An unprecedented event took place a couple of weekends ago in the Masonic Lodge of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It was a celebration not of specific timing, yet long-overdue, coming about for no particular reason, other than acquaintance and willingness on the part of all those involved. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that no-one before now has invited or managed to persuade Warhol Superstar “Little Joe” Dallesandro to attend a retrospective tribute to the trilogy of roles he played for Paul Morrissey in Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972). Or not so hard perhaps: “That was the first. A small kind of thing. It’s not going to happen ever again. That was it. It won’t happen again with me. That was a one-time thing. That was it,” said Dallesandro.
So we were the lucky ones, treated to screenings of the three Morrissey films as well as a long-gestating and as-yet unfinished documentary, in which Joe tells his story, interspersed with generous film clips and publicity material (and some rather charming animation). Graciously hosted by Hollywood Forever’s Chanell O’Farrill. we partied with Joe, had our photos taken with him, stood in line while he patiently signed all manner of memorabilia (including Michael Ferguson’s excellent biography “Little Joe, Superstar,” which includes some unusually good analysis of Warhol’s films in general), all of which he took in good humour despite being plagued by the flu. Nevertheless, Joe remains notoriously ambivalent about his acting career and its significance.
He never wanted to be an actor, but was a street kid, living off his wits, and off money from boosting cars and posing for notorious beefcake entrepreneur Bob Mizer, when one day in 1967 he wandered onto the set of Warhol’s 25-hour movie **** (looking for soup!). Morrissey had him strip to his Jockeys and wrestle. He made an immediate impression, and his perfect physique drew in the crowds, featured prominently on the poster for The Loves of Ondine (1968), the excerpted section of the behemoth whole that was released as a standalone feature.
Morrissey recognised in Dallesandro not only a beautiful physical specimen, but more importantly a natural actor; or more properly, and in keeping with the Factory ethos, a magnetic personality. Joe’s persona was about as far from the flamboyance of Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn or Candy Darling as one can imagine – a perfect foil in fact. A sweet-looking Adonis who’d rather keep his mouth shut, and prepared to disrobe to a degree radically unprecedented in cinema either underground or overground, yet with an intensity to his firm jaw, and a brightness to the eyes that belie the superficial image of an exploited piece of flesh – “There were scenes with nudity that I didn’t understand why we needed them, and Paul always kept reminding me that these were art films, not sleazy films, and I thought ‘I’ve gotta trust and believe’.”
Several elements contribute to the success of the trilogy. The drag queens’ characters provide much of the deliciously high-pitched camp that John Waters would later channel (though let it be noted that 16-year-old Jane Forth more than holds her own in the company of Holly et al); the extreme restraints of quick production and low budget produced the (fascinating) kind of homemade narrative cinema which at that time could hope for no exposure at all without the Warhol imprimatur (similar really only to the Kuchars, who couldn’t get near a mainstream movie theater); and the seductive blurring of reality and fiction is deft enough to have been lost on most at the time, who assumed that Dallesandro really was a hustler in Flesh, and really was shooting up in Trash. Even with the Warhol name attached, however, they would be of considerably less interest today without the quiet, intense presence of Joe. As Andy said: “In my movies, everyone is in love with Joe Dallesandro”.
Lou Reed added to the confusion with ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, his verse about Joe being based on the characters he plays in the first two movies – the two did not know one another. For all their appearance as documents of the lives of these marginal, often eccentric personalities, Morrissey’s films were constructed fictions:
“The characters that are in Trash are not people that are in my life. My life is completely different from that. The same with Flesh. Besides my brother in the film holding the mic, otherwise I never knew any of those people, or socialized with them, or hung out with them, or partied with them. My life was much different. They were stories, you know? They were fun. They were fun to make but they weren’t any realistic portrayal of my life, and that was kind of strange for people because when people went to see these things – I guess the nudity made them feel they were close to me or something. Back then there wasn’t all that much nudity you could go to see on the screen.”
“It’s like playing a cowboy in a movie. You do the best you can do, that’s all. And remember, I’m basically not acting but reacting, working off the other people that are in the film. The difference was that I told Paul from the get that I felt the stories had to have one lead character that you ran through the movie with and that told some kind of story, and that’s what he did when he started making the movies with me.”
