Paul Morrissey, the Factory's house director, stirred up the Festival at 1972 tribute.
Photo: A scene from Heat, screened at Morrissey's Festival tribute in 1972.
The 16th San Francisco International Film Festival marked the end of an era. With Program Director Albert Johnson leaving, the Festival’s public face would undergo a transformation. Johnson, who adored golden age Hollywood film and cult pictures—many of which went on to be classics of their genres—with equal fervor, extended Festival invitations to both Tinseltown’s major players and cinema’s more marginalized artists.
Johnson selected the Factory’s house director Paul Morrissey, representing the perfect blend of art world esotericism and pop sensationalism, for a New Director tribute. Andy Warhol’s protegé would appear for an onstage interview after a screening of his film Heat. Morrissey’s credo was, “Films are about personality: The better the personality, the better the film.” This was the first Warhol film to appear at the Festival since 1968. And years later, people were still questioning whether Morrissey had filmed personalities deserving of a place in the Festival’s prestigious lineup. The director himself credited Johnson as one of the first people to accept a Morrissey/Warhol film into an established film festival collaboration by showing Lonesome Cowboys at the 1968 Festival. That screening stirred up considerable controversy, even among Festival supporters.
Breaking away from the non-narrative New York underground style, Morrissey developed more of a story line for Heat with actors Joe Dallesandro, Sylvia Miles, Andrea Feldman and Pat Ast. Miles, the first professional actress to work on a Warhol/Morrissey production, portrayed a modern-day Norma Desmond, in a performance that garnered positive feedback from Festival critics; she herself thought it was one of the best she had ever given. Although Morrissey praised Miles for her performance during his onstage interview with Johnson, he made it clear that, “There’s no such thing as professional and nonprofessional actors—you’re only good or not good.” When an audience member tried to get him to admit he doesn’t use actors, but rather real people, he replied, “Actors are not real people is your inference. A person who appears in a performance is an actor.” Morrissey and Warhol both took pride in knowing good actors when they saw them, casting their roles based purely “on a hunch” as Morrissey put it.
In advance of the screening, Warhol made his presence felt around town. According to the San Mateo Times’s Barbara Bladen, “Warhol distinguished himself by taking photos of everyone including me and later that night at a party, of Jack Warner and Carol Doda. He tapes all conversations to incorporate in future movies and presents people with Polaroid shots of themselves.” He also allegedly told Bladen he was planning to produce a late night soap opera for New York television. Bladen also claimed Miles had a minor public spat with Warhol swhen the artist signed all of her press photos with the name of Vera Miles. The actress, suffice it to say, was less than amused.
Morrissey and Warhol expressed frustration to the press at not being accepted by Hollywood. Morrissey told the San Mateo Times that, despite three attempts at deals in Hollywood, the projects fell apart because, “They’re afraid of us. People think we’re anti-Hollywood, but we love Hollywood and all it stood for. It’s a shame it fell apart.” “Even the stars who live there put it down now,” Warhol injected.
Despite positive mentions from many critics, not everyone was pleased with the sensational Heat. Some reviewers were less interested in Morrissey’s low-fi, ultra-sexed tale of the rise and fall of an incestual three-way relationship between a washed-up actress, her neurotic daughter and her aspiring actor boyfriend. The film was reported to have embarrassed the mayor and some other Festival participants. Some Festival board members publicly compalined, and programmer Albert Johnson took the “heat” for it.
While Heat created a stir among some, the audiences seemed less incensed. Those who attended Morrissey’s interview with Johnson were pleased that the director, as Johnson put it, “Finally [had] become an accepted member of the cinema world—all over the world.” And though Morrissey’s interview packed the house at the Masonic Auditorium, tribute recipients Francis Ford Coppola, Howard Hawks, Jacques Tati and Rita Hayworth garnered a substantially greater amount of ink in the papers.
Morrissey’s New Director honor was fitting, because, though he already had six films under his belt, Heat was an artistic departure from the underground movement within which he previously worked. While his actors were still free from the confines of a script, his use of professionals and location shooting inflated the films’ production values significantly more than his cult-classics Trash and Flesh. Warhol and Morrissey created the formula to capture the personalities that they cast. When asked about Holly Woodlawn, one of Morrissey’s standards and a principal in Trash, Morrissey affectionately recalled, “She just was a great, great performer. A director I don’t think really ever can take credit for [a] performer’s performance, I think you can only take credit for allowing the performance to happen—that’s all. . . . You just realize what a great performer a person is.” After selecting actors based on a gut feeling, they did not allow rehearsals, did not follow a written script, and worked with loose production guidelines that allowed for the natural movements and dialogue of each actor to tell the story. Morrissey explained to his Festival fans, “We’d rather have the spontaneous reality of the performance than the kind of sterile, prepared, arranged focus of the camera at all times.” They made what he called “actors’ films.”
1972 was a busy year for Morrissey, moving beyond the confines of the Factory—with production on Women in Revolt and L’Amour already underway. Although Morrissey told his fans at the Festival, “Not every film is destined to please an audience,” Heat was one of the more widely accepted of his films, earning him respect as a serious and thoughtful filmmaker. This was a great feat, as his partner Warhol was known for public stunts considered disrespectful to the film establishment such as sending impersonators to major screenings and events. One of the first questions that audience members in San Francisco asked Morrissey was if was really him there to accept the tribute. “As much as there is,” he responded.
The director proved to his fans and critics his loyalty to storytelling and to his actors—as well as his audience. He acknowledged other filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti, director of The Stranger and Death in Venice, as an influence for depending on actors in the rendering of his films.
A Warhol/Morrissey film is undeniably raw, marked by unfiltered action and dialogue. They captured moments that you’d never get in an scripted performance. Morrissey believed that actors should use dialogue they would in real life. Like fellow New York filmmaker John Cassavetes, many of films they made were never released because Morrissey admitted that they were, “not theatrical enough.” He had to dispel rumors about the release of their surfing movie, among others, to the audience. An audience member suggested they splice their footage with Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Morrissey got a laugh when he replied, “I like Gidget Goes Hawaiian the way it is.” Near the end of the interview at the Masonic, Morrissey told the audience, “You always look for material that’s interesting to the public when you make a film. . . . The subject matter for film changes with the period.”
Morrissey and Warhol had the unique ability to capture material while it was fresh and deliver it to their audiences. When describing Heat, he explained, “We were just trying to be truthful to stories and people.”