|by Peter Sobczynski
Perhaps the only actress who can claim to have worked with the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Andy Warhol, Oliver Stone, Andy Kaufman and Dick Miller, the star of such cult classics as "Death Race 2000," "Rock 'n Roll High School" and "Eating Raoul" talks about her highly eclectic career.
If you are a fan of the wild and wooly world of cult cinema, then you are no doubt a fan of actress Mary Woronov, whose striking presence and over-the-top performance style has made her an icon to several generations of film buffs. She got her start as part of Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory in the 1960’s, which saw her appearing as a dancer during shows by the Velvet Underground and in several of Warhol’s underground film productions, such as “Chelsea Girls” (1966) and “****” (1967). After leaving the Warhol scene and making a few more films on the east coast--1973’s “Sugar Cookies” and 1974’s “Silent Night, Bloody Night” and “Seizure” (the latter marked the directorial debut of none other than Oliver Stone), she went out to California and hooked up with New World Pictures, the B-movie haven formed in the 1970’s by producer Roger Corman. There, she hooked up with a number of emerging young directors that she would work with repeatedly in the following years--Paul Bartel, Allan Arkush and Joe Dante--and made some of the most beloved films to come out of that studio. First up was Bartel’s “Death Race 2000,” a hilarious black comedy about a cross-country car race in which the drivers got additional points for running over pedestrians in which she played the fearsome Calamity Jane. Next was 1976’s “Hollywood Boulevard,” a hilarious murder mystery/in-joke comedy that was born in part because Dante and Arkush, who were then working in the trailer department at New World, told Corman that if he allowed them to direct a movie, they could make the cheapest movie in the studio’s history (a feat that they pulled off by building the story around tons of footage from earlier New World productions). In 1979, she turned in what would go on to be her most famous performance as the villainous Miss Togar, the rock music-hating principal of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”
Although this particular strand of weirdo low-budget exploitation filmmaking would soon vanish from view (mostly because the major studios decided to start making similar films with larger budgets and better-known actors), Woronov would go on to appear in two more beloved cult classics. In 1982, she reunited with Bartel for “Eating Raoul,” a delightful black comedy in which they played an ultra-straitlaced couple who hit upon a novel method of funding their dream of opening a sophisticated bistro--they lure rich and depraved swingers to their apartment through kinky personal ads and kill them off in novel ways (including a frying pan and a hot tub) before disposing of the bodies in a manner that will make you think twice before ever ordering at Taco Bell again. A couple of years later, she popped up in the low-budget post-apocalyptic favorite “Night of the Comet,” in which she plays a mad scientist who is one of the few survivors, sort of, of a comet that killed most everyone on Earth and who wants to use the blood of a couple of uninfected Valley Girls as a cure for the disease that is ravaging her. After that film, Woronov would continue to act here and there but she began drifting towards painting (she has had several gallery shows, including one this coming July) and writing (she has published three books--the collection “Wake for the Angels: Paintings and Stories,” the novel “Snake” and the acclaimed memoir “Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory”) as well.
This weekend, Woronov comes to Chicago’s beloved Music Box Theatre to introduce screenings of two of her best-known films. On May 9th, she will be appearing with local rock critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot to show and discuss “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” at 9:00 PM. The next day, during this year’s Sci-Fi Spectacular, a marathon of classic genre films organized by local filmmaker Rusty Nails, she will be appearing with “Death Race 2000” as part of a program that also includes screenings of such favorites as “Island of Lost Souls,” “Robocop” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” To promote her appearances, Woronov got on the phone with me a few days ago to discuss her singular contributions to the world of film and why they still hold up so well today.
For more information on the screenings and ticket availability, go to the Music Box website at www.musicboxtheatre.com
Many of the films that you have appeared in over the years have gone on to be cult classics. For you as an actress, what is the appeal of this type of filmmaking that has inspired you to gravitate towards it so often in your career?
