"An Evening With Holly Woodlawn" in NYC
Cult film director Paul Morrissey cast Holly Woodlawn in the stark drug- and sex-themed drama "Trash" (sometimes called "Andy Warhol's 'Trash'") in 1970. It was Ms. Woodlawn's first film. "Trash" received a respectable amount of attention and success in the United States among cinemaphiles and critics. It received even more success in some European countries-- especially Germany, where "Trash" became the second highest grossing film in 1971 after "Easy Rider". Director George Cukor ("Born Yesterday", "My Fair Lady") famously instigated a write-in campaign to have Woodlawn nominated for an Academy Award. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Woodlawn's talent promised to propel her celebrity further than many of her colorful peers in that legendary cult of personalities at The Factory. She would turn out to be underused in the cinema in the next few decades. However, Holly Woodlawn's unique persona and life story-- which often overshadowed her talent-- is assuredly something that no other performer past or present could ever own. In her long career, the star has acted in several independent films, but has more often appeared as herself in documentaries, where she speaks about those heady and hedonistic days of New York City in the 60's and 70's. We've come a long way from the time when viewing underground films like "Heat" or "Flesh" in a theater was an event you'd attend to be "seen" (usually by other Superstar wannabe's also waiting to be "seen"...). Yet, thanks to home video, we can still visit a New York City where we recognize the landmarks and street signs, but which culturally seems like a completely different planet as we approach 2015. For lovers of cinema or New York City history, it's often a titillating experience.
Both cinema aficionados and lovers of New York City history had plenty to be titillated about on Saturday, September 13th, when the week-long "GENDERFLUID: Festival of Transformative Arts" at Baruch Performing Arts Center wrapped up in a big way with "An Evening With Holly Woodlawn". The evening was a little bit of everything: some storytelling, some music, and even some cinema, when a montage of Holly's most eye-popping moments on the big screen was shown. Throughout the evening, the sometimes fragile but always funny self-proclaimed "Puerto Rican Jewess" told stories about her friendships with such fellow icons as Divine and Lee Black Childes. She sang two songs, one of which was a campy over-the-top lost gem called "Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love" from the musical "Be Yourself" ("The coffee is steaming, Oh boy what I'm dreaming; While I'm cooking breakfast, For the one I love!"). It was every bit as kitschy as you're imagining. Paul Morrissey himslef was in attendance to speak about Holly, calling her persona "extraordinary" and praising her acting: "She was better than I ever could have imagined!" Culture vulture/writer Michael Musto moderated an audience Q&A with the star. Musto and Woodlawn have a history together: Michael co-starred with Holly back in the '80's in a play called "The Sound of Muzak". (That play featured lines like "Shut your Van Trapp!" and song lyrics like "Cocaine that stays on my nose and false lashes".) Musto's photo appears in Woodlawn's autobiography "A Low Life in High Heels". When talking about that book, Musto shared how Woodlawn sent out letters to everyone asking, "Do you remember my life? Because I don't!" Madonna, interestingly, had once optioned the book for a movie version and wanted to star as late Warhol Superstar Candy Darling.
Holly spoke about her unorthodox yet fascinating career, starting at the beginning. She told the audience, "I never wanted to be an actress!" Being in her 20's, she just wanted to hang out with cool people. Indeed, she soon found herself hanging out with some VERY cool people: Holly remembered being on the set of "Trash" with Morrissey, lighting man Jed Johnson, and hunky actor Joe D'Allessandro, who played her sexy but impotent boyfriend. When her "boyfriend" in the movie rejected her, a beer bottle became Holly's co-star for a deliciously demented scene of auto-erotica. Woodlawn praised Morrissey as being the best director ever-- because there was no script, and therefore "no memorizing!" Woodlawn missed the premiere of "Trash" because she was in jail. That story is in her book, but there was even more that the audience that night learned about that now-infamous incident! Woodlawn's follow-up feature film was Morrissey's "Women in Revolt" (AKA "Andy Warhol's Women"), which also starred Candy Darling and another late Superstar, Jackie Curtis.
On the subject of how she "identifies" herself, Holly Woodlawn has always been-- well, let's say "Holly Woodlawn-esque". In the late 1970’s, talk show host Geraldo Rivera interviewed Holly on TV and asked her: “What are you? Are you a woman trapped in a man’s body? A transvestite? A transsexual?” Holly famously replied, “But darling, what difference does it make, as long as you look FAB-ULOUS?” No doubt asking the question that everyone wanted to know the answer to, Musto asked Holly a variation of the same question Geraldo asked decades earlier. Woodlawn answered, "I do not consider myself a transvestite, transport, transistor, transformer... I have taken enough subways!" She added, "I am who I am, and I will always be this person!" Musto also asked Holly if, as a comedienne, she could be as funny without all her colorful trappings like her wig, makeup, and sequined wardrobe. Her response was to ask the audience "Are you ready?!" before pulling off her blonde wig. Never missing an opp for a pop culture zinger, Musto responded with, "I'd like to see Barbara Walters do that!"
Based upon the audience's enthusiasm, it's clear that Holly Woodlawn has found her place in the crazy world of celebrity as an envied raconteur. If there's any doubt about that, I leave you with one of her best anecdotes from the evening, which drove the audience into wild applause.
"I just moved to a new apartment. The entire wall is mirrored. Well, the first day, I got up and looked and went 'Agggghhhhh!'... The shreik of life! Then it was, 'I'm 67. Hmmm.... Ehhhh?!'... Then it was 'Just go to the bathroom, wash your face, come out, and... JUST DEAL WITH IT! This is who you are! Be proud... and happy... and dammit, be GOOD!'" Now, that's Superstar advice for all of us!
(Holly Woodlawn with the author)