Lust, Caution is a monthly series of essays by Willow Maclay that examine films within the label of “queer cinema.”
I was introduced to Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling in the summer of 2008, packed in a car on my way back from a therapy session that didn’t exactly go well. I was depressed but couldn’t really talk about why in front of my therapist, because my parents were sitting in the same room with me. I made up an excuse that I was sad because I couldn’t make friends and didn’t relate to people, but the truth of the matter was that I was struggling with gender dysphoria. I was stuck in a male gender role and had no real hope of getting out. My father hit me every time I stepped out of line, and if he ever caught me in a dress, I knew my punishment would have been severe. I stared out my window not knowing how I was going to survive. There wasn’t much to look at, just horses and farms. After all, Lexington was the city that housed the Kentucky Derby. My dad used to listen to classic rock radio during these long road trips into the city, and living in Kentucky, that meant a lot of “Love ’em or Leave ’em” misogyny or proclamations that The South would rise again from long-time classic rock staples Lynyrd Skynyrd. But then a minimal bass arrangement cut through all of the rock music that normally colored our endless road trips, and there was a jaded voice, burned out on heroin and tired of life, telling a story of someone like me: “Holly Came from Miami F.L.A., Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A., Plucked her eyebrows along the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.” The phrase “He was a she” jolted me awake. I tried to hide the fact that the lyric excited me, but that feeling was quickly extinguished when my father uttered a homophobic slur and turned the radio station off for the remainder of the drive. I came home and typed the lyric into Google after my parents were fast asleep, and I found Lou Reed in the dead of night. But it was bigger than just finding Reed — I found Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, and a part of myself.
Andy Warhol found Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis as well, but they proved to be not much more than accessories to his own self image of freaks, low-lives, and renegades of the New York Art scene. It is no doubt true that Warhol gave these women the space to exist and carve out their own identities and artistic inclinations under his banner, but he never actually recognized Curtis, Darling and Woodlawn as much more than transvestites. In the BBC Documentary Walk on the Wild Side, he even went as far to say that “These drag queens. They don’t really know what girls go through, they’ve never had a period. They take those pills, but they can’t tell. They don’t know what it’s like to be a woman.” A curious bit of dialogue which places Warhol in the camp that sees cisgender Womanhood above all else. It is with that same attitude that Warhol and Paul Morrissey set out to make their satire on feminism entitled Women in Revolt, because the premise itself is a joke. How can transgender women be feminists? How can they be “real” women? And how can they understand sexism? Warhol saw his three stars as drag queens at best and men at worst, so the idea of women that he viewed as men starring in a film about feminism was too good a joke to pass up. The irony is that as time has passed, Women in Revolt has become a film that arguably is feminist because Warhol decided to make a joke about trans women. He cast Curtis, Darling and Woodlawn as women. Their characters certainly weren’t role models or anything of that caliber, but to this day, Women in Revolt stands in defiance of the majority of transgender specific cinema, because Darling, Curtis and Woodlawn are present, and they are never treated as anything less than the women they are. For Warhol, this was the joke, but for anyone watching the film today, it feels radical.
Women in Revolt finds Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn as women of the newly minted 70s looking for their share of the world. They’re actively contemptuous towards men and randomly spout obscenities in front of any man who dare enter the frame. It makes for a loud picture. Dialogue quickly devolves into screaming, and every scene ends up lasting longer than it should (an Andy Warhol staple). The shrill brashness of the women, and their active dismissal towards the male gender, is an attempt for Warhol and Morrissey to make the viewer hate the women at the centre of their feminist liberation comedy, but Darling, Curtis and Woodlawn wrangle the picture away from the two men who attempt to turn them into villains.
Darling is a real show-stopper, a Marilyn Monroe in a more fortunate society that isn’t cissexist. She hams it up for the cameras, singing tunes about how much she despises men and longing for all women to embrace lesbianism. She’s in on the joke, making a mockery of the material in her deliberately blunt line readings that read as “too cool for school.” Darling’s above the film in some ways, reaching towards higher aspirations, but she’s stuck slumming in half-baked movies that don’t deserve her presence. Darling was described as an Andy Warhol superstar, but she was a lot more than just an active participant in the Factory by often working in productions (Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings and Alan J. Pakula’s Klute) that could have lent her the prestige she needed to break through if she hadn’t tragically died at the age of 29. Darling’s presence alone elevates the rather minute material given to her, and the same could be said of Holly Woodlawn who seems intent on careening like a pinball from scene to scene. Woodlawn plays a nymphomaniac who is seen having sex in nearly all of her moments of screentime, but her introduction is classic. She pushes a naked man off of her body and stares directly into the camera, sticks her tongue out and rolls her eyes as if to say “yuck.” It’s delightful, and Woodlawn gives that same level of goofy commitment to her many scenes of sex that never play as realistic, but a total mockery of anything resembling heterosexual realtionships. Curtis is the coolest of the lot. She rarely raises her voice or attempts to push the film aside for her own amusement like Darling. Instead, Curtis comes off as a professional, and her bitingly sardonic line readings bring the film the majority of its stronger verbal comedy. All three women feel distinctly different from one another and completely lived in, due in part to the fact that they were playing exaggerated versions of themselves.
Women in Revolt struggles when it attempts to say anything of note about feminism. Paul Morrissey wrote the script, so his understanding of feminism is resolutely simplistic. His words cast these three otherwise interesting characters as naive, stupid, sex crazed, and vain. It’s definitely a feminist understanding written by a man who was in complete contempt of the movement. Morrissey was a staunch conservative who often spoke about his work with grand importance, but he seemed to hate his surroundings. It’s ironic that a right-wing male would find it upon himself to make a satire on feminism starring three brash transsexuals, but therein lies the problem. It was all a joke to Morrissey, much like it was for Warhol. These limp ideas on second wave feminism don’t amount to much comedy, let alone insight, and it nearly undoes the goodwill that comes from the lead performances. Luckily, Morrissey frequently gets bored with his own screenplay and goes off the page, and when Darling, Curtis or Woodlawn improvise, there’s a spark that’s missing from an otherwise brutally poor script.
The origin of Women in Revolt is not explicitly known, but it is assumed that Warhol wanted to take a shot at Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who tried to kill him. Solanas’ marginal fame came through her SCUM Manifesto, which is the butt of a joke in Women in Revolt as Darling, Curtis and Woodlawn dubbed their feminist collective PIGS (Politically Involved Girls). Solanas was acquainted with Candy Darling, and their friendship was explored in Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol, but despite being friends, Solanas never considered Darling a fellow woman, but instead a hyper-feminine gay man. In many cinematic representations, there hasn’t been much respect given towards Darling’s place in the world as a Woman. In her own diaries, she longed to have genital reconstruction surgery so her life as a woman would be taken more seriously, but like the real world, cinema has never treated Darling like the woman she was. She is continually misunderstood. Cinema has made The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” even more tragic. When Reed wrote the words “I’d like to know completely what others so discretely talk about….What do you think I’d see if I could walk away from me,” he was tapping into Candy’s mindset and how the world perceived her. Hollywood has perceived her as a man in all cinematic adaptations of her life. Women in Revolt is different, because it’s hers, and even though Warhol didn’t respect Darling, she made the most of her opportunity to play a woman who was glamorous, rich, beautiful and beloved. It was how she saw herself.
Willow Maclay (@willow_catelyn) is a freelance writer currently residing in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She has written for The Vulgar Cinema, Cleo: A Journal of Film and Feminism, Movie Mezzanine, Seventh Row and maintains her own blog, Curtsies and Hand Grenades.