Saturday, August 8, 2020

Andy Warhol and Chuck Wein | My Hustler

looking to buy
by Douglas Messerli

Andy Warhol and Chuck Wein (directors, no authors listed) My Hustler / 1965

Andy Warhol’s and Chuck Wein’s 1965 film My Hustler, released soon after the limited success of The Chelsea Girls, is one of two films, the other being Chelsea Girls, that has received significant commentary, a great deal of it (as with most of Warhol’s films) exclusively negative.
      Bosley Crowther’s 1967 review in The New York Times reiterates what most of the critics of the day concluded:

Looked at from any angle—and there are several from which to look
at "My Hustler," all of them requiring a firm stance of patience
and fortitude — this 70-minute maundering over an incipient
male prostitute by three casual companions at Fire Island leaves
something to be desired.

      Later observers such as Stephen Holden, writing in a time in which Warhol’s and Morrissey’s film-making was receiving new attention resulting in some new perspectives about works still often categorized as clearly amateurish films, offered only a slightly more open contextualization of some of his films. Holden wrote:

The esthetic running through Warhol's films is an icy voyeurism.
As witty or sexy or photogenic as Warhol's superstars may have
been, their largely unstructured, crudely edited play-acting in
front of his camera could also be cruelly revealing. Again
and again one has the feeling of confronting people with limited
internal resources, desperate to be noticed at any cost.

      And as late as 2014 bloggers such as Michael D. Klemm, although attempting to point out wider dimensions to the Warhol cinematic oeuvre by generally seeking to redeem it as being of great “historical interest,” summarizes it, early on in his otherwise fairly fascinating commentary, as something one simply has to bear with:

Warhol didn’t believe in mundane things like scripts or plots.
He was capturing what he felt was a more heightened reality.
But there’s no beating around the bush about this; his films
are amateurish, badly acted (many performers were stoned)
and often incoherent.

      It’s hard to entirely disagree with the fact that despite what has often been described as Ed Hood’s “deep, mellifluous voice,” that his portrayal of a southern-born older queen busily scolding and admiring the young boys around him, both of them “for hire,” does not imbue his character with much insight. Compared with Ed’s campy Fire Island diva, the characters of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band, which opened in an off-Broadway play only a year later, are almost Chekhovian in stature.
      However, reviewing Warhol’s and Wein’s My Hustler a couple of days ago, I was reminded more that anything of a late Tennessee Williams short play—albeit without the bard’s generally more clever and surreal-like dialogue. But in this work, for the one of the first times, the directors actually do create some structural boundaries, which in turn, redefine and transform the apparently improvised dialogue.

    I might describe the first half of My Hustler as “the viewing.” After a quick attempt to establish the central viewer by Ed dressing down his “slave” —who, quite symbolically is show only from the waist down, as if he has been decapitated from his heart and brain—for not properly attending to his duties, which is to keep him and his guests well supplied with drinks and to look after and protect the handsome young prostitute he has just rented from “Dial a Hustler,” he turns his gaze almost immediately to a handsome young blond-haired boy, Paul America (who was born as Paul Johnson but changed his name after Warhol insisted he do so), spread out upon the beach with his crotch almost always facing the Fire Island “shack” in which Ed sits in delighted admiration.
      After a few moments of expressing his ocular pleasure—as we discover later, Ed may have shared his bed with the beauty but has treated his guest only as “eye-candy”—in rushes his neighbor, Genevieve Charbin, who has evidently just received a call from her neighbor (presumably Dorothy Dean, who makes a late-film appearance) about the chuck of meat—generally the way America is treated throughout this work—now ensconced on the beach.
       She is somewhat hostilely greeted by Ed, but nonetheless is served a drink by the near invisible “slave,” while the two gaze outward. I should mention that just behind them is a painting, parroting the work of David Hockey, of just such a beach scene with boys similar to the one they are currently scanning.
       Gradually we perceive that Ed’s disdain for his female friend is that she is simply a “fag-hag,” a lover of gay men whose major role in life, in this case, is attempting to seduce them—particularly young men like Paul, who, still confused about their sexuality, maintain a belief that they are heterosexual despite the truth of their daily actions—without, finally, offering any sexual relief. In other words, she is simply an inducement to remind them of their fantasy realities, leaving them soon after to have to face the hard and bitter facts behind their sexual choices, which in retaliation for which they evidently leave their gay john’s company.
      Apparently, Genevieve is as sexually sterile as Ed, her only pleasure derived from using her female body to torture the young gay hustlers who might desire her. It reminds me a little of the Tennessee Williams filmscript for Suddenly, Last Summer, particularly if the Elizabeth Taylor figure Catherine Holly had actually tried to seduce the boys before they turned on Sebastien Venable for the inevitable devouring.
      The violence she may enact upon the passive object of her gaze is hinted at my Ed’s question: “Maybe you’d like to run in your high heels through all the hair on his chest.”