Morrissey’s working method of allowing his cast to improvise around and towards certain specified points, encouraging them to be more or less themselves, as they chose, was more intimidating to some than to others, and Joe, never one to enjoy competition, would keep his mouth shut as much as possible. He spoke during the weekend at Hollywood Forever of being more or less frightened most of the time at the beginning, but:
“It just became easier, to improvise dialogue around some subject matter that somebody threw at you and to just react. But the first time, without any idea of what you should say, you’re as real as you possibly can be. You’re reacting to something. For instance, I mean I reacted to Holly as best I could. She had some funny scenes and she was real entertaining in the movies, a very funny person.”
“They were meant to tell a small story, and the stories were being developed as we went along, with the actors, because we weren’t aware of where Paul was going with anything. But Paul always knew what he wanted to say and so he would give us a basic idea of what he wanted us to go with each time we would do a scene. So he knew where he was going and we’d just do what he asked, and that’s how he got his story when he edited them all together, and came up with these three films.”
“The finale of it all put together was really the first time we knew what the story was. I guess it was kind of a thrill. I was never a big fan of myself so I didn’t go to see myself onscreen. I didn’t like to do that. It made you think that ‘Oh, I should do something different’ . And I didn’t understand what I was doing as it was, so it made no sense. I mean, I watched sometimes with Paul when he did the editing in the editing room but I didn’t understand why he made certain cuts and so I just thought it was best I didn’t even watch any of it.”
“Paul had showed me his earlier work. He was a social worker at one point in his life, I guess when he got out of college, in New York, where he had really met the world, or met New York, New York people. His main interest was always film so he had shot films on his time off with some of the people he met. These were like silent films that were true and the real New York, and I saw these films that he did, or a couple of them. He introduced people to underground cinema by taking out ads in the Village Voice for underground film – ‘Come and see my underground movie’ – and he showed them in a basement that he had. This was before I even got involved with them that he made these movies. And they were strong, like the movies that we did together, in their stories, and now there was this chance to make them with sound, and as bigger productions, and as we got out there to an audience the productions got bigger and bigger.”
“Flesh had a regular cinema release and big advertising, and people showed up and filled it up every day. That was pretty new to us. They were pretty successful in their own little way, I think. They played throughout the world. They had a following, you know? But I don’t know how special they were. I just realised that back then Paul used to say to me that these were Warhol films that would be shown in museums years after I’d be gone. I trusted that what he was saying was the truth. These were Paul’s things. It was his idea it was a trilogy. I don’t watch them. They are what they were, you know? They were done in a period that was before their time. They’re very cool but now lots of people do the same type of thing, and with better equipment.”
By the time the team decamped to Hollywood in 1972 to make Heat, the film-making was starting to look a little more like a conventional movie, partly because of the southern California sun; partly because the faulty camera with its startling white flashes between edits had been fixed; and partly because Morrissey had a new editing table and assistants, and spent much longer on the edit of Heat than he had on the previous two films. And then, at the behest of producer Carlo Ponti (and contingent upon the symbolic attachment of Warhol’s name), they were off to Italy:
“After we finished Heat we were off to do something kind of different with Frankenstein and Dracula with a big production company, a studio, and sets, and everything that we’d never had before; sound equipment, and 3D, so that was quite different than what we were used to. And a script and everything. I mean we had a script with the dialogues.”
It was no-one’s dream to carry on making such scratched-together movies on a weekend. In fact, at least as far as Joe was concerned, Morrissey had much bigger plans:
“I just trusted that whatever Paul asked me to do was part of me learning to be an actor. It was my school. We looked at movies by Marco Ferreri. He thought that would be a good director for me to start with in Italy but of course that didn’t happen. So I had seen one or two of his films in the States that Paul got me screenings of and then I would like for them in Italy. And remember, Paul was also taking me along while we set up deals for the distribution of these things in Europe, so I was his tagalong everywhere we went, from England to Germany.”
“He was always grooming me to make bigger films, to work with European directors, and then one day to come back to America to make movies. He basically prepared me for an acting career. I didn’t start out trying to become an actor, or have a desire that ‘I’m going to be a star one day’, you know? That wasn’t my thing.”
Once the pair of Morrissey horror movies was over, Joe stayed in Italy, happy to appear in almost any sort of drive-in fodder (not that any of them were exported to the US, thus scuppering the plan for Joe to return as successfully as an Eastwood or a Bronson), and relieved at the change in production methods: “It was a lot easier doing the films that I did over in Europe. These were scripted things with stories that I could read and understand, and feel the character, and become somebody else for them.” He told his agent that he never wanted to work on an “art” film ever again: “I just wanted to do shoot-’em-ups, you know? And he laughed and said ‘Well, you come from that background so you have to do one a year, at least. You have to work with the “art” directors’.” In fact, such directors would seek him out.
