Sunday Editor’s Pick: An Evening with Mario Montez

by on November 6, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Nov 13 at 6:30 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Former Warhol superstar and Jack Smith muse Mario Montez makes one of his first New York public appearances in over 30 years, for an on-stage conversation with Agosto Machado.


There will be screenings of Warhol’s Screen Test #2 of Montez, as well as Jose Rogriguez-Soltero’s Lupe. At 4:00, MOMI screens a vehicle for the drag queen’s inspiration, camp superstar Mario Montez, Arabian Nights.


Montez also appears earlier in the day at MoMA, introducing restorations of the Jack Smith films in which he starred, including Flaming Creatures.


Playwright/director Charles Ludlam in Ridiculous Theater:

Mario Montez towers above the others on eleven-inch Fuck Me Pumps. He is the Guru of Drag. Actresses Black-Eyes Susan and Lola Pashalinksi have learned the intricacies of makeup and costume from him and now they have something to teach. Whether he is playing The Wife, The Mother, The Wore or the Virgin, Montez captures the ineffable essence of femininity. I never tire of writing roles for Mario Montez. He has dignity.


One of Warhol’s films starring Mario and a banana:


Melissa Anderson for Artforum:

Muscular, thick-jawed Montez has no interest in starlet mimicking (unlike future superstar Candy Darling); with a few incongruous props—a banana, a hamburger—he transforms screen-goddess worship into a fantastic, perverse, and inimitable ritual.


Parker Tyler in Underground Film: A Critical History:

If one remarks to an Underground buff that usually Montez’ drag act is pretty bad, he will reply that that is the point, it is part of the beauty of the parody that the parodist be inept. Marion Montez does not impersonate Mario Montez, he “is” (that is, wishes to be) Marion Montez. It is camp existentialism.


Andy Warhol on Montez in POPism:

Mario was one of the best natural comedians I’d ever met; he knew instinctively how to get a laugh every time. He had a natural blend of sincerity and distraction, which has to be one of the great comedy combinations.


A lot of Mario’s humor came from the fact that he adored dressing up like a female glamour queen, yet at the same time he was painfully embarrassed about being in drag. He used to always say that he knew it was a sin to be in drag – he was Puerto Rican and a very religious Roman Catholic. The only spirtual comfort he allowed himself was the logic that even though God surely didn’t like him for going into drag, that still, if He really hated him He would have struck him dead.


Jack Smith always said that Mario was his favorite underground actor because he could instantly capture the sympathy of the audience. And that was certainly true. He told me that every night he prayed in his little apartment on the Lower East Side for himself and his parents and all the dead celebrities that he loved, like “Linda Darnell and James Dean and Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Dandridge.” Mario had that classic combination of seeming dumb but being able to say the right things with perfect timing; just when you thought you were laughing at him, he’d turn it all around.


Video Artist Conrad Ventur, who re-staged a 2010 Screen test with Montez, for L Magazine:

Mario is the utmost professional. The hours can be long. The makeup can bake for longer than it should, but at the end of the day he’s still ready for more. A few days after we shot Mario Banana, we recorded Mario Montez Screen Test 2010 after an exhausting afternoon of doing photographs in a backyard around a swimming pool. He changed quickly out of the Norma Despond outfit and into the black lace dress with the pearls, just like he did 45 years ago. And then we started. We did two takes and the second one was perfect. The lights hurt his eyes during the recording—he blinks frequently. But he embraces these imperfections—welcomes them into the process. Working with him is a total pleasure. Forthcoming video and photographic works reference his personal histories with particular reference to cinema and music. Through the immensity of his experience, Mario is a kind of queer multi-generational hybrid to me—he has become my collaborator, my drag mother and gay grandfather—all in one.


Uzi Parnes describes Jack Smith and Montez:

In two particularly influential Film Culture essays, Smith propounded his theories regarding the importance of the glorious visual elements that were created by the stylistic extremism of two such diverse figures as Josef von Sternberg and Maria Montez. Both were at the time highly out of vogue. Smith elaborated on their importance, claiming that both strove for a quality in their work that defied filmic realism of favor of Romantic exaggeration. He explained that Maria Montez achieved this quality as a performer whose persons was far greater than the characters she portrayed; von Sternberg was the master of visual cinema whose creation, Marlene Dietrich, was “his own visual projection – a brilliant transvestite in a world of delirious unreal adventures.”


The relationship Smith attributes to Von Sternberg and Dietrich was much like Smith’s own relationship with Mario Montez. Mario, who had never acted before, eventually became the first of the Warhol superstars. Describing this, Ronald Tavel wrote: “Stars of this nature can be created. They are created by directors who wish to statue a vehicle for the expression of themselves. Mario Montez is a creation of Jack Smith. Smith fed Mario his vision, his psychology, his dream. Mario cleansed his dream, and Smith refilled it. Mario took on Smith’s vocabulary, his costumes, and his fantasy.


From Smith’s famous essay “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez,” originally published in Film Culture:

I tell you Maria Montez Moldy Movie Queen, Shoulder pad, gold platform wedge Siren, Determined, dreambound, Spanish, Irish, Negro?, Indian girl who went to Hollywood from the Dominican Rep. Wretch actress – pathetic as actress, why insist upon her being an actress – why limit her? Don’t slander her beautiful womanliness that took joy in her own beauty and all beauty – or whatever in her that turned plaster cornball sets to beauty. Her eye saw not just beauty but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty.


