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Mary Woronov: Artist, Chelsea Girl, and B-Movie Queen

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Mary Woronov | Photo: Claudia Unger
Mary Woronov | Photo: Claudia Unger

Mary Woronov hosts our special episode "Artbound Presents The Works: The 60s in the 90s," reflecting on the cultural discourse of art in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and how it contributed to a renewed cultural arts movement in the 1990s.

At almost 71 years old, Mary Woronov is still a beauty whose quick wit, sharp mind and striking countenance belie the decades. Born in Palm Beach's five-star Breakers Hotel in 1943 -- then a converted hospital during World War II, she recalled.

"It was a mistake," Woronov, her gray eyes matching her stylishly cut gray hair, the latter tinged with mint green, said with a boisterous laugh, adding, "no...it wasn't."

Talking in her airy apartment near downtown, one filled with dozens of her oil paintings, hundreds of books and a cache of memorabilia, this erstwhile star of numerous classic Andy Warhol films, including 1966's "Chelsea Girls," continued, "I was a preemie, preemie, preemie and they immediately put me in a box. My grandmother looked at me and I had black fur on me -- pre-natal hair -- and a coccyx cyst. So I had a tail and my grandmother said, 'That's not ours. Take that back.'"

Woronov, who went on to appear in some 80 films, including such B-classics as "Death Race 2000" and "Rock 'n' Roll High School," as well as making mainstream TV appearances in "Charlie's Angeles," "Knight Rider" and on the soap, "Somerset," is a walking Wikipedia of several by-gone eras.

As to her rebel nature, well, that's obviously embedded in her DNA.

"I'm a bastard," admitted Woronov, "because I never knew who my father was. My mother never talked it about herself and she told me, 'When you're old enough, you can find out, but I didn't."

Woronov recalled that at age six her grandmother stayed in Florida while she moved up north with her mother, who married Dr. Victor Woronov, a surgeon in Brooklyn Heights.

"He sent me to an all-girls school -- Packer Collegiate Institute -- which I highly recommend. It was fabulous. I could sculpt and write and act and was completely into art. I went back to my 50th reunion and everybody was doing well."

But nobody, admitted Woronov, had had her "kind of career."

That career saw Woronov continue her studies at Cornell University, where she was a sculpting major, claiming, however, that she learned nothing in the three years she attended. But Cornell did yield a fateful meeting with poet, photographer and filmmaker Gerard Malanga, who did an on-campus reading and was then Warhol's main assistant, immediately asking the young student if she would be in a movie he was making.

"He filmed me walking across the Triphammer Bridge in Ithaca," said Woronov. "I was fascinated with him. He wore jewelry, had long hair and attitude galore. I didn't know he was a good poet, because I wasn't into poetry then. But he was a big deal."

Woronov and several students then took a Cornell-organized field trip to Manhattan to visit artists, including Robert Rauschenburg's studio. "It was gorgeous," she recalled, "all white and beautiful. Then," she added, with a laugh," we went to Warhol's studio, The Factory. The walls were painted black and Warhol wasn't there.

"I didn't know he was hiding in the staircase, but that's where he was," she added with glee. "These freaks were sitting on a really filthy silver couch. We were just standing around, when out of the murk Gerard walked towards me and said, 'You should stay, they're doing a screen test.' And I said, 'Okay.' I sort of automatically did whatever he wanted me to do."

Soon Woronov's career as an underground film/theater icon was launched.

She hoofed with Malanga on stage with the Velvet Underground ("I danced with a whip and people were shocked. Gerard had a plastic day-go syringe and when they played "Heroin" he would make love to it."); and in 1966, Woronov appeared in eight of Warhol's legendary films, classic studies on stardom, camp and human behavior.

With Cornell in Woronov's rear-view mirror, the actor credits Malanga for helping guide her through the early Warhol years, and Packer with giving her an education about the gay world as seen through such Mary Renault tomes as, "The King Must Die" and "The Charioteer."

"I read these books and went, 'Wow, gay people. They're fabulous.' So I was not without gay knowledge. These men around Andy complimented me, made me feel good and didn't want to f--- me. They were brilliant and insane. But they were so great to me that I really blossomed."

And so did the drugs. While most Factory denizens were users, Woronov said her habit actually began when her mother gave her Eskatrol, an amphetamine banned since 1981.

"'Mom,' Woronov blurted out, "'I can't study my Latin. I need Eskatrol.' So she would give this stuff to me. But if she ever caught me smoking pot she said she would send me to jail, 'because that's a drug.'

