"The male is obsessed with screwing," wrote Valerie Solanas in her funny-scary radical feminist primer The SCUM Manifesto. (That's SCUM -- Society for Cutting Up Men -- of which Solanas was founder and sole member.) "He'll swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He'll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and, furthermore, pay for the opportunity."
Solanas, a self-described man-hating butch dyke, didn't mince words. Nor was she afraid to take whatever action she deemed necessary to back up her beliefs. On a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1968, Solanas strolled into the Manhattan studio of pop artist Andy Warhol, drew a .32 automatic, and, with three quick shots to the enigmatic painter's gaunt torso, forever linked her fifteen minutes of fame to his more enduring legacy. Never big on planning ahead, Solanas needed instructions from one of Warhol's shocked, trembling assistants to find the elevator and make her getaway. Hours later Solanas turned herself in to the cops. "I shot Andy Warhol," she calmly informed them. "He had too much control over my life."
How Solanas went from homeless -- and seemingly harmless -- panhandler to Warhol assailant is only part of the mix that makes the searing new Solanas bio I Shot Andy Warhol so audacious. Mary Harron, the film's director and coauthor (with Daniel Minahan), tackles an even murkier mystery: Was the rapier-witted, male-bashing Solanas an underappreciated prophet, a caustic satirist, or just a crackpot (albeit one with a gift for pointed humor)? The filmmaker offers plenty of evidence to support all three views. When Solanas (played by Lili Taylor, who tears into the lead role with a ferocious conviction and intensity that would have done Solanas proud) leaps from asserting that the evolution of the Y chromosome was a biological accident to advocating the reversal of Mother Nature's little slip via the eradication of all males, it serves as a sort of litmus test for the audience. Do you believe that Solanas was: (A) right on the money, (B) out of her mind, or (C) taking a lead from Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal when she wrote The SCUM Manifesto? Had Solanas not ventilated Warhol's chest and belly, you could have built a strong case for option C.
But she did cap him, which leaves us with the visionary/nut dilemma. The film maintains a difficult balance; even when the script encourages you to write off Solanas as a raving loon -- as Warhol and his sycophants did -- Taylor's riveting performance finds the passionate fearlessness and intelligence in her that defy that easy assessment. In the movie, Solanas declares, "I'm not a lunatic -- I'm a revolutionary." Taylor delivers the line with persuasive conviction.
Solanas didn't shoot Warhol to make a statement. She did it because she had deluded herself that the multimedia enfant terrible intended to steal a play Solanas had written. (In fact, Warhol had simply misplaced the play and told Solanas as much.) In his 1980 memoir Popism, Warhol calls Solanas crazy -- and admits that this was part of her appeal. "Crazy people had always fascinated me because they were so creative," he writes. "I was afraid that without the crazy, druggy people around jabbering away doing their insane things, I would lose my creativity."
Crazy or not, Solanas sure was creative. Even as a panhandler she adopted a novel approach, offering to trade conversation for money. ("Can I interest you in a dirty word for fifteen cents?" "Sure." "Men."). This is the same woman who earned straight A's in college while streetwalking to pay for tuition and books. The mind boggles to think what Freud might have made of this self-proclaimed antisexual lesbian who loathed men yet prostituted herself to them rather than take a "normal" job.
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Scruffy stree-person Solanas gained entree to Warhol and his infamous tinfoil-lined Factory courtesy of her friendship with drag queen/diva Candy Darling. "If anyone can make you a star, Andy can," Darling advised. With Darling's encouragement, Solanas submitted to Warhol the characteristically subtly titled play Up Your Ass, in hopes he would produce it. The film attains one of many bittersweet comedic highs when it contrasts scenes of Solanas, Darling, and their off-the-wall friends staging the hilariously profane work in a blue-collar diner, while across town Warhol and his fab acolytes give the material their own astonished reading at the Factory. Solanas's rawness captivates Warhol, but his hangers-on are less amused, and one of them tosses the manuscript aside. Warhol's inability to find it will cost him dearly.
(Warhol never completely recovered from his wounds. He gave up direct involvement with the films that bore his name and barely painted at all for years. He limited his exposure to the "crazies" who were his inspiration, and his health remained poor until his death in 1987. Solanas served three years in a prison for the criminally insane and dropped out of sight shortly after her release. She died destitute in San Francisco in 1989, succumbing to bronchial pneumonia and emphysema at the age of 52.)
Just as Taylor finds the center of Solanas's turbulent personality, so too Jared Harris nails Warhol's ghostlike passive-aggressive essence. Harris uncannily captures the vacuous, hollow-platitude-mumbling, scatterbrained persona that Andy used to protect himself from crazies, critics, and overzealous fans alike. Together Taylor and Harris make it seem almost inevitable that their characters' paths should cross. Despite their obvious differences, Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas shared a sense of underlying isolation and vulnerability.
Director Harron constructs a poignant scene late in the movie that beautifully illustrates this bond: The soft-spoken artist and the loudmouthed lesbian find themselves seated calmly next to each other on a couch while a raucous and decadent Factory party swirls around them. All the usual Factory suspects are there A Candy Darling, studly Warhol muse/assistant Gerard Malanga, filmmaker Paul Morrissey, photographer Billy Name, amphetamine-chomping Solanas-baiter Ondine, speed freak Brigid "The Duchess" Polk, art groupie Ultra Violet, and last but not least Viva, Edie Sedgwick's successor as Warhol's favored female film superstar. Harron gleefully re-creates the whole mind-blowing experience: The Velvet Underground performs live; psychedelic lights flash; partygoers drink, dance, initiate sex, and literally roll around in drugs. And Warhol and Solanas just sit there, taking it all in, incapable of joining the merriment. "Everyone is having such a good time," Andy comments wistfully. In that split second you realize what drew the pop culture iconographer and the rabid lesbian guerrilla fighter together: These two outsiders would never fit in at any party. In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that this pair of rebels against the status quo should have found each other, and equally inescapable that their delicate alliance would end tragically.