Mary, Mary, quite contrary – and often brilliant

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The one and only Mary Woronov is a novelist, a memoirist, and the kind of movie star who is too sexy, too campy, and much too smart for contemporary Hollywood (Rob Zombie excepted).

Woronov is coming to town this weekend for Midnight Mass and a screening of the great, underrated Death Race 2000. I recently spoke with her, and she had sharp and funny things to say about loving Playhouse of the Ridiculous, hating Warhol, loving and hating Picasso, despising the Bush era, and channeling Joan Crawford.

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Guardian: Were the other Warhol superstars afraid of you and Ondine?
Mary Woronov: People were very intimidated by Ondine. People were mystified by me, not intimidated. For one thing, I didn’t have sex. For another, I acted like a guy, merely as a counterbalance to the transvestites and the female energy that was there. I was not one of the girls who wanted to be a star, I was a really good actress. I did theater and I ‘got’ the theater world, so I was different from the desperation of the other girls who thought Warhol was somehow going to make them a star. That’s what he was selling, fame for 24 hours. That was not my plan, and I never got hooked.

G: Some of the people you did theater work with at that time are just as interesting, but Warhol is all most people want to talk about.
MW: I know. I wrote a book [Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory] that answers all the questions I don’t want to hear anymore. Also, now my opinion of Warhol has totally changed.

G: It has?
MW: Well, yeah, I hate his art. Whereas I thought it was the cat’s meow then.
It sort of opened the door to commercialism and I hate it for that.

G: You were in Chelsea Girls with Rene Ricard – did you know him and are you interested in his writing? Also, John Wieners got a Screen Test. Did you see that one, or encounter him?
MW: I paid no attention to anyone who was writing, and I had no idea they were writing at the time. The only thing I wrote were wrapping papers, which is sort of a journal that you keep when no one wants to talk to you and you’re high on amphetamines.
I never thought I would be a writer. I didn’t start writing until I was 50. It’s too bad -- there were a lot of people [at the Factory] who were writers [then] but they did not influence me in the least. I probably didn’t talk to them.

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G: What do you think of the tons of writing about Warhol and that era? Has anyone gotten it right, and who has gotten it egregiously wrong? How did you want your memoir to be in relation to the many books?
MW: Lou Reed said I got the atmosphere right the best of anyone. The problem with people who write about Warhol is that they tell you everything Warhol did and they don’t mention the atmosphere, the strangeness that he collected around him, which was really a bank of knowledge.
They mention all the stars and what he did everyday, which is really kind of boring. Those books are chock full of boredom; they’re very difficult to read.

G: They’re list-y, and they’re often compiled by people who weren’t there.
MW: Well, they can’t imagine the atmosphere and therefore they can’t describe it.
When I say atmosphere I mean people around him and the rules and regulations around him. The Factory changed enormously when it went downtown. The one uptown was a very bizarre place, and the one downtown was very corporate.

G: It’s great to see both you and Ronald Tavel in the new Jack Smith documentary.
MW: I was working with Tavel during Warhol, and after. I was in the Playhouse of the Ridiculous with John Vaccaro, who was a brilliant director. I was doing something else [than the Warhol films], and Ondine followed me.

G: Can you tell me a little bit about working with people like Tavel and Vaccaro?
MW: It was the most incredible thing that ever happened to me. They were very gay, at a time when gayness was not around. Their sensibility was extremely feminine, extremely bizarre. They were after a development of camp to its highest level, where you accept the most strange and bizarre things and are entertained by them.
It’s not the camp of the Cockettes, or something like that. And all of it -- that atmosphere and those plays -- was torn apart and never recorded.
They had a theater where the most famous people in New York and the lowest people would come and see us. It was this weird mix. No one knew when our plays were going on -- sometimes no one would come, and sometimes they were crowded.
People like Ronnie Tavel are never, never recognized.

G: He’s a great writer. Some of the best writing about that era that I’ve read is an essay [“The Banana Diary,” in Andy Warhol Film Factory] by him.
MW: Ronnie was brilliant. And more brilliant than Ronnie was Vacarro. Charles Ludlam was not very brilliant.

