Before starring in several Warhol films and Off-Off-Broadway plays, Mario Montez first appeared in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and was named after Smith’s favorite 1940s starlet, Maria Montez.
Andy Warhol used an Auricon camera for his first sync sound film, Harlot, which was shot in December 1964. Gerard Malanga had been taking Warhol to Wednesday night poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where the writing of Jack Smith’s friend Ronald Tavel caught the artist’s attention. Warhol hired Tavel to write some “scenarios” for Harlot, and they soon began working together on Warhol’s other film projects. These sorts of collaborations happened often because the mimeo poetry zine scene frequently overlapped with the audiences for underground movies; Beat poet and Fugs cofounder Tuli Kupferberg, for example, could be seen selling his own mimeo publications at Mekas’s screening events. Harlot starred drag queen Mario Montez, who had previously appeared in Flaming Creatures and was named after Smith’s favorite 1940s starlet, Maria Montez. Warhol’s film depicts Gerard Malanga in a tuxedo blowing a puff of smoke at Montez, who is suggestively eating bananas. The only audio is Tavel and Billy Name having a conversation off-screen, perversely defeating the point of using a sync sound camera. “Mario maintained a wonderful duality,” said Montez’s friend Agosto Machado. “If you saw him in the neighborhood, you would pass him on the street and he was an attractive Puerto Rican man. But you would not know that he could transform himself into a goddess as Mario Montez, this goddess muse of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol.” He also appeared in several other Warhol films: Banana, Batman/ Dracula, Camp, Chelsea Girls, Lupe, and 1966’s Hedy, the last of which was part of Warhol’s “Hollywood trilogy” (a series of odd biopics that also included Harlot).
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Andy Warhol’s dive into underground film commenced in early 1962 when he began attending screenings at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, then operating out of Jonas Mekas’s loft and the Charles Theater. Warhol was one of fifteen or so people sitting on the floor, though he and Mekas didn’t become acquainted until 1963. “That’s where Andy Warhol began watching films and got the urge to make movies himself,” Mekas recalled. “He was at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative watching films and meeting his early stars: Mario Montez, Beverly Grant, Naomi Levine, Taylor Mead. He met them at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and that’s when he decided to make a film.” Warhol was inspired to make movies after seeing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which precipitated his shift away from visual art. In 1963, he bought a Bolex 16-mm camera with a newly introduced motor that made shooting simpler—one of the ways that new technologies shaped the development of the downtown’s DIY scenes. (The massive amount of cheap 16-mm film stock left over from World War II also gave underground filmmakers access to this medium.)
Critics of mass media have often denounced popular culture for rendering their audiences passive and inert, but it is hard to view these downtowners as anything but active, knowing, and quite subversive. These gay men latched onto actresses whose over-the-top performances unintentionally parodied their femininity, like 1940s film star Maria Montez, “The Queen of Technicolor.” She was worshipped by director John Vaccaro, Harry Koutoukas, Jack Smith, Ronald Tavel, and, of course, Warhol film star Mario Montez. They would often quote from Montez’s 1944 film Cobra Woman, approximating her exotic accent: Geeeev me that Coparah chewel! “I was in two or three of Jack Smith’s films,” Vaccaro recalled. “We were both crazy about Maria Montez. When I was a kid, I liked her. So did Jack. I liked the way she looked and the way she acted and the type of films she did.” Smith was drawn to what he called “musty” or “moldy” entertainment products from the recent past, which had been swept into the culture industry’s dustbin. The outmoded movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s were beneath contempt for many contemporary mainstream critics, so Smith poached these “secret flix” (as he called them) in ways that resisted the logic of capitalist cultural production. Montez’s acting may have been dreadful—especially by the new Method acting standards—but that was part of the attraction. “People laughed at her acting because it was camp,” Agosto Machado said, “but there was a mystique about her. She didn’t pretend to be anything more than a beautiful woman who was put in an exotic setting, and we all recognized her as our own.” It also didn’t hurt that Maria Montez sometimes looked like a woman imitating a drag queen dressed like a glittery starlet.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
After splitting with John Vaccaro, Charles Ludlam staged a lightly rewritten version of Conquest of the Universe, pointedly titled When Queens Collide, and then gained much more acclaim when he mounted Bluebeard at La MaMa in 1970. It was camp pastiche of the old French folktale, in which Bluebeard was a mad scientist who tried to create a “third sex” by performing gruesome operations on his wives. It unfolded like a mash‑up of Victorian melodrama and 1930s horror films—culminating with the newest wife, played by Mario Montez, closing the show displaying an ambiguous “third genital.” While Bluebeard’s plot was way-out, it never veered into the alternate dimensions conjured up by Vaccaro’s shows. “Charles Ludlum’s style was about ‘gay’ theater,” Mary Woronov said. “It was guys dressing up as women and performing. Vaccaro didn’t care if you’re a girl or a boy. It had nothing to do with changing sexes, or being gay or straight.” Whereas Ludlam leaned heavily toward straightforward camp—with references to old Hollywood films and other common tropes—Vaccaro’s work was something else entirely: satirical, political, operatic, and visually over the top. “John felt he was painting with theater,” Zanetta said, “and he used actors like they were his colors. They were his tools. But he wasn’t really so much about traditional theater at all like Charles was.” When the two queens finally collided socially, after years of not speaking to each other, all Vaccaro said he could muster was, “Oh, Charles. You’re as ridiculous as I am.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis wrote the underground hit Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned. “La MaMa to me was an acknowledgment that we kind of made it,” recalled Tony Zanetta. “It was very respectable. So if Jackie Curtis did Vain Victory there, it was taken seriously, even though it was a total mess.” The show featured Curtis alongside a star-studded downtown cast that included Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Taylor Mead, Mario Montez, and Agosto Machado, among many others. Vain Victory was Machado’s first Off-Off-Broadway show, even though he had been hanging around the scene throughout the 1960s. “It never occurred to me that I would cross the footlights, but with the encouragement of Jackie Curtis I suddenly was on the other side, and people were so welcoming,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why, because I don’t sing, dance, or act—and yet it was like, ‘Be part of our show!’ ” Eric Emerson and his band the Magic Tramps played Vain Victory’s backing music, and the glitter-slathered frontman had his own solo number as a naked cowboy, wearing little more than chaps. “There was glitter all over his pubic hair and what have you,” Machado said. “He was not self-conscious about nudity because he had done that in Warhol films.” Darling performed as a wheelchair-bound mermaid who was sad about having a tail but no legs (Woodlawn took that role after Darling left Vain Victory, accidentally rolling over the edge of the stage and into the audience during her first night as the mermaid).
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore