It's easy to understand the appeal of the peace-love-and-Beatles aspect of the 1960s, even at a 40-year remove. Peace and love are always nice, of course; and the cuddly Liverpudlians offered a happy new take on pop music, fashion, and — so it seemed — life itself. But another, darker aspect of the '60s — the one presided over by the pop artist and pasty-faced scene-master Andy Warhol — was a less life-affirming proposition. Warhol offered nothing. The blank gaze he trained on American commercial culture with his silk-screened soup cans and Brillo boxes, his multiple Marilyns, Marlons and Jackies, presented the objects of his scrutiny to the viewer without any implied satirical comment. The man was devoid of attitude, which of course was an attitude in itself. It was all oddly unsettling.
Then there were the willfully crude little films Warhol began making in 1964 at the Factory, his silver-walled salon-cum-urban wasteland on East 47th Street in Manhattan. Here he switched on a camera (his sole technical contribution) and invited the tribe of hangers-on who congregated around him — hustlers, transvestites, amphetamine enthusiasts and slumming society girls — to step up and act-out in front of it. They were happy to do so. (Warhol dubbed them all "superstars"; he was apparently the first to deploy the term.) The girls came and went. One who came in early 1965 was Edie Sedgwick, a trust-fund wild-child who, under Warhol's whispery tutelage, became the queen of the exploding New York pop-celebrity scene of that time — the Girl of the Year. Briefly.
Sedgwick's story was recounted at extravagant length in Jean Stein's 1982 book, "Edie: An American Biography," an exhaustive oral history that positioned its subject solidly within the broad sweep of mid-century arts and society. The book is a fascinating cultural excavation.
George Hickenlooper, the director of the Edie biopic "Factory Girl," is working on a smaller, more manageable canvas, and his movie has one enormous asset: a sensational, radically emptied-out performance by Guy Pearce as Warhol. Pearce has been memorable in a number of films, from "Memento" to "The Proposition." Here, he virtually erases his own persona to settle into the empty shell of Warhol's abundantly documented public image: the silver wig, the bad skin, the empty eyes, the fraudulent self-effacement ("I wonder if Picasso knows who I am yet?"). Pearce's performance is assembled out of rigorously limited physical gestures and a vocal characterization that never rises above a murmur. But it's mesmerizing — you can't take your eyes off him, and you miss him every time he leaves the scene.
The famous Factory milieu is evocatively rendered, too: the concrete floor, the tinfoil décor, the big couch bagged in see-through plastic slipcovers. (A homely reminder that at the age of 37, Warhol still lived with his doting mother.) At the beginning of the film, we see the fresh-faced Edie (Sienna Miller), already an alumna of a pricey, private mental sanitarium, decamping from her New England art school to make her way down to New York City, where she's determined to become a model (which she does) and some kind of star. This latter quest, sustained by her family's enormous wealth, brings her to the attention of Warhol, who loves money and people who have bags of it. Soon, with her pixie-cropped hair and her big kohl-caked eyes, she's a Factory fixture, lolling her way through Andy's dismal films, and at one point flying off to Paris with him to screen one of them — to a standing ovation. (The French, go figure.) She's the queen of the "youthquake" moment, but her sell-by date is rapidly approaching. It's not just that her increasingly speed-addled deportment is becoming a bore, and that the family money spigot is slowly being turned off. She's also made the mistake of appearing in a tabloid photo with a folk-rock star (more on him in a moment) who's even more famous than Warhol. The silvery eminence cuts her off like a loose thread, and she drifts away into a haze of heroin addiction and sexual debasement. By 1971, she's dead of a barbiturate overdose, age 28.
Working with the cinematographer Michael Grady ("Wonderland"), Hickenlooper achieves some interesting effects mixing rich color and grainy black-and-white footage; and there are jerky, stutter-frame flourishes that suggest the impoverished aesthetic of the Warhol films themselves. There are also some perfectly-shaped little scenes, like the one in which Andy, a devout Catholic, sits thoughtfully in a confessional popping Hershey's Kisses while trying to think up sins to mumble to the priest on the other side of the screen.
However, in telling Edie's story, Hickenlooper has had to deal with problems that Jean Stein never encountered with her book. He has to bring to life a New York pop scene that's long-gone, which is difficult enough. (The Manhattan exteriors in "Factory Girl" were partly filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana.) Even more problematic, he also has to show us not only people who are long-gone — among them Warhol and Edie herself — but people who aren't, and who thus still have access to lawyers. So when his camera pans the stage at one of the early downtown Velvet Underground happenings that Warhol organized, we see just a flash of a dark-haired guitarist no doubt meant to be Lou Reed — who's still very much with us; after that, we see mostly the late vocalist Nico (Meredith Ostrom), who's not.
Much, much more problematic is the appearance in the Warhol orbit of Bob Dylan — or "Billy Quinn" as the movie laughably presents him. (It's a pointless obfuscation: "The Mighty Quinn" is one of Dylan's better-known songs.) Billy is played by Hayden Christensen, who manages to make something sly and improbably hunky out of this doomed-to-fail imposture. With his harmonica rack, pea coat, Ray-Bans and adenoidal honk, he seems unmistakably intended to be Dylan, even though the filmmakers contend he's a composite that also includes Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, of the Doors. Please. When Billy tells Edie, "It's not real, babe," the pretense becomes futile.
In just one example of the speculative nature of the movie's cultural history, Billy and Edie have a fairly graphic sex scene. (Gossip columns are claiming the sex was real; it's real brief, anyway). And the picture strongly implies that Billy's subsequent dumping of Edie in order to marry another woman is what sent her spiraling down into drug addiction and eventually to her death. (This is a hearsay story that was promoted by one of Edie's brothers, but is otherwise unsubstantiated.) Dylan reportedly threatened legal action prior to the film's release. He may have a case, although at this late date, it's hard to fathom why he still cares.
In any event, Hickenlooper has shouldered aside most of the other creative obstacles involved in making this picture — all except the insurmountable one at its center. Many people who knew Edie Sedgwick found her to be sweet and adorable (when she wasn't being an impossible bitch). But four decades after her tiny heyday, it's hard to discern anything special about her. She was, in a way, the Paris Hilton of her brief time; a little more talented, maybe (who isn't?), but not much. Fame really is fleeting, and Edie's is long-flown. There's certainly something sad about her short, burned-out life, but it doesn't rise to the level of tragedy. And she seems unworthy of the emotional depths that Sienna Miller skillfully plumbs on her behalf.
In the movie's final scene, in a TV interview right after Edie's death, Warhol is asked to say something about the girl who'd been his super-est superstar only six years earlier. "I haven't seen her in years," Warhol says, flustered by the question. "It was so long ago. I mean, I hardly knew her at all."
Why should we not care even less?
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