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G: Did you encounter the whole Caffe Cino scene?
MW: It was great. They put on shows that were even more bizarre than Vacarro’s. These shows were insane. They put on Scrooge with Ondine as Scrooge. I did a takeoff on A Clockwork Orange with Gerard [Malanga] at Caffe Cino. It was totally gay. It was like a gay club, but they didn’t have sex – instead, they watched plays.

G: There’s a book [The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan] that talks about Caffe Cino.
MW: The guy who ran it, Joe Cino, I vaguely remember. He took something like a knife and opened up his body to kill himself.

G: Can you tell me what inspired you to start writing?
MW: I got an illness that was merely an infection but they [doctors] all told me it was cancer. I had an operation and they couldn’t find any cancer. When I came out of the operation I had stopped smoking and stopped taking drugs.
I was very close to death. When I came out [from the operation], I went to an acupuncturist and became very clean. What happened then was my brain started working. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I started writing. I had anesthetized my self until I was 50, with drugs, and liquor. I couldn’t stand life.
At 50, I guess things had calmed down enough that I just woke up – like out of a coma. I started writing, and I haven’t stopped.

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G: How have your books been different in terms of writing experience? Did you find writing the memoir helped with fiction or vice versa?
MW: I wrote Swimming Underground because I thought it would make me famous. To my disappointment, I got a review in the New York Times that said I was too busy crawling around the bathroom floor to say anything real about Warhol.
It wasn’t really about Warhol, anyway. And by that time I knew I could write. Then I started writing novels.

G: How did your connection with High Risk and Serpent’s Tail come about?
MW: [Publisher] Amy Scholder – she found me. They are a very good press; I can write what I like, and they don’t hound me.

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G: What are some of you favorite books?
MW: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is one of my favorites. I’m much better at naming artists.

G: Who in that realm then?
MW: Guston – Philip Guston. [Max] Beckmann. [Francis] Bacon. Some of the symbolists.
I like Picasso too, but you know -- I also hate him.

G: Moving on to movies, Death Race 2000 seems waaaaay ahead of its time in the way it shows TV as a fascist spectacle.
MW: It is.

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G: What was it like playing Calamity Jane and making the movie? Did you discuss ideas with Paul Bartel?
MW: Not for that movie, but definitely once we found out we worked so well together. During Eating Raoul and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School everyone listened to me when I expressed ideas. Later on, I expressed ideas and nobody would listen, but in this group, it was like a family, with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante. We were all with [Roger] Corman and they trusted me and let me do what I want.
Certainly in Rock 'n' Roll High School what I did was bizarre. And in Eating Raoul, I had a lot of say, and it was also bizarre. I truly was a great camp actress. Hollywood doesn’t have much room for camp anymore.

G: It doesn’t have room for acting!
MW: I know. But that’s my forte. I also like improv.

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G: Well, with Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, who were you channeling in the creation of that character?
MW: I dressed like an aberration of Joan Crawford. It’s ridiculous -- everyone else is in modern-day dress and I look like I’m from the ‘30s. It was a very gay choice – Playhouse of the Ridiculous again.
The thing about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is that, you know, she’s [Miss Togar’s] a fucking pervert. She has a sexual problem. What makes it wonderful is I don’t play a pervert, I play someone commenting on perversion – just like a transvestite plays someone commenting on female-ism.
You get this weird idea of me, and it was perfect, because these kids weren’t really kids, they were punk rockers. It worked. They were changing from good little children into punk rock hellions and I was corporate industry going completely askew, and I was defeated. I knew exactly that I was the enemy and that my battle was useless and should look useless – it should look ridiculous.

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G: I love your performance in Eating Raoul because it allows you to really show your sexy side.
MW: Which I never got to show otherwise – I’m sort of sexy, but not really, in Death Race [2000].
In Eating Raoul I was sexy and knew I was sexy, but there was still a dichotomy of gender slippage. I was still denying and yet showing it -- like an underslip. And there’s a sweetness too, I have a naïve sweetness, especially when I act with Paul [Bartel].

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G: It seems like you are also tapping into screwball comedy.
MW: When I started to do Rock ‘n’ Roll High School I told Allan Arkush I really wanted to do the teacher because I wanted to be the modern Miss Brooks from Our Miss Brooks. I thought I would do this movie and get a series on TV. The minute I came on the set, and went through the costumes with the costume girl, they let me pick whatever I wanted. I became more and more absurd!