     As she sizes up the situation, shifting from a mild drink to, excuse the pun, something stiffer, she suddenly spots another young male paying significant attention to the blond-haired (which both agree has been simply “dipped”) number. After reporting the new development to her host, both gather in horror of what the event may bode, Genevieve calling out for the intruder to come immediately up to the house (again, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, this time in her role in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) as if she and he were demanding that another wolf stay away from their “meat.”.
       When the newcomer does “come away” from their prey, the queen recognizes him as another older hustler, Joe Campbell (the "Sugar Plum Fairy"), suggesting that Joe provided drugs over and beyond his sexual activities. What Joe now reveals is not only that he has previously had sex with Paul, but that he knew he would be on the beach and traveled to Fire Island particularly to see him.
In short, all three of them, for slightly different reasons, now want the “dipped” blond. If we somehow sympathize with Joe (who from 1955 to 1962 was Harvey Milk’s boyfriend) more than the others, it is because at least we wants to share his body instead of simply swallowing him up with his eyes or worse yet teasing him away from the male gaze.
     Seemingly tired of all the testimonials to the young man’s beauty, Ed finally challenges them to try to take Paul away from him, since, after all, he was the one who rented the boy in the first place! If Genevieve wins, she can temporarily have him as her reward, although there will be nothing in it for the beauty. If Joe wins he can briefly encamp in Genevieve’s shack.
     Almost before any agreement is finalized, the female runs toward her prey, rubbing his back with tanning lotion and frolicking in the shallow waters of the ocean with him in tow, all to the frustrated discernment of the two male voyeurs left behind. Soon after the camera closes down, almost as if it has run out of film, signifying also that “the viewing” is over, that all involved, having finished appraising the sculpted body, like Genevieve, are ready to move into “the buying” phase.


America, Warhol and Wein suggest, is so dumb that even the attempt to seduce it is a problem, especially when you can’t come out and say directly that you want to fuck him/it. Stuffed into a very small bathroom, Joe and Paul shower, piss, and slowly dance around each other’s bodies, with Joe obviously being the more active.
      In order to entice America into bed, Joe offers the dumb cluck (who clearly influenced Waldo Salt’s character Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, which premiered only 2 years later) advice in how to turn away from being a “dinner john,” which evidently is all the payment Ed has so far provided, to working as a true hustler—not of the 42nd Avenue variety, but a male who is willing to sexually play along with older men’s fantasies, a number of which (in another parallel to Schlesinger’s later film) he describes in detail.
     Explaining how America might rack up two nights a week at $50.00 each with a wealthy client, Joe suggests he might be willing to give America a name—obviously for the favor of going to bed with him, although he cannot express it that openly, and his prey cannot imagine anything else but that he’s suggesting that he take a percentage of America’s pay, as if it were a tax instead of a referral fee.
      While the two brush their teeth, shave, file their nails, slather themselves with perfume and generally pamper their faces the way a woman might apply makeup and lipstick, Joe, almost masturbating and pressing his crotch up against the hunk’s flesh, attempts to impress upon America that he has to “take the opportunity and make it into something”—in short, pushing his friend into the realization that he will have to determine the limits of his sexual activities both physically (what sexual actions he wants to embrace) and in terms of duration (twice a week, every night, etc.).
       But America seems to understand nothing but money, inquiring again and again how much he might be liable to make. Even after Joe rubs his friend’s shoulders with the pretense of relaxing him and gently massages his back with Noxzema, the younger man, although not rejecting the come on, can’t seem to comprehend anything that Joe is trying to tell him.
       Genevieve, soon after, is back for her second try, more openly offering the enticements of money and companionship; Ed reappears to suggest that he can help America to travel and to meet notable people, reminding him that he has a house and land in Montgomery Alabama (the root, evidently, of his appetite for “slaves,” and a home in Florida; after which Dorothy Dean suddenly pops in to suggest that she will help the beauty to get an education, permitting him open relationships, and again hinting that money is no problem.

       For all of these generous if rather meaningless offers, America has no answer, preferring, it appears, to look into the bathroom mirror at his own beauty rather than imagining a world that offers anything to him such as sex, money, a place to live, connections, or education. Everything seems beyond his comprehension, and the camera—almost as if in disgust for his silent narcissistic gaze—goes black.
      As the reader may have noticed, during these last passages I have gone from identifying the major figure as Paul to calling him by his last name, assigned to the actor by the director. If you think about Warhol’s decision to rename the centerpiece of My Hustler you begin to realize just how brilliant and intentional, as opposed to being accidental and entirely improvisatory, this work is. By using the actor not only as a cute hunk but as a symbol for all the country he represents, the directors have almost transformed a work which so many critics found to be so empty-minded and amateurish into a fascinating satire in the manner of Albee’s 1961 play An American Dream, which the author himself described as “a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity.” For me that pretty well sizes up the various figures of Warhol’s and Wein’s offerings in their desirous purchase of the territory into which they hope to lay their claims.
     The real New Jersey-born individual behind the actor (who for awhile was Henry Geldzahler's lover and had a relationship with Chuck Wein) also seemed to realize the implications of the name with which Warhol had christened him: “I went through a period of paranoia about it [his new name]. I mean, every time I saw that word—and it's everywhere—I related it to myself. The country's problems were my problems.”

Los Angeles, August 8, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).

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