Well, that is kind of a complicated story. I never went to acting school. I started in the Theatre of the Ridiculous in New York, which was majorly cult--it was hardly Broadway theater or even off-Broadway. From there, I went to Warhol and he was also not considered real--what he did was considered to be art but he was definitely not considered to be a mainstream moviemaker. That was the beginning of my background and when I came to work with Corman directly from New York, there was a group of people--Paul Bartel was one--who really liked camp acting and that was really who I was, a camp actress. They let me do what I wanted because Corman didn’t care as long as the movie got made. From that, there were several films like “Hollywood Boulevard,” “Death Race 2000” and “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” that were considered to be “cult” and they were the first films I did in Hollywood. I had a fondness for this type of thing--most of the time, the films were low-budget and that was my only complaint--and when people would ask me to do these low-budget and very bizarre movies, I would do them because I liked them. I liked working the kids and doing improvisation from an unstructured script.
Although you have taken part in many different artistic pursuits over the years--painting, dancing, writing and directing--you are obviously best-known today as an actress. What is it about this particular form of artistic expression that satisfies you as a person?
When I came to Hollywood, it was money because that is how I made my living. I didn’t start writing until I was 50. As far as painting, it was something that I had always done but I was never very good at getting galleries or anything like that, so I never really made much money from painting. I supported myself with acting. Later on, when I started writing, I didn’t act anymore because. . .I guess I was getting bored with it. I wasn’t getting great roles--I was doing small roles in big films and big roles in very small films--and I sort of phased it out of my life. Although I just finished a new movie, so it isn’t completely phased out of my life. As far as writing goes, the reason I started doing that at the age of 50 was because I stopped doing drugs and drinking--I stopped everything, including smoking--and I just didn’t know what to do with myself, so I started writing. I still do painting and I am having a show in July.
You started off working in Andy Warhol’s factory at the time that he was making wild experimental films like “The Chelsea Girls.” Much has been writing about this particular period but most of it tends to be over sensationalized gossip. Having seen that period first-hand, what do you feel are the biggest misconceptions of that time that continue to this day?
It is true that he didn’t direct. He didn’t like directing--he was more interested in trapping a person on film. Therefore, they had to do what they wanted to do. There were scripts but they were very loose and we could basically do whatever we wanted. Oddly enough, the films never happened unless Warhol was in the room. He was like a vacuum--he gave you nothing and therefore, your desire to fill it made you want to act out in order to attract his attention. That was the way he worked, rather than telling you exactly what he wanted. He was more interested in what was going on in your head as opposed to any vision that he had but I would say that he got a lot of good performances.
The other thing is that his films were unstructured--he just shot whatever was going on until the film ran out and he didn’t do any cutting or any of the Hollywood things. I know that Hollywood is really rabid with its manipulations and everything but he was very against manipulation. What happens with these films, if you do get a chance to watch them, is that you are very, very bored--they are like Bresson films--and then you begin to get sucked into them and you find that you are watching movies that you have never seen before because they are completely without manipulation. You find your own path in them. Then, when something does happen that is outlandish, it just feels monumental.
After the Warhol period, you did a couple of movies that featured early screen credits from a couple of people who went on to long-running movie careers of their own. One was “Sugar Cookies,” which was an early production of Lloyd Kaufman’s [the future founder of Troma Films] . . .
That is entirely false. Lloyd Kaufman does not own that film. He did not write that film. He was a grip! He wasn’t even a grip--he was a gofer! He had nothing to do with it! You got Lloyd Kaufman’s information because he is passing it off as his own film now because the director, Ted Gershuny, is dead.
The other film was 1974’s “Seizure,” which marked the directorial debut of Oliver Stone who, if I’m not mistaken, also had some vague involvement with “Sugar Cookies” as well.
Actually, he and Lloyd knew each other when they were young--they used to be very good friends. He and Lloyd both had the same position on the film--it was one of their first endeavors and they were just helping along. Oliver was more of a help than Lloyd was and he got his own film together, thanks to his wife, who helped him get financing for it. It was a good film but I don’t think that he was pleased with it and that is why it wasn’t seen for such a long time.
The next film you did, 1974’s “Silent Night, Bloody Night,” is one that has always struck a personal chord with me because when I first encountered it, it was on television late one night and I tuned in just in time for this bizarre sepia-toned nightmare sequence that just completely freaked me out when I first saw it. The rest of the movie isn’t that great but that one sequence is pretty close to sheer genius.