The vast machinery of a movie company worked overtime to make her vision into sets. They achieved only inept approximations. But one of her atrocious acting sighs suffused a thousand tons of dead plaster with imaginative life and truth.


Those who still underrate Maria Montez, should see that the truth of Montez flix is only the truth of them as it exists for those who like them and the fact that others get anything out of them is only important because it is something they could miss and important because it is enjoyment missed. No one wants to miss an enjoyment and it is important to enjoy because it is important to think and enjoying is simply thinking – not hedonism, not voluptuousness – simply thought. I could go on to justify thought but I’m sure that wouldn’t be necessary to readers of magazines. There is a world in Montez movies which reacting against turns to void. I can explain their interest for me but I can’t turn them into good filmtechnique. Good film technique is a classical attribute. Zero de Conduite – perfect film technique, form, length, etc., a classical work – Montez flix are none of these. They are romantic expressions. They came about because (as in the case of Von Sternberg) an inflexible person committed to an obsession was given his way thru some circumstance. Results of this sort of thing TRANSCEND FILM TECHNIQUE. Not barely – but resoundingly, meaningfully, with magnificence, with the vigor that one exposed human being always has – and with failure. We cause their downfall (after we have enjoyed them) because they embarrass us grown up as we are and post adolescent / post war / post graduate / post-toasties etc. The movies that were secret (I felt I had to sneak away to see M.M. flix) remain secret somehow and a nation forgets its pleasures, trash.



Steven Watson recounts Montez’s Screen Test for actual director Ronald Tavel in Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties:

Warhol gave Tavel the same instructions – get the star to react. But this time the star was Mario Montez, who had already demonstrated his comfort in front of the camera. “No one moves all the muscles in his face the way Mario does,” said Tavel.” He really knows what to do in front of the camera. He has an instinct for it.”[…] “The quickest way is to torment people into a reaction. And he was vulnerable. I was tormenting myself, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to have someone sitting still.”


Tavel’s unctuous offscreen voice began the humiliating screen-test interview by annointing Mario Montez with a new starlet name, “Saliva Pulham.” Tavel tested him on diction, line reading, and impersonation. Shortly before the second reel ran out, Tavel instructed Montez to unzip his dress and take out his penis, off camera, and give “a real cock-teaser look.” throughout most of the screen test Montez remained demure and hopeful in counterpoint to Tavel’s increasingly demeaning demands, creating the sense of two people in different planes. “What you saw on the screen was the genuine belief on Mario’s part that this was all so,” said Tavel, “and his willingness to cooperate during it.”


Screen Test #2 pioneered the interrogation form that would become a staple in Warhol films, but none of the later films were so focused on the task: getting a reaction in real time.


Ronald Gregg for Moving Image Source:

Lupe, Rodriguez-Soltero’s homage to the Mexican-born actress Lupe Velez, displayed Montez’s capacity for self-transformation more than any other film. Like Maria Montez, Velez’s B-movie career and tragic end led to her becoming a gay diva (she committed suicide in 1944). Velez became a star in the late 1920s and was a major focus of the tabloids due to her high-profile romance with Gary Cooper and subsequent marriage to Johnny Weissmuller. Toward the end of her film career she starred in the B-movie Mexican Spitfire comedy series at RKO, playing a stereotyped fiery Spanish woman.


Rodriguez-Soltero’s Lupe stands in sharp contrast to Andy Warhol’s Lupe (1966), made at the same time. While Warhol focuses on the sad, lonely, sordid end of Velez’s life, Rodriguez-Soltero and Montez celebrate her operatic-like successes and tragedies. They portray her as choosing and living a life of excess, and even in her death they show her body and soul ascending to a saintly, inspirational place. Unlike Warhol’s minimalist, deadpan aesthetic, with its improvisational, long take structure, Rodriguez-Soltero’s Lupe is “visually very generous,” as Sontag would have put it. Filmed on Ektachrome-EF and printed on Kodachrome-II stock, it contains exuberant explosions of Vera West-like reds and greens and amazing superimpositions shot in the camera. This lavishness draws loving attention to Mario Montez’s costumes and makeup. While Warhol’s film depicts the self-destruction of the star (played by Edie Sedgwick), Rodriguez-Soltero’s Lupe celebrates the freedom and pleasure of Mario Montez’s transformation into this cherished actress, relishing his ascension and departure from ordinary life—a life constrained by political, moral, and economic structures—into an alternative space of glamour and pleasure.


By creating an unfettered “cinema of attractions,” Smith, Mario Montez, and their contemporaries appropriated Hollywood excess in order to construct and perform their own utopian spaces of pleasure. Their glamour and gestures, generous visuals, and vibrant music created spaces of pleasure for both audience and performers. They enabled a group of impoverished filmmakers and actors to affirm their lives and their right to existence. Anything but abject, they became the exotic, glamorous, and confident Scheherazade and Cobra Woman.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Lupe is of its moment. A persistent mess set to a mix of schmaltzy Spanish ballads, the Rolling Stones, flamenco, and Vivaldi, it’s essentially generous—first, because it encourages the viewer to appreciate the greatness of other movies, and second, because it provides a vehicle for its star. The most appealing of drag queens, discovered and named by Jack Smith (although he’s billed in Flaming Creatures as Dolores Flores), Mario Montez is poignantly unconvincing as Lupe—tall, sinewy, and big-featured—but no less beautiful for that. He carries the movie on his broad shoulders.


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