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Seeing double wasn't even the half of it

January 07, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

ONE of Andy Warhol's first Pop art paintings was a big, black-and-white canvas showing the transformative effect of plastic surgery on a woman's nose. Two side-by-side images juxtapose the profile of an aquiline schnoz with one showing pertness personified.

"Before and After" (1960) was painted almost five years before Warhol met Edie Sedgwick, the Radcliffe dropout from Santa Barbara who is the subject of George Hickenlooper's film "Factory Girl." The painting's rude pictorial nose job, aimed like a dagger at Manhattan's intransigent art world, "fixed" the ferocious female face made famous in the images of women painted by Willem de Kooning, the reigning king of New York School art.

But Warhol, who underwent rhinoplasty himself to shave the bulbous contour of the facial feature he hated most, had a special affinity for this painted ode to a modern ideal of feminine beauty. Not only was the work featured as the backdrop to a 1961 Bonwit Teller window display, it was one of the first times Pop art was shown in public. Warhol was so pleased with the double-profile that the following year he made a second, more refined version -- a frankly monumental work, 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Its scale was meant to compete directly with the work of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and the other Abstract Expressionist masters.

A painting this important to the Pop artist's formative aesthetic says a lot about his aspirations. Indeed, "Before and After" explains the dynamic behind Warhol's brief but intense working relationship with Sedgwick, his resplendent Superstar, which lasted less than a year. Think of it as a covert double portrait. Andy was "Before," Edie was "After." Warhol transformed Sedgwick into a projection of himself, crafting an idealized feminine persona in a series of underground films that included "Vinyl" and "Poor Little Rich Girl."

The homely artist with the pockmarked skin and coarse facial features was socially disenfranchised -- a homosexual, working-class son of Eastern European immigrants to Pittsburgh. In New York he had built a successful career as a commercial artist, but working for Madison Avenue only brought hoots of derision from the mostly macho posers of the hard-drinking downtown art world.

Sedgwick was Warhol's opposite. Startlingly beautiful, she was a young American aristocrat whose Boston Brahmin ancestor, Endicott Peabody, had founded the Groton School and mentored the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her on-screen presence in "Vinyl" ignited a quintessential love affair with the camera. She does nothing but sit to one side smoking cigarettes while ogling the sadomasochistic action. But it's hard to take your eyes off her. The 22-year-old is luminous.

"Factory Girl" is disappointing because it doesn't grasp this fundamental aspect of the Warhol-Sedgwick relationship. Instead, a surprisingly conventional psychosexual drama unfolds.

Stereotyped story

THE movie tells the story of a young woman brutalized by a vicious father and thus unable to love an authentic man of action -- the fictional Billy Quinn, a motorcycle-riding rock 'n' roller based on Bob Dylan. So she turns to the supposed safety of an "inauthentic man" -- a passive homosexual in a cheesy wig. She's a stereotypical gay-guy's-best-girlfriend, and Warhol betrays her.

The film heaps Warhol with undeserved blame for not rescuing Edie from her descent into drug addiction and an early grave. (She died at 28, having been preceded by two brothers -- both likely suicides.) Warhol is played as a depraved villain even more than the obviously responsible parties -- her decadent, negligent parents.

"Factory Girl" does look good, often capturing the distinctive surface appearance of Warhol's underground cinema. A dismal exception comes near the end, when Sedgwick's mental crack-up is underscored by the film going out of register. The manner is borrowed from Warhol's famous silk-screen technique. But while the artist was many things, an Expressionist was not one of them.

Instead, Warhol's Pop is a drag aesthetic. Not by accident did his films feature transvestites. His silk-screen canvases of Marilyn Monroe were made by dressing up ordinary commercial photographs to look like paintings. Photography, like Warhol himself, was stuck with second-class status in the postwar art world, where painting was held in the highest esteem. So he put photographs in painting-drag.

Edie was similarly transformed. Her long brown hair was cut short and bleached white-blond, becoming a sleeker version of Andy's silver wig. The pair dressed alike in striped sailor shirts and black tights (for her) and pants (for him).

In creating an idealized projection of himself, Warhol hoped that Sedgwick would provide the transformation he wanted most of all. His painting studio, lined with aluminum foil, was the homemade version of a silver-screen dream factory. His factory girl might get studio interest in financing a mainstream film.

"Before" was the underground New York art world. "After" would be Hollywood movies. Given Sedgwick's emotional problems, not to mention the movie industry's conservatism, it was not to be. But the motive is not much in evidence in "Factory Girl," either.

Guy Pearce, the capable actor who plays Warhol, is miscast physically -- facial features too refined, too handsome, in fact too similar to lovely Sienna Miller, cast as Sedgwick, to provide the stark and necessary contrast that would embody the transformative drag aesthetic. Rather than desperately aspiring to Hollywood, "Factory Girl" instead effortlessly fits Hollywood custom. It is what Warhol wasn't.

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