That was another film by Ted Gershuny. He did a film called “Kemek” in Italy that you will never see because it was lost. Then he did “Silent Night, Bloody Night” and then he did “Sugar Cookies.” The film was a horror movie but he made it more than just a horror movie. That creepy scene is a flashback scene where all these lunatics escape from one of the buildings. I used all of the Warhol people in that scene and they are what make it so effective--I asked Ted to use every one of them. The movie was basically a horror movie and Ted didn’t want to do a horror movie--he wanted to do “Citizen Kane.” Instead, he gave it all these weird finesses but nothing happened with it.
At this point, you went out to California and began to work with Roger Corman at New World Pictures. What inspired you to go out there and hook up with them?
Ted Gershuny was my husband for a while and his best friend was Paul Bartel. Paul Bartel went out and did a film with Roger Corman’s brother [1973’s “Private Parts”] and then he was going to do “Death Race 2000.” I told him that I was unhappy in New York and I wanted to do films because what I really wanted to do was paint and with films, you don’t work that hard. I was working on the stage at Lincoln Center but stage work takes so long--you have to rehearse forever--and I didn’t have the time. I asked him and he said “Come on out--once Corman sees your legs, he’ll hire you.” I don’t think Corman ever noticed my legs--he just said “Yeah, sure” and I got the role. That was my first role out there and it was in a race car--I didn’t know how to drive because I was from New York.
You worked with Paul Bartel many times over the years and even though he was one of the more inventive filmmakers to emerge from New World at the time, both he and his work tend to get overlooked these days--partly because of his early and untimely death and partly because he didn’t make as many films as some of his colleagues. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with him over the years that you two worked together?
For one thing, I was not married to him. After “Eating Raoul,” he told everyone that we were married but he was actually gay and I never would have married him. He had the same sensibility that I had. He liked dark humor and camp acting--he was a very good actor and acted in a lot of films. What happened with Corman is that the people who were there at the time directing, the kids, always paired us up because we were very simpatico and finally, Paul said “Everyone is using us. I’m going to write a script and we’ll do our own movie” and that was “Eating Raoul.” It was sort of a success--much later on, it was a big success--but it got him enough money so that he could do his other films and they were not as successful. Finally, he did “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” and used all the same people that he used in “Eating Raoul” in the hopes that it would give the film the same kind of success that “Eating Raoul” had. It didn’t--it was too much like a Hollywood movie. The thing about “Eating Raoul” is that he had no money--he shot for 28 days but it took him a year! He would call me months later and go “You know that scene--we can shoot it now!” He used anything and worked hand-to-mouth and it was a labor of love.
One of the great things about “Eating Raoul” is the fact that even though the plot involves sex and murder and cannibalism, the film still has this disarmingly sweet tone that stands in contrast to the rest of the material.
That sweetness came because Paul and I liked each other. I had just played Miss Togar, who was this reeling bitch, and I was afraid that I would be pushed into that kind of role forever. When “Eating Raoul” came along, I was supposed to be that same kind of angry person and I said no, I wanted to be this sweet person. Besides, I could never be angry with Paul--I really liked him and I was always considerate with him because he was a great person. That is what happened--we became this loving couple but then I thought that people were going to think that I was married to him. From that, I thought that we had to have separate beds and absolutely hate sex--that way, people would buy that we were this loving couple that was strange because we didn’t like sex. I just thought that was great.
One of the things that I have always heard about “Death Race 2000” over the years is that the original version that Paul Bartel turned was longer and contained a lot more comedy that Roger Corman had almost entirely removed on the basis that he supposedly didn’t think that humor and action mixed well together.
It had lots more but Corman hated comedy--he didn’t trust it. He said “They want tits-and-ass and blood-and-guts and they want lots of driving around.” Paul had to sneak the humor in--sometimes he got caught and sometimes he didn’t. It was a constant, constant battle.