Mary Waronov painting | Photo: Victor Woronov
Mary Waronov painting | Photo: Victor Woronov

"Pills were fine," added Woronov, "but I don't have that addictive kind of personality."
Indeed, Woronov said she never used pills for acting, even though the nights were longer than "War and Peace." She explained: "I saw a guy sew his neck to a couch, because he thought he was going to make a necklace. But nothing would happen until Andy was there.

"They tried to film without him," Woronov pointed out, "but for some reason, everybody became alive for him, just to try and attract his attention -- for the camera to be on their face.

In 1966's "Since," about the Kennedy assassination, Woronov played a silent JFK, with the action taking place on a couch instead of a car. She also played Jean Harlow opposite Malanga in, "The Beard," based on Michael McClure's play. But it was the 3-1/2 hour art house camp classic, "Chelsea Girls," a parody of melodrama presented in split screen format that cemented Woronov's cult status.

Her Hanoi Hannah interrogates a humiliated cast of captured GI Joes, including Ultra Violet and International Velvet, with other superstar performances by Nico, Brigid Berlin and Ondine adding to the film's outrageous appeal. The decadent, desperate downtown lives of Warhol's art world entourage appeared simultaneously on the split screen.

Written by Ronald Tavel and Warhol, the film, said Woronov, was important because it was new; the acting came easily to her.

"Because I had acted at Cornell, I was the only one who memorized the script -- nobody else did. The others didn't know what they were doing. Susan Bottomly [AKA International Velvet] said to me, 'Mary, when the phone rings I have to answer it, because I'm expecting an agent to call.' The phone rings and she wants to answer it, so she goes out the door.

Mary Woronov working in her studio | Photo: Victor Woronov
Mary Woronov working in her studio | Photo: Victor Woronov

"Andy's philosophy was, 'If you let it happen, it always turns into something great.'

"But," Woronov continued, "Warhol was not about acting. He was about something else. He wanted the person to be who he was and free -- not read and memorize a script."

"Chelsea Girls" is continually screened on the film festival circuit and was recently shown at REDCAT in conjunction with MOCA's exhibition, "Andy Warhol: Shadows" (running through February 15). In addition, Woronov makes select appearances with the film: This month she'll be at San Francisco's Castro Theatre as well as a featured guest at Seattle's 31st Olympian Film Festival, where she'll receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.

As for Warhol's art, Woronov, who, alas, does not own a Warhol, said she never saw any work in the studio during the years she spent there.

"Apparently they did it in the daytime and packed it up at night. There was nothing there -- no art on the walls -- when obviously he was turning out stuff all the time because he was a workaholic.

"One day I walked in and there were the four flowers -- the pansies -- all over the floor. I'm standing there and Brigid is standing there. She said, 'Pick these up, I'm sure they'll be famous and I'm sure he'll sign one for you, Mary.' And I looked at them. 'These aren't my favorites. I don't like them,' so I didn't. And I still don't like them, they're not my deal."

Woronov said she didn't care for the soup cans, either. But she did like the Marilyn Monroe silk-screens because, " they're not about her, they're about who she wants to be. They're about her make-up, her hair. It's so insanely incredible what Andy does. And he did that for all of these women -- Liz Taylor, Jackie. They're gorgeous, but nobody does that. Nobody thinks of drawing what they want instead of who they looked like."

Mary Woronov painting
Mary Woronov painting

Woronov also confessed to loving Warhol's big paintings -- like the Elvis -- explaining, "It's all about what we want -- idols and stuff. Andy got it way ahead of everybody. And the movie of the Empire State Building? I cannot tear myself away from that film. He also had this other movie that used to hang on his wall.

"It was a lover he shot sleeping. After the lover left him, Andy had the movie on his wall, continuously playing on a loop. That's f---ing art, man -- that's way beyond movies -- to have your lover next to you on the wall, just sleeping, waiting for you."

But, as Woronov tells it, writer/director Paul Morrissey wanted her to sign away her rights to the movies, which she refused, splitting, instead, to Europe for several months before returning to New York.

Although Woronov never saw Warhol again, she continued making movies: In 1970 she married filmmaker Ted Gershuny, starring in three of his films ("Kemek," "Silent Night, Bloody Night" and "Sugar Cookies"), before they divorced in 1973. That year Woronov also began acting in plays. She snagged the lead role in David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room," at Lincoln Center, playing, of all things -- a go-go dancer, replacing the play's original leading lady, Julie Newmar.

And then Hollywood beckoned. Or at least writer/director Paul Bartel, a friend, called, wanting Woronov to act in a Roger Corman flick.

Recalled Woronov: "Paul said, 'I'm sure once Roger sees your legs he'll hire you.'"

For a preemie, the six-foot tall Woronov is undeniably striking. "Roger saw my legs, because I wore the tightest pants, but he didn't say anything. I don't think he ever knew who I was and I've never said hello to him. But Paul got to use me and I did "Death Race 2000" right away.

