A Very Nasty Portrait of the Artist
How Factory Girl insults Andy Warhol.
There's a moment about midway through Factory Girl, the latest rehashing of Edie Sedgwick's life and Andy Warhol's career, when the movie suddenly goes from being merely very bad to being truly revolting. The setup is this: Sedgwick, a lovely but very unhappy girl from a wealthy but very unhappy family, comes down to New York from Boston in search of attention and the excitement of art. She finds both in Warhol's studio: Andy has started making films; Edie is both photogenic and game. He turns her into an underground star, and she, in turn, finds a place in Warhol's coterie of drag queens, drug addicts, gay men, hustlers, fashion mavens, socialites, and assorted hangers-on. So far, so good: All of this is true enough, as Hollywood movies go, anyway.
Then she meets … well, it's a little hard to say who, exactly, she meets. The character is obviously meant to be Bob Dylan, with whom Sedgwick apparently did have some kind of brief affair, but Dylan threatened to sue the filmmakers, and the character is given a ludicrous pseudonym: "the Musician."
In the movie, the Musician is everything that Warhol is not: a good, red-blooded American boy, heterosexual, motorcycle-riding, and what's more, a poet—no, a prophet—and a paragon of anti-materialism and truth-telling. In short, he's an insufferable prig, a smug and arrogant philistine, and it's no wonder Dylan disavowed him vehemently.
Edie, on the other hand, seems to fall in love with him and so, alas, do the filmmakers, who concoct a brief and improbable moment of wholesomeness for the two of them. They ride the Musician's motorcycle upstate; he ditches it in a lake to show how little he cares for the toys his wealth has brought him; they talk about her childhood; they make love, in front of a fireplace, no less; and then Edie goes horseback riding.
All of this would be silly enough; what makes it disgusting is a brief cutaway, lasting about nine seconds, showing Warhol sitting all alone in his vast, cold studio, rapturously watching a film of Sedgwick that he's projecting on the wall. The movie cuts back to Sedgwick and the Musician romping, and I realized at once that I wasn't watching a film about Andy and Edie at all; I was watching an allegory of the Evil Fag, who battles with the Good Man for the soul of the Lost Girl. The Evil Fag, you see, is simply a failed heterosexual, frustrated and rancorous; the Lost Girl is well-meaning but confused; and the Good Man does his best to set her straight.
In Factory Girl, it all comes to a showdown. The Musician shows up at Warhol's factory for a screen test. Warhol coos and does his best to be accommodating; the Musician says things like, "No, man, don't sweat it," and then makes fun of Warhol's work. And so on: It all goes very badly. At one point, the Musician tries to pass a joint to Warhol, who didn't do drugs and who therefore demurs. "Do you smoke, man, or do just that faggy speed shit?" he asks, managing in one short sentence to sum up the film's loathsome combination of sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy, and bigotry. Luckily, one of Warhol's cronies immediately replies, "Just the faggy speed shit"—the only line in the movie that made me smile. As Dave Hickey once said, in a not dissimilar context, I'll take the real fake over the fake real any day.
Finally, the Musician walks out, with Edie following in tears. "What the hell was that?" she asks. "He's my friend."
"Baby, your friend is a bloodsucker," the Musician answers, though I suspect "cocksucker" was the word he was looking for.
It's all downhill from there. Edie makes the mistake of going back to Andy, but soon she's been passed over for the next Factory Superstar, and then she does a lot of drugs, moves to California, gets clean, and then suddenly ODs and dies, and let that be a lesson to you: The Evil Fag destroys women. The last we hear from the Musician, he's instructing his manager to help Edie out with some cash. The last thing Warhol says is "I never really knew her," and if you think that makes him sound like Judas, you're getting the idea.
Watching FactoryGirl is like sitting through some risible remake of Laura, the great '40s noir that brought Clifton Webb, in the role of Waldo Lydecker, hissing and drawling opposite Gene Tierney, until she's rescued by Dana Andrews. The difference, of course, is that 1944 is not 2007; that Webb attacks his role with such energy and élan that one can't help but root for him; and that Lydecker is not, after all, a real person.
I should be pointing out that Warhol was a great artist and a great filmmaker, that he made paintings and movies the likes of which no one had ever seen before—and so he did, though you'd never know it from Factory Girl. I should be telling you that he was also, and not surprisingly, an exceedingly complicated man, that Edie, for all her winsomeness and beauty, was a suicide looking for an excuse, and that Dylan was such a minor character in that scene that it's bewildering to find him in this movie at all, and preposterous to portray him as Warhol's tormentor. I should be reminding you that the times were, by all accounts, hectic if not hysterical, and that Sedgwick was not the only one who paid the price. Warhol was shot, almost to death, by one of his more unstable hangers-on, but you wouldn't know that from watching the movie, either.
But I want to say something else, instead. The visual arts have traditionally been a refuge for marginal people: queers and misfits, fragile and disobedient people, the flamboyant and the terminally shy, some brilliant people, some shallow people, and quite a few con artists; and Warhol's Factory was open to all of them. There's a great deal more to art than that, of course; there's hard work and scholarship and as much to think about as there is in poetry or novels or philosophy. But many of us first came to the art world because decades earlier Warhol had made it seem like a wonderful place to be, and besides that, a home. So Factory Girl isn't just a bad movie, it's a 90-minute insult to the culture it pretends to be capturing, and what I really want to say—as I would almost never say of anything I see or read or listen to—is that I hated it.
Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.
Still of Guy Pearce as Andy Warhol in Factory Girl copyright the Weinstein Company. All rights reserved. Photograph of Andy Warhol by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.