G: You have ties to Joe Dante, and he just made this movie that sounds great – it’s a zombie movie that’s a harsh comment on the Bush administration.
MW: Oh, fabulous! Wonderful.

G: What do you think of movies these days? What was Devil’s Rejects like as an experience?
MW: The main reason why I did Devil’s Rejects is because I like White Zombie. The other reason why I did Devil’s Rejects is because unlike the movie industry, this man [Rob Zombie] said, “I would like you to do my movie.” I said, “I don’t feel like interviewing, and I want this amount of money,” and he said, “Fine.” He’s the only person in my life who’s ever done that. And when they [the studio] tried to screw me out of some money, he said no. He was great to work with, he was very professional, and his girlfriend is really sweet. I loved working with him.

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G: You’ve done so much creative work. I wonder if the TV shows you’ve done feel strange in comparison.
MW: TV when I Love Lucy was on must have been fabulous. I hate TV now. I hate doing it. They’re crazy.
Movies like Rob Zombie’s are great. Movies like Corman’s are fabulous. Other Hollywood movies [are made by] out-of-their-minds control freaks. The air is lifeless. Maybe it’s because I’m a different kind of actress, I don’t know.
What’s around now is really bad. I don’t even act anymore – are you joking?

G: But you’ve done a lot of roles that have survived, and been in a handful of classics, even if they are –
MW: Bizarre?

G: Yes. But a movie like Death Race 2000 still has life today.
MW: A lot of those [Roger] Corman movies do. It’s strange.

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G: Did you remain in touch with Corman over time?
MW: No. Roger is like Howard Hughes to me. He’s someone I like, but I’ve never been in touch with him. The longest I ever talked with him was to do the commentary for Death Race 2000. Roger has old-fashioned manners, and he’s very accommodating, but you get the feeling you don’t know him. He’s not a quick read for me. Julie [his wife], on the other hand, I’m very natural with – she’s neat, I like her.

G: Creatively, what are you focusing on these days?
MW: I’m definitely a really great writer. I don’t know about my painting, and I have never been able to crack the art world because it’s mainly conceptual here [L.A.] and I am not a conceptual painter. It’s just the king’s new clothes – it’s stupefying. You can’t tell me that these people like what they’re buying -- it’s junk!

G: Fluxus did great things once upon a time, but now --
MW: Now it’s like academia has taken over. If you understand a certain thing, then it can look as ugly or stupid as you want it to look – well, no! Wrong.

G: Is living in L.A. alienating?
MW: It is -- that’s why I’m a good writer! [Laughs] For writing, you cannot beat Los Angeles, it’s such a peculiar place. It’s like a swamp. It’s just so strange. And yet, it’s really pretty, too.

G: Do you travel much these days?
MW: I travel to Europe, and to Japan – my brother lives in Japan. I used to travel all the time to Florida because I was born there, and I still go to New York.

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G: Do you have a current writing project?
MW: I just finished a book, it’s called What Really Happened. It’s fiction and it’s about how history is fiction -- you don’t know what really happened, everybody has a different idea. It’s also about a girl who doesn’t understand her past, or her mother, or anything. She doesn’t want to try to understand – but it follows her around. She can’t stop it from breaking in on her.

G: What do you think of the country we’re living in today?
MW: I’m just waking up to the fact that we’re the greatest polluter, we have the most corrupt government, we have the biggest weapons of mass destruction. It’s insane. We have conducted the most wars since World War II! I have been living here under the feeling that we’re democratic. It’s insanity!
You know, people hate us. They really hate us. They know who we are – and I don’t? It’s bizarre.
The media has completely lulled us into nothingness. People can be told that their pensions will be taken away but the head of the corporation will increase his own pension two million dollars. And they don’t do anything? They don’t riot? They just go, “O. K.” What happened to us?
When I look at Al Gore’s movie I think, “Oh great, I have 10 more years.”

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G: It’ll be interesting – we’re going to see people’s true colors.
MW: Everybody I know is moving to Europe, or talking about moving but not moving. I have decided I’m not going to move. I really want to stay here and wait for the revolution. I do believe there will be one.

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