Frameline 2009: Little Joe reveals the real Joe Dallesandro. Plus: a special appreciation
If you've seen Flesh (1968) or Trash (1970) or Heat (1972), there's a good chance you'd like to spend an hour alone with Joe Dallesandro. Let's face it — that's probably not going to happen anytime soon, so you may have to settle for something a bit less private. As substitutes go, Little Joe is a nice alternative: no, you can't talk to (or touch) Dallesandro directly, but the experience is certainly intimate.
Little Joe just isn't your standard documentary. Forget the talking heads or — horror of all horrors — reenactments. This is Joe on Joe: 90 minutes of the Warhol superstar reflecting on his accidental fame and everything that came after. It's a fascinating story, even without the cinematic embellishments. Of course, it helps that Dallesandro himself does all the talking. For one thing, he's undoubtedly the best authority on his life. For another, he's not bad to look at, even pushing 60.
The film was conceived and produced by Vedra Mehagian Dallesandro, Joe's daughter, and Nicole Haeusser, who also directed. Speaking about their unusual approach, both agree that the close, conversational style gives a better sense of the subject than other films might be able to do.
"Our original goal was to make a great documentary on Joe, because many have tried," Vedra Dallesandro explains. "And we're very intimate and connected to him. That's the reason he did this for us."
But, as Haeusser elaborates, the filmmakers' decision to do the film as a one-on-one with Dallesando wasn't appealing to potential producers, who sought a more conventional documentary technique.
"When Vedra tried to get financing, they were all worried about the third act," she says. "They were worried that Joe was still alive and wanted to wait for him to die, basically. So Vedra and I were talking, and I was like, 'Well, we don't need money. We can just do it ourselves.'"
The decision turned out to be a happy accident: Little Joe's biggest strength is its almost amateur quality. Which is not to say that the film feels lacking — it's just an intentionally limited production. There are no experts over-explaining Dallesandro's overnight success (he was hot) or later substance abuse (it was readily available). Nor are there any TMZ-esque voiceovers highlighting the more illicit aspects of his career. And who needs 'em? The clips of Dallesandro strutting nude through, well, all of his early films speak for themselves.
Of course, the point of all the real talk with Dallesandro is to show that he's more than just a sex object — and the message definitely comes across. He is, as he puts it, smarter than people give him credit for.
"A lot of times you hear people talk about him like he's a piece of meat," Haeusser says. "And he's a very spiritual person."
I don't know if that's quite the impression I got, but Little Joe does flesh out Dallesandro (pun fully intended) more than frequent collaborator Paul Morrissey ever did. Dallesandro's early career was about his appearance: the muscles, the hair, the manparts. And that's all well and good, but no one wants to be defined solely by how good they look naked. This documentary is the ideal vehicle for Dallesandro to prove, as the saying goes, that he's more than just a pretty face.
Still, there's no denying Little Joe's eye candy status. To its credit, the film never shies away from that. No one appears embarrassed or regretful about the past, and why should they?
"Who he is, is who he is," Vedra Dallesandro offers. "I think it's amazing." Amazing may sound like a stretch, but consider the life of a sex symbol. It takes courage to bare it all — and it takes star quality to turn that into a career. (Louis Peitzman)
Sat/20, 4:15 p.m., Castro ------------
ODE TO JOE: A FIRST-PERSON TESTIMONY TO STARDOM OF DALLESANDRO
"Don't do this to me and leave me, Joe!" So rasps Sylvia Miles as Joe Dallesandro dutifully pleasures her missionary-style in a scene from Andy Warhol's Heat (1972). When it comes to mid-coital dirty talk, could any line possibly be more comically terrible? Miles' character is Sally Todd, a past-prime actress with a Beverly Hills mansion whose "game show money" doesn't keep her in hairspray. Dallesandro is Joey Davis, an ex-child star terminally on the make in an attempt to revive his marooned career. But really, anyone who enjoys Heat — and I'll come right out and say it's my favorite movie, ever — is enjoying the people behind the characters.
A key reward of the Warhol movies that star Joe Dallesandro is that he doesn't just do it to us and leave us — his signature brand of candid male sexuality, something entirely new in American cinema when it arrived, is still available to us today. "Little Joe" brought before the camera the fantasies that biographers and gossip tattle-tales entertained about James Dean and Marlon Brando, and his naturalism helped pave the way for Robert DeNiro's and Al Pacino's brands of Italian-American charisma and machismo, even if he wasn't theatrically trained. Yes, Dallesandro was usually stoic-to-stony, scarcely reacting to the hijinx of the myriad feminine characters with whom Paul Morrissey and Warhol paired him. But he knew enough to realize that he didn't have to do much, which is more than most actors learn in a lifetime.
Joe Dallesandro played a key role for me in terms of knowing I was attracted to men, and I can hardly be alone in that experience. When I first saw him, it was only a portion of his body — his sculpted chest and abdomen, tinted a plum color on the cover of the Smiths' self-titled 1985 debut album. This image was too oblique to be lust at first sight, but still images of Dallesandro from Flesh (1968) in Parker Tyler's book Underground Film and Stephen Koch's Warhol cinema survey Stargazer resolved any lingering issues or teenage doubts. The treat in discovering the movies behind these images was that Dallesandro's unapologetically naked good looks were simply the hook on which Warhol, and especially director Morrissey, hooked a fantastic crew of eccentrics.
Little Joe, Nicole Hauesser's new feature-length biographical portrait of Dallesandro, has as much in common with That Man: Peter Berlin (2005) as it does the legion of documentaries about Warhol superstars. Like the Berlin movie, it fascinates as a study of an icon of masculine glamour, though Dallesandro isn't as narcissistic (who could be) or as detached and cerebral. Hauesser skims over the coded symbols of Dallesandro's physique model days, and I wish she'd had Dallesandro sound off more about dearly-departed costars such as the amazing Andrea Feldman.
But Little Joe's story can't help but be dramatic. Who knew Dallesandro had an ill-fated handsome brother — shades of Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorléac — or that the love of his life was Suspiria (1976) star Stefania Casini? Still handsome today, Dallesandro addresses the camera with a directness missing from his Warhol performances, wrestling uncomfortably with his manipulation by Morrissey, and reminiscing with little sentiment about latter-era Warhol films such as Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), which includes his best and most hilarious performances — as a Marxist servant with a Brooklyn accent in medieval Europe.
"Have you even lived to know what beautiful is?" Lydia (Pat Ast) asks a male stripper jealous of Joe's good looks during a sunny afternoon scene from Heat. As Joe descends down some stairs for an underwater swim across the length of a pool, she answers her own question: "You're just a spoiled brat, living the life of Riley." Watching Joe Dallesandro in Flesh, in Trash (1970), and most of all, in Heat, we're all spoiled brats living the life of Riley. (Johnny Ray Huston)