Filmmakers have been dancing around the idea of dealing with Andy Warhol and his world ever since his death. Now that it’s been done, the result, as well as the angle taken on the material, is as unexpected as it is riveting. “I Shot Andy Warhol,” the story of the radical feminist and Warhol fringe figure Valerie Solanas, who seriously wounded the artist in 1968, is an exemplary and dynamic work that goes about as far as a narrative film can in both analyzing a complex personality and portraying a cultural scene. If the Samuel Goldwyn Co. can rouse itself to give the picture the push it deserves, this automatic must-see for sophisticated audiences should travel a good way on the specialized circuit as well as internationally.
The general view of Solanas, who died destitute in 1988, a year later than Warhol, is of a lunatic lesbian acting in revenge for being spurned by the Factory. There is truth to that explanation, but much more to the story as well. As she tells her interrogators after committing the crime, “I have a lot of real involved reasons,” and it takes the entire film to lay them out.
Some bald exposition sketches in Solanas’ early background as an abused child , student hooker and teenage lesbian who, by the time she was in college, was determined to discover a way that women could reproduce exclusively female offspring without male assistance.
By 1966, Solanas (Lili Taylor) is living on Manhattan rooftops and writing her defining work, “The SCUM Manifesto,” a revolutionary tract for her one-member Society for Cutting Up Men. While still turning tricks, she peddles mimeographed copies on the streets, with risible, sharp-witted highlights periodically served up via black-and-white, straight-to-camera recitations by Taylor.
Along the same lines, she pens a subversive play, “Up Your Ass,” which she determines only Andy Warhol (Jared Harris) can produce. Butting in on the invitation of her transvestite friend, eventual Warhol superstar Candy Darling (Stephen Dorff), Solanas manages to get a copy to him, and a particularly imaginative scene intercuts Warhol and his coterie giving it a listless read-through with snippets as performed by some drag queens at Nedick’s restaurant.
At the same time, the always energized, try-anything Solanas makes the acquaintance of Olympia Press boss Maurice Girodias (Lothaire Bluteau), a self-styled aesthete who offers her a contract for a novel.
But this period of promise soon turns sour. Her pushy personality and guerrilla attire don’t jibe with the drugged and zoned-out Factory crowd and its taste for artifice. Warhol tries to placate her with a screen test and one actual film appearance (in “I, a Man”), but soon has Solanas excommunicated from the Factory for her disruptive behavior.
She becomes more enraged when she realizes that Girodias has ripped her off in their deal, and is pushed further over the edge by a burgeoning feminist movement that is emerging without her and by her involvement with a militant radical theater artist. Developing the paranoid fantasy that Girodias and Warhol are conspiring against her, she takes her bloody revenge, telling a cop that Warhol “had too much control over my life.”
Almost from the outset, it is clear that first-time feature director Mary Harron and co-scenarist Daniel Minahan are interested in creating a complex portrait of Solanas that is as lifelike and paradoxical as possible, rather than a document that subscribes to a particular political and theoretical reading of the woman’s life. One particularly successful tack they take is humor, as Solanas’ hit-and-miss abilities as a hustler and self-promoter are viewed with a sort of admiring amusement that often provokes big laughs.
Despite her vicious diatribes against the entire male species, Solanas is portrayed as having a vast range of relationships with them on a one-to-one basis, from contempt for some to initially flattered fascination with Girodias to even a sort-of girlfriend status with the theater radical.
Harron has said that what takes place in the picture is about “95% real,” and a tendency toward scrupulous accuracy tinged with critique pertains to the portrait of the Factory, the tin-foiled studio where Warhol worked with his sycophants and hangers-on. The druggy, gay and gender-bent scene is populated by pretty convincing impersonations of many of its leading members, led by Dorff’s spooky turn as aspiring transsexual Darling.
But the main opposition is between Solanas and Warhol, the first abrasive, loud and confrontational, the other wimpy, mild-mannered and masterfully evasive. Without question, the picture rides on Taylor’s stupendous lead performance, which caps her reputation as first lady of indie cinema. Agitated, vibrant and resourceful, she manages the considerable feat of bringing the viewer close to a character many wouldn’t imagine
they’d want to spend five minutes with, but without going too far in asking for sympathy.
With his puffy, pasty face, open-mouthed gape and thin voice, Harris catches the blank, hard-to-read Warhol beautifully. In another surprising performance, Bluteau is dead-on as the sophisticated publisher, the ultimate in cultivated con men.
All the elements have been brought together to give the production a striking verisimilitude. Ellen Kuras’ lensing luminously combines the broad strokes of the pop-art era with the immediacy of reportage, production designer Therese Deprez and costume designer David Robinson have brought a not-long-ago era fully alive, and Keith Reamer’s editing gives the picture a pulsating urgency. John Cale, a survivor of the Warhol-produced Velvet Underground, contributes an excellent score.