Three top independent film talents collaborate on this year’s sensation – plus our critic checks out “City Hall,” “Fargo,” and “Beautiful Girls.”
By Elizabeth Pincus
Factory workers, from left: Coproducer Christine Vachon, director Mary Harron, and cinematographer Ellen Kuras. At first blush, the women behind the scathingly funny I Shot Andy Warhol seem the natural heirs to their subject, feminist visionary Valerie Solanas. Director Mary Harron, cinematographer Ellen Kuras, and coproducer Christine Vachon are as bright, edgy, and political as Solanas ‑a satirist and agitator who wrote the infamous "SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto"‑ was in the '60s. The difference, of course, is that Solanas was a loose cannon who went on to pump a few slugs from a .32 Beretta into Warhol's chest in 1968 and died destitute in a San Francisco flophouse 20 years later. But now Solanas is emerging again as the toast of the angry‑girl intelligentsia, thanks to the work of Harron and friends, whose film is poised to be the cult hit of the year.
"We worked hard to find what was sympathetic in Valerie's character," says Harron, who in her black leather pants and pale cropped locks looks every bit the part of the London punk‑rock journalist she once was. "We love Valerie. She was very sparkly and charming and wrote brilliant black comedy. But she also did horrible things."
"It was a tough balancing act," adds Vachon. "We didn't want to condone Valerie's stalking side, nor did we want Andy to come off as an evil manipulator who drove her to this act."
Vachon, the prodigious producing talent behind such independent successes as Swoon and Go Fish, is no stranger to the dicey trade‑off between glamour and grunge. She notes that Lili Taylor is adorable in the role of Solanas, a lesbian and lifelong iconoclast who wore flannel and dungarees at a time when the debs around her flaunted pearls over their sweater sets. Vachon laughs: "We'd put Lili in these grungy, horrible clothes, and it was like, They look fashionable, they're fabulous! I mean, how do you show glamour? We wanted to use Valerie very delicately and preserve a sense of authenticity, especially in depicting Warhol's Factory. We wanted it to be like, This is where it's happening."
In I Shot Andy Warhol, the Factory appears as a labyrinthine wonderland swathed in silver foil, at once dazzling and tacky. It's where Solanas first met Warhol, a fellow misfit to whom she formed a symbiotic attachment. Explains Kuras, best known for her effervescent work on Unzipped, Douglas Keeve's documentary about Isaac Mizrahi, "Valerie had been living in a dingy, dirty hotel, so walking into the Factory was a whole new experience for her. We used a lot of handheld moves to get at the craziness, at Valerie's sense of awe. It was an incredible challenge doing a period piece. And all the elaborate wigs and everything‑it was hair‑and‑makeup city!"
The genesis of I Shot Andy Warhol dates to 1988, when Harron, then a BBC documentary director, chanced upon a small‑press copy of the "SCUM Manifesto" in a British bookstore. Knocked out by its brilliant voice, she decided to make Solanas the focus of her first dramatic feature. She called Vachon, who in turn called Kuras, a frequent collaborator. And so a beloved project was launched.
"I thought a film about an obscure, supposedly unimportant person could be very revealing and interesting," says Harron, who feels a kinship with Solanas, an artist who struggled in a world that assumed she was inferior. But according to Harron, things have evolved for women filmmakers, even within the last decade. "Women provide a balance on the set. We lower the testosterone."
Vachon concurs. "It's a cliché, but men love the size of their equipment."
"We're competent," Kuras says. "It's just a matter of getting the best people for the job."
Currently Vachon is juggling a dozen or so projects, including the high‑kickin', flash‑dancin' Stonewall, the story of the Greenwich Village gay uprising, opening this summer; Kuras is polishing up a poetic documentary of history and exile called Distant Ground; and Harron is prepping a drama for HBO about '50s pinup idol Betty Page, which -no surprise‑ will be shot by Kuras and produced by Vachon. Explains Harron, "It touches on the 1950s Senate hearings on pornography, but it's also a lot of fun. It'll be about glamour and female culture, our secret histories as women.
"I mean, part of me is Valerie Solanas," Harron says, smiling, "but part of me is Lana Turner."
Midway through City Hall, a smoldering joyride through the muck of New York City politics, Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) turns to his better half, Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino), and says, "You look great." "Of course ‑I'm the mayor," is hizzoner's brisk reply. As the chief executive of a town teeming with trouble, Pacino is tucked, pressed, gorgeously coiffed, and grandiloquent with sound bites, and so, too, is Cusack, his Louisiana‑bred protégé, who hopes to ride his coattails to the White House.
City Hall kick‑starts when a six-year‑old Brooklyn boy is gunned down in a shoot‑out between a hero detective and a drug dealer. Calhoun, assisted by an attorney for the detectives union (a flaccid Bridget Fonda sporting a Hillary flip), begins digging into the shady circumstances surrounding the drug dealer's probation, and their snooping unearths a web of treachery leading all the way to Pappas and City Hall. This is a terrific election‑year thriller.
Fargo, from Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple), is another tango of petty greed. It's also the season's funniest film, if more than a little chilly around the edges.
The action‑which unfolds in the tiny frigid hubs of Fargo, ND, and Brainerd, MN‑concerns itself with a naive Minnesota car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires a pair of ne'er‑do‑wells to kidnap his wife. On his heels is an imperturbable cop named Marge Gunderson, played by the marvelously fluid comedienne and Coen brothers staple Frances McDormand. By the time the body count reaches a grisly half dozen it's clear we are less in the land of Paul Bunyan than that of Tarantino & Co. But the Coens have always been a step or two ahead of the pack, evidenced once more in this film as they pursue their own peculiarly midwestern take on the sublime.
Another winter's tale, this one about crimes of the heart instead of the pocketbook, is Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls. The Massachusetts scenery is gorgeous and so are the women, but the film is really about a group of blue‑collar lads (led by Matt Dillon) who spend their nights dazed and confused at the local tavern. They are joined by Timothy Hutton's Willie Conway, a bohemian piano player back from Manhattan, who suffers the spasms of a crush on a 13‑year‑old local Lolita (Natalie Portman).
The other fellows are just as bedeviled by women, and no wonder: Their girlfriends are played by Lauren Holly, Martha Plimpton, and Mira Sorvino. When an enticing stranger (Uma Thurman, no less) wanders into the bar and orders whiskey, straight up, the fellows' confusion really crests. Beautiful Girls is plenty of fun while it lasts, but in the end it proves more an exercise in fancy talk than a full-bodied motion picture. Put the whole gang on Ricki Lake, and then it might amount to something.