Mario Montez (born René Rivera), superstar of the New York underground films of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol and many others, passed away recently at the age of 78. In homage to his brilliance, and in recognition of the fact that many of these films are difficult for people to actually access, I reflect here on my favourite Montez performances in Warhol’s films, and honour the superstar’s indelible existential bond to his namesake – and Smith’s divine muse – the Hollywood actress Maria Montez.
Portraying Jean Harlow in Harlot (1964), Hedy Lamarr in Hedy (1965) and himself in Screen Test #2 (1965), Montez gave some of the most beautiful performances in Warhol’s cinema. In these three very different films, all scripted by the late great Ronald Tavel, Montez is the queen of the glamour pose. In Harlot, Warhol’s first talkie (three off-screen narrators wax philosophic), the director defies the norm that a moving picture frame must have actual movement within it. The glamour pose as embodied by Montez can be seen as a stylized gesture of pure presence as if it were in a vacuum, the result of formalizing the “throwaway part” of life, the triumph of affect over language, style over content, mimicry over originality. Montez is clearly the star, dressed in luminous white garb complete with furry wig, flanked by three figures in black, framing him. Ostensibly playing the role of Harlow, the enormously popular blonde and beautiful MGM bad girl, but more accurately distilling the idea of her, Montez vamps it up for the camera while constantly eating and playing with bananas with erotic abandon. Silent and barely moving, Montez seems to be performing the archetypal female star image, which makes her more like a luminous blank slate for our fantasies than an actual personality. Montez/Harlow’s continual consumption parallels our “eating up” of our favorite stars, Warhol’s oral metaphor for fandom. Because Hollywood was such an enormous part of American culture, part of the fabric of American life, showing the overwhelming fascination of these images was a way of coming to terms with what it meant to be an American in one way, but always also the Other, for a male’s overly emphatic obsession identification with female star glamour is decidedly shameful, queer, and forbidden.
Employing dramatic movie music on the soundtrack, Warhol’s Hedy tells the story of Hedy Lamarr – from plastic surgery to death by intoxication – as minimalist absurdist melodrama, with Montez as Lamarr occasionally bursting into songs such as “I Feel Pretty” and “Kleptomaniac” (sung to the tune of “Young at Heart”). The film opens with artful shots of Lamarr receiving plastic surgery (performed half an inch above her face, no attempts at verisimilitude here) to make her into the most beautiful woman in the world. Then in a different space, illuminated by film noir lighting, we see Lamarr arrested for shoplifting. Throughout the film, Montez plays up the “strong woman” role: Lamarr is always vamping proudly, covering up her emotions with a brave face, and courageously changing outfits in front of us to go to jail. In a satire on melodrama, Warhol presents Lamarr donning white gloves with overly emphatic musical cues and excessively dramatic zooming in and out. In the courtroom scene for her trial, dressed defiantly in formal wear, Lamarr is the center of the camera’s attention as well as the focus of judicial inquiry. The camera moves closer and closer to her muscular, dark-featured face as the music increases in volume. Found guilty – she confesses that “stealing is like life” – she undresses as the wild zooming begins anew and the music reaches a fever pitch. Forced to drink herself to death (?!), she histrionically flails about. Finally, Jack Smith, playing the bailiff, testifies that Lamarr was “tragic and noble” as the film ends mid-sentence, as was common in Warhol’s films. While the star may command the world’s attention, the cinematic machine waits for no one. Warhol’s reels always run out, leaving the drama unceremoniously unfinished.