“Black Moon  was always a dream that Louis [Malle] had. His idea was an Alice in Wonderland-type story and that’s basically what it was supposed to be about. There was a lot of improvising, but it was all scripted too – we had a full script. Some things would change as we went along but it was a full script. When he first came down to see me it hadn’t been scripted yet, when he was casting it he came down to meet with the actors. I think his original idea was to use David Bowie, but I don’t think David was available.”
Two years later he would be the first choice to play Krassky, the homosexual dump-truck in Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus (1976)::
“Serge had seen other work that I had done. He liked how I worked and he felt that I would be able to do his story. He had this story in his head that he wanted to shoot, and I think it came out the way he wanted it. I’m not sure. The only thing he could have had different is if I was able to speak French. I suggested once or twice ‘let me try!’ and he said no, your face totally contorts, you become hideous when you try to speak French. And I said, ok I understand.”
“It was a real fun thing. I worked with a director and an actress that loved each other very much so that was very special. And we were doing scenes that were portrayed as very intimate. That’s hard to do when you love and care about somebody and you’re trying to show that you’re not feeling that way, yet you’re trying to show for someone else watching it that you are. It was fun.”
Two years after that, it was Joe’s friend Maria Schneider who requested he co-star with her in Jacques Rivette’s Merry-go-Round (1978, unreleased until 1981). The production was fraught, hot on the heels of Rivette’s breakdown and the abandonment of his Scènes de la vie parallèle tetralogy, as well as being disrupted by Schneider’s erratic behaviour. In addition, it marked a return to something like the working methods with which Joe had begun his career: “You have to realise that it had been many years since I was asked to improvise dialogue, and Merry-go-Round was specifically about improvising the story and the dialogue, so it was one more time back to doing what I was doing when I first started out. And I didn’t even know if I was capable of doing that again. The only thing I trusted was that Maria Schneider, who I knew personally and who was a friend of mine, that we would be able to get along and get through this, and whatever problem I may have during it she would help me through. As crazy as she might have been during it, we still were able to work together and come up with a pretty good film.”
“Rivette gave you a whole story, and every time from scene to scene he would give you where he wanted to go – he would lead you to that point, to get through the whole story. But the whole thing with Rivette was that he was a man who never wanted to end the movie. They could be planning a production of two hours, or three hours, but he would want to shoot six or seven hours, and they wanted somebody who could say no to him, and they thought I could be good at that. I think one point was that I was the only lead in the film that was insurable so if the film had to stop, I had to get sick. He had started this film earlier in England and somehow it all fell apart, so they lost a lot of money there but with the remainder, what they had left, they put it together to try to continue to shoot the film anyway, with a smaller budget, and that’s what we did. A lot of the actors and actresses wanted to go home, had had enough. They thought the movie should be finished. So a lot of those scenes running around in the woods I think were some of the last stuff we were doing, because the movie should have been done before them.”
“I preferred doing these art films that I did. They were a lot more fun always and the people were more interesting to work with . The shoot-’em-ups that I did were like shooting television – boom boom boom, you knock them out.”
“I turned things down in Europe too. Sometimes I just needed a break and didn’t want to just keep working all the time, had enough money, didn’t care. I wasn’t a guy that was looking to be a millionaire. I wasn’t getting paid that kind of money anyway. I was getting paid enough to be comfortable. Every time in the beginning when I’d do a film I always thought it’d be the last thing I’d ever do, never get another job, and I came to understand that’s what all actors feel. And I understood that that wasn’t the truth. If I wanted to go and get another job, all I had to do was to let people know I was available.”
Personal issues, and enough time spent abroad, eventually led Joe back to the States, some television work, and notable cameo/supporting roles in films like Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990), and Soderberg’s The Limey (1998). But perhaps predictably, Joe’s enthusiasm in the shark-pool of Hollywood waned. Semi-retired for some years now, he lives quietly managing an apartment building: “I just had enough. I like the work, I just don’t like what it entails to get it. I’m not a do-anything to get the part and if you’re going up for the part and I’m going up for the part, you can have it. I’m not a big fighter for those kind of things, and I’ve never been a guy like ‘look at me, look at what I can do’. The kind of stuff I get offered now, I’m not interested in doing. But I never put it out there that I’m looking to work again. A lot of people sometimes think I’m dead, and that’s cool too.”