There are a handful of historical moments I’d give anything to experience firsthand. Sipping absinthe with Degas and Manet in 1860s Paris would be fun, and I’d love to visit late 1970s Madrid and perform drag-punk with Almodóvar, but my top choice would have to be Andy Warhol’s original Factory, circa ‘63 to ‘68, when the creativity flowed as freely as the drugs and sex, and personal identity was something you made up anew upon waking each day. I spent much of my late teens and early 20s obsessed with that world, reading the Philosophy, the Diaries, the dishy biting-the-hand-that-fed-them memoirs by Bob Colacello and Ultra Violet, and David Bourdon’s authoritative monograph, to say nothing of the 30 miles I drove to the underground video store to rent Flesh and Trash and Dracula. I was more or less equally entranced by the artistic invention, the hedonism, and the romantic dissolution of Warhol and his Superstars, and I fantasized that perhaps I could be part of an equivalent scene 30 years on. Sadly, it was not to be; Manhattan rents were by then far too high for unbridled hedonism and quasi-employment to be an option, and our culture will probably never again produce a figure with Warhol’s sphinx-like, passive-aggressive allure.
I mention all this by way of explaining that it’s impossible for me to approach a film depicting that world with anything like objectivity; give me some ambisexual, half-naked kids writhing on the floor; a white-wigged actor murmuring, “Gee, that’s great …”; and a soundtrack full of jangly guitars and psychedelic flourishes, and I can’t help succumbing to the vicarious thrill of the lifestyle that I was born three decades too late to experience. And for all its faults, George Hickenlooper’s Factory Girl does succeed in that respect; its depiction of the Factory is just what Warhol junkies want to see: spoiled, careless young people overindulging their appetites in an orgy of excess. That’s both the strength and the weakness of what Hickenlooper and his scenarists — Simon Monjack, Aaron Richard Golub, and a fellow calling himself “Captain Mauzner” — have done here: They’re good at fulfilling our expectations of druggy glamour and easy sex, but they never veer beyond the obvious. Take, for instance, the film’s predictable visual style — the tipsy handheld camera, the alternating of black-and-white with oversaturated color, the combination of blurry Super 8 and grainy 16mm film with high-contrast video — the standard method for recreating the druggy ’60s, partly derived, in fact, from Warhol’s own deliberately low-fi filmmaking technique.
Hickenlooper points up the irony — certainly not lost on Warhol — of the Slovakian coal miner’s son from Pittsburgh who reigned over so many spoiled scions of wealth, and his Warhol, the underappreciated Australian actor Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento), is spot-on — pallid, effete, perversely childlike, and dangerously appealing. With his powder-white face, pocked cheeks, and red-rimmed eyes, Warhol is no one’s idea of male beauty, yet Pearce captures his particular magnetism, the blank-slate quality that allowed everyone imagine his own Warhol, making him such a compelling figure that we buy into his allure, we believe that he could charm the rich young birds down from their Park Avenue perches.
One of the richest and most beautiful of this flock (though her eminently Waspy family was based out west) was the heiress and sometime fashion model Edie Sedgwick, played here by Sienna Miller (Alfie, Casanova). The film’s action is all seen in flashback, as she recounts her life story to a therapist at a Santa Barbara hospital in 1970, a year before she died of a drug overdose at the age of 28.
Bored with Harvard, Edie, who draws delicate, lifelike sketches of animals, especially horses, moves to New York in 1964, intending to become an artist herself, but she’s soon sucked into Warhol’s gravitational pull. Part of his initial appeal to her, it appears, is that on some level he reminds her of her gay brother Minty, who had killed himself a year or two earlier, a victim of their tyrannical, abusive father and docile, useless mother. The classic poor little rich girl, Edie’s psychology is a complex mess of survivor’s guilt, the Electra complex, and simply being young, beautiful, and lost. For his part, Warhol adores Edie, drawn in by her beauty, her pedigree, and her free spirit. He casts her in a few of his underground movies, and before long he’s taking her to Paris and calling press conferences announcing that he’s giving up painting to focus on making films and making Edie a Superstar (it was he who coined the term).
