I Shot Andy Warhol

(Mary Harron, USA/UK, 1996)


The artist Gianfranco Baruchello once wrote: "To say that the importance of a man is the myth of which he's the centre is to make him run the risk of being either everything or nothing" (1). He was speaking about Marcel Duchamp, but the idea applies even more forcefully to Andy Warhol.

I am one of those people for whom Warhol tends to be everything – or, at the very least, an extremely important and central figure that no writer on modern culture can simply ignore or deride. And so I welcome the current flood of movies (from The Doors [1990] to Gus Van Sant's long-mooted biopic via Julian Schnabel's Basquiat [1996]) attempting to grapple with the complex myth of Warhol's art and life.

But I have no time for films that blithely reduce Warhol to nothing – that make him the butt of mindless, reflex, philistine jokes. Such comedy is not difficult, for the Warhol legend genuinely supplies an infinite number of amusing details: Andy as that blank, indifferent guy who often did not show up for the shooting of his own movies, who casually milked ideas from everyone around him, and who answered every probing question with a flippant shrug.

Mary Harron's terrible film I Shot Andy Warhol dives under the cover of such easy humour. It is almost impossible to imagine that a movie about the early years of Warhol's Factory – the years of The Velvet Underground and some of the most extraordinary experimental films in cinema history, among much else – could be so banal, inept and empty.

The central focus of this clumsy historical re-enactment is not Warhol (played by Jared Harris) but the anarchic feminist who shot him, Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor). She is another fascinating figure, and the first twenty minutes of Harron's film – detailing her wayward youth as a lesbian with unconventional ideas about humanity's biological destiny – gives us an inkling why.

But as soon as Solanas hits New York and the Factory, with her SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto under her arm, the film rapidly deteriorates. Taylor as Solanas is a sad and excruciating spectacle: this remarkable actor is reduced to mere mimicry, and the endless repetition of a few grating mannerisms (such as spluttering the words "SCUM Manifesto" in every second sentence).

Any film that requires a machine-gun array of famous, real-life people, places, dates and events is difficult to control and shape. Harron fails this challenge miserably: the long centrepiece of a typical, decadent party at the Factory is woefully realised, and crucial scenes involving Solanas' relation to an extremist terrorist group are amateurish.

I Shot Andy Warhol is a cop-out on every level. Despite the occasional, tiny felicity – Lothaire Bluteau as the suave, secretive underground publisher Maurice Girodias, or John Cale's stirring music – it is an artistic disaster.

And, in a time in which movies from To Die For to Shanghai Triad (1995) have presented such fascinatingly equivocal portraits of supposedly evil, difficult or anti-social women, Valerie Solanas has sadly missed out on the dark, complex tribute she truly deserves.

MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, The Aviator, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, Kundun, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Malcolm X, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Pollock, What's Love Got to Do With It?

© Adrian Martin October 1996


1. Baruchello & Henry Martin, Why Duchamp: An Essay on Aesthetic Impact, New York: Documentext, 1985, p. 32. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search