"In Corman films," she added, "there was no directing. They're too busy doing a movie to direct you, but it was great, because we were all these young kids who wanted to be in the movies and took lots of drugs. It wasn't a bullshit kind of Hollywood movie. When we went overtime we got paid in drugs."

In 1976 Woronov played the evil Miss Togar in "Rock 'n' Roll High School" ("Lick my boot, you little worm!"), because, she says, the director, Alan Arkush, wanted her. Those were busy years for Woronov, with varied and sundry TV appearances in "Taxi," "Mrs. Columbo" and the like, before starring in Bartel's "Eating Raoul." The 1982 black comedy about a relatively dull L.A. couple that discovers a bizarre, albeit murderous way to open a restaurant, is a cult favorite.

"The odd thing was when Paul wanted me for Mary Bland it was because he wanted to act with me. We were a team. He was very gay and I was happy with that. I was jokey and could carry a joke. We acted together a lot. There was "Hollywood Boulevard" [1976, also directed by Arkush and Joe Dante], and it was a dog, but we were great. And then some movies never even came out."

In 1986 Woronov reprised her Mary Bland character in "Chopping Mall," but said she doesn't remember if she had any lines. And much as the actor has been described as camp, she rebuts that notion.

"Camp is a drag queen who's not trying to be a woman but who is making fun of a woman. Camp is Julie Newmar -- that's sad camp. [Warhol superstars] Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, that was camp as a good thing. Now it's a bad thing. It's old and weird. Young people don't get it."

As for Woronov's being 'Queen of the B Movies,' she does get it: "The main reason is because nobody would give me an 'A' part, but they did need me. Most of those films were done before lesbians were popular. If they needed to hint that maybe she was gay, they would use me. They were really gross and out of it sexually. I come from Warhol, so I'm beyond that. I did it for the money, which was okay."

In 1986 Woronov starred in "TerrorVision," written and directed by Ted Nicolaou, a film about young punk rockers trying to befriend an alien monster, which Woronov finds hilarious.

Offstage, Woronov was actually part of the L.A. '80's punk scene. "It was just like Lou Reed all over again," she announced. "The Velvet Undergrounds were the original punks of America. I saw Excene and I thought, 'Shit, I know this. This is me. I can do this, even though I'm 42 and way over the hill, but it doesn't matter.' I just related to it. I loved these bands."

And while she realized she wouldn't be singing with a band, she knew she could dance.

"And dance I did -- every night. Those were my friends and it was stupid. I loved stupid. It was much stupider than the Velvets -- the Velvets were amazing. They were the answer to Jim Morrison and 'This is the End.' Fine, take heroin. That's a no-brainer. This punk scene was so different. It was really young, but all the artists were also punkers.

Mary Woronov painting | Photo: Victor Woronov
Mary Woronov painting | Photo: Victor Woronov

"All of a sudden," Woronov continued, "I had an art movement -- and guess what I did. I started painting. I never painted in New York. 'You're going to paint around Andy Warhol?' I don't think so -- you'd have to be an asshole."

Woronov was -- and remains -- an accomplished figurative painter who also did art films with people such as Bruce Yonemoto and the late Mike Kelly. "We were all friends and they came to me and said, 'Mary would you do Godzilla?' My god, I am Godzilla. Where's my outfit?'"

By this time Woronov was deeply involved in painting. She was also in a marriage to Fred Whitehead, someone Woronov says was in the industry although she wasn't sure in what capacity.

"We weren't very close and he married me because I looked good with the furniture," she said completely deadpan. "I also needed a place to stay and didn't feel like staying in a hovel."

The marriage didn't last, but Woronov's commitment to painting did. Then, at age 50, Woronov gave up cigarettes, booze and drugs. "I stopped everything, my brain started to work, so I started writing."

To date Woronov has written five books, including "Swimming Underground: My Time At Andy Warhol's Factory," and the novel, "Snake," while about a dozen of her paintings can currently be seen at the Laemmle NoHo. Curated by Joshua Elias, the works (on view through December), are part of the chain's "Art in the Art House" series.

Called, "Something About Mary," the oils each tell a story, be it one of sexual tension, desperation or betrayal. And Woronov, the painter, is much like the person: She seems to offer a heightened version of reality, but steeped in irony.

Fitting for an actor who doesn't own a TV, Woronov, who won't watch her own movies and also writes for Artillery magazine, because, she said, she likes it, adding, "If I write it's either because I'm trying to remember shit or because I'm telling a story.

"I also paint because I like it -- and every once in a while somebody shows up and buys a painting."

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