Right after “Death Race 2000,” Paul got another movie, a bigger movie called “Cannonball” and Paul hated it. He said, “What is happening to me? I don’t like cars--I hate cars!” I got this stupid role where they had to jiggle the truck I was in because I still couldn’t drive. It was just the worst movie and we both hated.
The next film that you did was “Hollywood Boulevard,” a funny behind-the-scenes look at a low-budget movie studio that marked the directorial debuts of Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, jobs that they got because they supposedly assured Roger Corman that they could make the cheapest film in the history of New World Pictures.
They did. Half of that movie wasn’t filmed because they used outtakes. I would shot my gun and they would cut to a scene of a palm tree with natives falling out of it from another movie. It is a very funny movie. The acting was pretty much “do whatever you want” and everybody pretty much got together. They were using people who weren’t even actors. It just worked because when you have a tiny little film, everybody pitches in.
You are probably most famous for your next film, “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” where you played Miss Togar, a dictatorial high school principal with a vendetta against rock music locked in combat with student Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) for the hearts and minds of the students at Vince Lombardi High. When you saw the script for the first time, did you have any inkling that the role would become so iconic or did it just seem like any other part?
When I read the script, I said to Allan Arkush “I am going to play this role like Eve Arden and they will give me a TV series and I will become rich and then I can paint.” We had this insane makeup woman named Gigi and she would fly around on roller skates and make everybody up. She sort of made me up very bizarrely and I remember when I walked in and saw my students--who were all punk rockers, just the most abysmal kids--instantaneously, because of the way I was made up and the way that they reacted, Miss Togar was born. She is a predator, she doesn’t know what she is doing and she is a sexual deviant and yet, she is this Fifties-minded principal. She is the perfect vision of a tyrant--she loves torture and she has no idea what is really right.
“Rock ’n’ Roll High School” is a perfect example of camp acting and that is one of the reasons that it is really liked. There is really no place in Hollywood for camp acting except for something like Al Pacino in “Scarface,” which is another brilliant piece of work. That is why it is liked--because it is so bizarre.
One of the great things about watching the film today is the realization that there is no way that a similar film could be made in today’s cultural landscape--the idea of students taking over a school and literally blowing it up would just cause too much controversy.
That came straight from Allan’s mind. Allan loved this movie and it was a great one for him. Blowing up a high school--he loved it. He loved rock music--if you go to his house, it is nothing but stacks of records. The Ramones--he couldn’t believe that he got the Ramones because he loved them.
Were you familiar at all with the Ramones before doing the film?
No. I thought they were animals and I kept saying “What is this?” I was familiar with the Velvet Underground--the Ramones were just bizarre to me. After a while, though, you had to love them because they were really funny and just great.
You had a small role in the 1981 comedy “Heartbeeps,” which was both your first film for a major studio and the first and only film to topline the late Andy Kaufman. What memories do you have of this particular project?
Whatever happened to that movie? I never saw it or heard about it again. That was one of my first introductions to big-budget Hollywood movies--now I understand it but at the time, it was like I was in mothballs.
The last cult classic that I wanted to ask you about was the 1984 favorite “Night of the Comet.”
I love that movie. When the bomb drops--go shopping. I have no idea why [director Thom Eberhardt] hired me, but he let me write that scene where I shoot up and die on Christmas. I thought that was funny.
You have done many other films in addition to the ones that I have mentioned during this talk. Of those that we haven’t discussed, are there any personal favorites that you would like to steer fans towards?
There is another movie that I enjoyed working on because it was just ridiculous and I was very campy in it. It was called “Hell Hole” and in it, I run this asylum that has nothing but big-titted girls in sneakers.
You are coming into town to attend screenings of both “Rock ’n’ Roll High School” and “Death Race 2000.” When you go to screenings like these and see your films with audiences who, in many cases, weren’t even born when they first came out in theaters, what is the experience of connecting with this new generation of viewers like for you?
Well, I don’t really connect with them until they start asking me questions, then I usually start connecting with them very well. It doesn’t matter if they are young or old--a movie is a movie. Those movies are good and I love introducing them because they don’t die and they don’t get old. They are so weird that they don’t age.
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originally posted: 05/07/08 13:19:18
last updated: 05/07/08 14:33:13