I Shot Andy Warhol
Should we begin with the obvious quote from the man himself — that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes? Of course, one of the fastest ways to fame is to shoot someone famous. On June 3, 1968, at the height of Andy Warhol’s fame (some would say infamy), a previously obscure woman named Valerie Solanas shot him at close range three times, nearly killing him. For cultural observers, this and Altamont drew the curtain on the Dionysian bash of the ’60s.
I Shot Andy Warhol, the erratically paced but generally provocative film by Mary Harron, isn’t only about the angry loner Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) — though it does work well as a neutral biography. Harron’s great theme — what makes the movie linger in the mind — is the chasm between reality and artifice, between Solanas’ relentless man-hating and Warhol’s kitschy Pop philosophy, between raw emotion and empty posing.
Solanas was undeniably intelligent, and just as undeniably unhinged. Harron and co-writer Daniel Minahan touch on Solanas’ early life (molestation, prostitution) and then place her in the druggy New York scene of 1966. A hustler and writer of feminist pamphlets (the SCUM Manifesto, which remains essential, hyperbolic reading), Solanas meets drag queen Candy Darling (a striking performance by Stephen Dorff), who is her ticket into the notorious Warhol Factory.
As Jared Harris (son of Richard) plays Warhol, he’s as noncommittal as Solanas is committed. There’s a fine moment when both of them, attending one of Warhol’s freak-out parties, sit on a couch, detached from the excess. Solanas wants Warhol to produce a play she’s written, but it’s too extreme even for him, and he blows her off. Perhaps her worst crime in Warhol’s eyes is that she has no style, by which I mean no kitschiness about herself; Solanas gives off obsessive vibes that mark her as unhip — and, eventually, dangerous.
Lili Taylor is usually a lovable actress — she was a fountain of warmth in Dogfight — and here she plays a consciously antagonistic woman, yet she still conveys warmth. Until she becomes homicidal, Solanas is actually pretty good company — lively and fiercely direct. Taylor plays her with an abrupt, no-nonsense humor that, oddly, weakens the film itself: Anyone this funny and engaging, however extreme her ideas, would have gotten some meaningful attention.
I Shot Andy Warhol gets a little slow and artsy during the Warhol party scenes. (Look again at Midnight Cowboy, whose endless party sequence — featuring actual Warhol hangers-on — is its only major flaw.) Artistically, though, this is defensible because we share Solanas’ boredom with the “scene.” Harron doesn’t condemn it, but she doesn’t glamorize it either.
Andy Warhol tried to redefine art as something trendy and unserious. The bubble of his artifice would burst against the sharp edges of Valerie Solanas, who was as serious as a loaded gun. I Shot Andy Warhol itself straddles the line between serious and unserious. It’s best understood as a twisted Warholian love story: Valerie and Andy, wallflowers at the druggy prom night of the Love Era, a match made in Pop Art hell.