Edie is a troubled girl in a minefield of temptations, so naturally it isn’t long before she succumbs — it starts with Brigid Polk (Tara Summers) shooting Edie up with speed and vitamin B, and the next thing you know she’s hooked, and then moving on to more dangerous stuff. The movie goes through the expected stations of the addict’s cross — the introduction to hard drugs, the near-fatal accident (in this case a housefire), the trading of sex for a fix, the humiliating public outburst, the eventual isolation, etc. — but it never feels entirely rote, though one’s attention does tend to wane as it becomes clear that Hickenlooper has moved on from the interesting historical material to focus on merely filling in the genre’s blueprint.
Miller plays Edie as a gentle child-woman who loves horses and giggles constantly, with a voice that bubbles up from her throat like smoke through a bong. This is her first real lead and a role she was eager to secure, and she gives it her all, balking neither at the nudity (which has been her stock-in-trade in the past anyway) nor the scenes of histrionic humiliation. Indeed, if anything, she gives the role too much — Edie seems intended to be fragile and capricious, a will o’ the wisp too easily influenced by stronger personalities around her, but Miller is too solid and earthbound for us to buy it. Her giggly, helpless schoolgirl act comes off as a façade designed to disguise the tough-as-nails broad beneath, and her gradual descent into increasingly harder drugs and more intensely self-destructive behavior seems a bad choice, all things considered, but a choice just the same: Miller never truly seems as if she isn’t in control.
Warhol initially is portrayed as a benign, if somewhat creepy, messiah of cool, but the film gradually recasts him as a vampire feeding off the youth and beauty of those surrounding him. Edie blames Warhol for her descent into addiction, but she was part of the Factory scene for only about a year, and she, like several others in her family, had already spent time in and out of mental institutions, so it seems likely that she’d have self-destructed anyway, as her brothers Bobby and Minty did. Warhol is never shown either encouraging or discouraging Edie from using drugs; he merely allows it to happen, like an anthropologist refusing to interfere with barbarous customs so as to avoid tainting his observations. Warhol was both an enabler and a parasite, but he was also an isolated, desperately lonely man who surrounded himself with people he could manipulate because he was unable to connect emotionally with anyone. Hickenlooper allows us glimpses of Warhol’s own unhappiness, but he and Pearce oversimplify the character, making it seem as if the private Warhol were no more complex or thoughtful than his public persona.
The film’s most dissonant moments, though, all derive from miscasting: Illeana Douglas’ brief appearance as Diana Vreeland is awkward and arch in all the wrong ways, far inferior to Juliet Stevenson’s high-camp DV just a few months ago in Infamous, and Jimmy Fallon is hopeless as Chuck Wein — too old, not handsome enough, and totally lacking in presence, he reads as a negative space on the screen, a black hole of personality. But the most egregious miscasting comes about in an already questionable subplot, the filmmakers’ speculative depiction of a romantic relationship between Edie and a man, never called by name in the film and credited only as “The Musician” in the closing credits, yet unmistakably intended as Bob Dylan. This bit of tabloid sensationalism contradicts reports of Edie’s life at the time, including her own version of events as recorded for the film Ciao! Manhattan. Edie did know Dylan and at the very least had a crush on him, but neither she nor anyone close to her claimed — until her brother Jonathan’s recent, conveniently timed allegations — that there was an actual romance. Indeed, it was Dylan’s friend Bob Neuwirth (who doesn’t appear in the film) with whom Edie was having an affair during this period, and some of her lines about the Dylan character in the film are paraphrases of things she said about Neuwirth.
What really gets me, though, is that the filmmakers cast Hayden Christensen, who’s just about the last person I’d pick to play Dylan, only marginally ahead of Hilary Duff. His idea of playing rock-star cool is to wear an unchanging, sullen expression and speak in a breathy, strangulated voice — he’s less like Dylan than like John Mayer after eating a double-handful of oversalted nuts — and he makes every scene he’s in laughable, with the possible exeception of the film’s fairly explicit sex scenes, in which he convincingly plays a naked man. (The Factory Girl website, written with the fawning praise one expects of such venues, describes both Pearce and Shawn Hatosy, who has a small role, as “[o]ne of the most versatile actors of his generation.” This accolade is notably absent from its description of Christensen.)
Still, despite Christensen and despite its shallowness and despite the off-key moments in Miller’s performance and all its other faults, I can’t claim that I didn’t get a kick out of much of Factory Girl. As a biography of Edie Sedgwick, it’s pretty near worthless, but as an evocation of both the glamour and the horror of the Factory, it’s as seductive as Andy himself.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Factory Girl / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | February 15, 2007 | Comments ()