Once Upon A Time In America: Underground Films Revisited

It seems that anyone making a movie or television series set in New York City in the 1960’s and early 1970’s finds it  irresistible to include something about the Underground Film scene that flourished in New York at that time, particularly as it relates to Andy Warhol and his bizarre friends/entourage. (In an earlier blog post on Andy Warhol, I discussed some of the reasons for this fascination.).  Furthermore, I find it rather amusing to see casting notices for some of these projects which contain the names of persons long forgotten and hardly known during their “15 minutes of fame” that  derived from their association with the Underground movement.  Just what were Underground Films?

Well, that’s difficult to say because it was such an eclectic movement; but one thing these rather amateurish films had in common was the cachet that they were films that you were not supposed to see.  I know that the concept of forbidden films may be difficult to comprehend today, when with cable television and the internet, “anything goes” and there is “everything for everybody”; however in those dark days there  was certainly something conspiratorial in just attempting to see such films  You learned about screenings mainly by word of mouth and announcements  in Underground (i.e. counter culture) newspapers—which, themselves, contained things you were not supposed to read, written by writers who often employed noms de guerre. Most screenings were held in lofts in the industrial part of town or church basements.  In fact, just getting to these showings was scarier than anything you would ever see on the screen.  And  having made your way to one of these films, if you felt that the man sitting next to you might be an undercover agent, you may  not have been paranoid : Underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s  notorious Flaming Creatures (1963) was seized by the authorities after its first public showing, never to be screened again for decades; and one of Andy Warhol’s films suffered a similar fate.

What happened to the participants of the Underground at the end of their “15 minutes of fame?”  Most moved on.  Andy Warhol, for example, went on to make films that were more and more exploitive and commercial.  However, for many “moving on” meant moving on to the next world, as so many of them died tragically young.

But to get back to the special fascination that this particular era has today, it seems every talented young actress wants to play the tragic Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick; British actress Sienna Miller played her last.  And then there is the enigmatic Nico of Warhol’s illustrious Velvet Underground; what a splendid role for an actress who possesses her statuesque good looks. But what about Mario Montesz, another Warhol “superstar”?  How would a good actor play one who was universally acknowledged to be so terrible?  Mario Montez was a female impersonator who patterned himself after Maria Montez, a Hollywood actress who appeared in many exotic low budget adventure films. (It should be noted that Maria Montez was considered by many as “the world’s worst actress.”)   And as far as female impersonators go, Mario Montez was, himself, considered to be“pretty bad.”   But perhaps the  key to portraying him can be found in critic Parker Tyler’s astute observation: “Mario Montez does not impersonate Maria Montez; he is (that is, wishes to be) Maria Montez.”  Mario passed away in 2013; sadly, he was one of only a few veterans of the Underground to have survived to old age.

Let the record show that once upon a time in America, if you were determined and not afraid, you could see films that you were not supposed to see!

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