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