talking more, and available for audience questions, at Friday’s smaller venue.


The fascination with Warhol’s 1960s milieu has only grown with time, the deaths of so many colorful inhabitants no doubt amplifying a nihilistic glamour they sported from the start. Woronov is one of the few, as well as most accomplished and intelligent, remaining survivors—one uniquely situated to comment in retrospect, as she’s spent the near-half-century since pursuing artistic avenues at least tangentially connected to those that preoccupied The Factory.


But that future could scarcely have been predicted when a “poet friend,” Gerard Malanga, first introduced her to Warhol and company as an undergraduate from Brooklyn in 1965. Like most Factory newbies of any potential, she got her Screen Test, and in that B&W miniature a star was born. While others camped, squirmed or even (in one case) cried under the camera’s unblinking gaze, Woronov stared the thing down. Regal, her long unruly hair like a mane, she’s a tad restless and rigid, occasionally glancing away from the lens to survey her environ—albeit not so much nervously as like a cat appraising its new lair. If she seems somewhat to be practicing hauteur, she’d master it soon enough.


It wasn’t long before she and Malanga were principal dancers for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Warhol’s touring multimedia psychedelic horror show—acting out S&M fantasias (she with a whip) to the drone and feedback of his “house band,” The Velvet Underground. (Given how large they loom in rock history today, it’s always worth noting how extremely unpopular the VU was during its lifespan, at least anywhere outside Manhattan.) Woronov’s self-described “ice queen” allure also made her a natural figure of contrast amidst the raving freaks and queens of all genders populating his movies during this insanely prolific period.

These static, unedited films required performers who could provide their own narrative, motion, excitement—magnetizing a crew whose varying degrees of desperation and exhibitionism ensured a brutally competitive atmosphere on- and off-camera. The magisterially passive-aggressive Warhol loved few things more than periodically exiling a subject from what Woronov called his “royal court of screaming assholes.” (The most famous ejection being that of socialite “It” girl Edie Sedgwick, who like many such casualties would be dead of an overdose or some other mishap before reaching 30.)

In her Warhol films, Woronov hardly seems someone Andy, or anyone, would dismiss—she’d vote them off the island first. In Swimming Underground , Woronov dubs the simmering private rage she carried with her at the time “Violet,” and says Warhol and company perceived that internal “budding dominatrix” as a personality readymade for the camera’s adoring, shivering gaze.


In Hedy  they cast her as a policewoman all too willing to manhandle former movie star Hedy Lamarr as she’s caught shoplifting—an actual incident Warhol ripped from the headlines of 1966. “My fingers sank into the frightened flesh of [drag performer] Mario Montez, bending his arm back till it threatened to snap off like the wing of an exotic Puerto Rican bird,” she wrote later. “We were an instant success, and a new role was immediately created for me in Andy’s new epic.”

Amidst the plotless character panels of ersatz Chelsea Hotel life in Chelsea Girls  (whose relative commercial success piqued mainstream curiosity toward the era’s “underground” cinema), she operates on a different plane entirely. Impossibly, vacantly beautiful Nico does her own makeup; brain-dead Eric Emerson, the Factory’s most versatile boytoy, babbles in a stoned haze. Other “Superstars” are frenetic, each straining to be more outrageous than the other, improvising toward some sort of accidental drag-camp variation on Sartre’s No Exit . But in her sequence (as, supposedly, “Hanoi Hannah” interrogating captive soldiers—though you’d scarcely guess from the barely-intelligible dialogue), Woronov sits in the dead middle of the screen, dead-still save for sudden moments of lashing violence. Fingers languorously holding a cig are often her only moving muscles.


She exerts her considerable will on the three other women in the room: International Velvet (aka Susan Bottomly), who incurs her wrath by repeatedly answering the phone; hatchet-voiced Ingrid Superstar (aka Ingrid Von Scheven, whom Woronov later wrote was “on pills, but they had no effect, she was naturally nuts”); and short-lived blip on the Warhol radar Angelina “Pepper” Davis, who looks like she can’t wait to escape these horrible people and get back to the dorm at Bryn Mawr. (It is deeply satisfying when, with a few flicks of her verbal whip, Mary reduces the latter to tears.) Controlling these dithering divas is herding cats.

But like a lioness toying with a litter of domesticated pusses, Hannah’s coiled tranquility suggests she might simply stop trying and have them for breakfast instead.


As Swimming Underground all too convincingly conveys, even such personal triumphs only rendered more preciously precarious one’s place in the Warhol universe. Copious amounts of amphetamines were Woronov’s coping strategy of choice. That, in turn, gave her a place amongst the “Mole People” orbiting at hyperspeed around the dark star of “Pope” Ondine (aka Robert Olivo)—a figure of such overpowering destructive charisma that he purportedly became friends with Warhol after throwing the latter out of an orgy. (“He carried chaos around him like a pet,” she memorably writes.)


Eventually even she realized she needed to get out of this tinseled riptide, making sure she did so by collapsing three blocks from her parents’ home. “I was only twenty, but I looked forty,” she later recalled. Perhaps conveniently, Warhol himself soon closed up shop: After crazed Factory exile Valerie Solanas’ bullets nearly took his life in 1968, he drastically reduced the hanger-on coterie and let deputy Paul Morrissey carry on filmmaking without him. (It was Morrissey who made later, more commercially angled Warhol productions such as Trash , Heat and Flesh for Frankenstein .)


Nonetheless, Mary Woronov was now an actress, and intended to stay one. She rained in New York a few years, acting off-Broadway (and winning a Theatre World Award for her sole Broadway appearance, in David Rabe’s 1973 In the Boom Boom Room ), improbably working a whole season on an afternoon TV soap opera (Another World: Somerset, as a villainess of course), and appearing in several indie features. The last and most notable of these was future Oscar winner Oliver Stone’s 1974 directorial debut Seizure , in which she played one of several dinner party guests ritualistically killed over a night’s course by figures sprung from the imagination of their horror-fiction-writing host (Dark Shadows’ Jonathan Frid).


At that point she moved to Los Angeles at the invitation of the late Paul Bartel, a friend who would become her most fruitful collaborator in Hollywood. He cast her as Calamity Jane, a lethal road menace to David Carradine (and a just-pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) in 1975’s Death Race 2000 . She fit very well into the improvisational, none-too-serious, cost-cutting universe of Roger Corman’s 1970s drive-in movies—not so far from Warhol World—eking out a new cult iconography for herself in tailor-made vehicles like the satire Hollywood Boulevard and 1979’s Rock ’n’ Roll High School (as dreaded principal Miss Togar). Meanwhile she also won smaller (but probably better-paying) roles in mainstream films and TV series, not least a notorious women’s-prison-set Charlie’s Angels episode.


Bartel and Woronov had something else in mind, however, and it finally emerged after years of fitful production in 1982. Eating Raoul starred them as Paul and Mary Bland, an anachronistically prim married couple aghast at the pervasive hedonism around them. Their dearest wish is to escape this debauched environ and open a restaurant in the Valley. But that hope is stymied until they hit upon the genius idea of luring and murdering swingers, who always seem to be carrying fat rolls of cash (among other things) in their pants.


A major sleeper hit well before the term “indie” hit the fan, Eating Raoul let Woronov be funny and sexy in a rare sympathetic starring role. Yet despite this success, she and Bartel were still evidently too “edgy” for Hollywood. It took them until 1989 to complete a slicker, somewhat disappointing followup, Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills , and inexplicably funding never came together for the planned Raoul sequel, Bland Ambition . Until Bartel died in 2000, both remained Most Valuable Players in other people’s movies, playing gradually shrinking roles in indie films, and eye-blink ones in mainstream flicks.


Woronov never really retired from acting. But as the offers dwindled, so did her interest. (She noted a few years ago that she had stopped auditioning for parts, figuring that by now filmmakers ought to know from her prior work whether they want her or not.) Her most widely seen role in recent years was a cunningly restrained turn as the lady of the House of the Devil , hiring a babysitter under false pretenses in Ti West’s excellent 2009 retro horror homage.


Her primary outlet these days, however, is painting—decades in front of the camera notwithstanding, it turns out the canvas is her true medium after all. She’s also written, in addition to the aforementioned memoir, three volumes of jagged, eerie fiction (all published by the prestigious Serpent’s Tail imprint). If you’d like to get a taste of both, seek out 1994’s Wake for the Angels , a striking volume of terse fictive miniatures accompanying reproductions of her gorgeous, unsettling, vividly hued images—together creating a unique nightmare vision of Los Angeles life vaguely descended from both Nathaniel West and George Grosz.


Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter.  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for  Variety and  Fandor.

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