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VIVA: ANDY WARHOL'S GARBO IN THE BUFF

A staple of the Warhol factory, Viva expressed a desire to be a fixture of the Hollywood studio system at the time of my New York Times interview with her. That was in 1969, and she has yet to achieve her goal. But in my book, she will always be Viva Superstar. --GUY FLATLEY


"A big fat lady came up to me and asked, ‘How do you get into the movies?’ ‘Take off your clothes,’ I told her. ‘But what about acting school, shouldn’t you go to acting school first?’ she asked. ‘ No, no, no! You just take off your clothes.’ "

For some, that’s not the way it happens, but that, swears Viva, is the way it happened for her. Viva, the undisputed queen of the unclad underground, took her first untrembling step toward superstardom just a little over two years ago. Before that, she had appeared in only one movie, Charles Wein’s "Ciao! Manhattan," supporting Edie Sedgwick and Paul America, both glamorous graduates of the Andy Warhol factory system.

"And then this Negro girlfriend of mine named Abigail said that I ought to get into an Andy Warhol movie myself," Viva reminisces. "‘An Andy Warhol movie!’ I said. ‘With that bunch of perverts? Ugghh!’ But then I went to see ‘I, a Man,’ and flipped. The very next day I called Andy and said, ‘I want to be in one of your movies.’ ‘O.K.,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have to take off your blouse.’ So I put a Band-Aid on each nipple and went down to the factory, and as I was taking off my clothes, I thought, ‘I really should get out of here.’ "

But, of course, Viva didn’t get out of there. Instead, she got into "The Loves of Ondine," one of Warhol’s superhits of 1967. Actually, you could count "Ondine" as Viva’s movie debut, since "Ciao! Manhattan" seems to have sunk forever into the abyss of the underground. "What happened there," explains Viva, "is that they were all holed up in a cabin somewhere, editing the film, and when they weren’t looking, the dog got hold of it and chewed it up."

But that’s ancient history now, over 14 movies ago –- movies that have included such Warhol whoppers as "The Nude Restaurant," "Bike Boy," "Tub Girl" and the currently confiscated "Blue Movie" –- movies in which Viva, undraped and improvising her own zany dialogue, tussled nobly with notably limp Lotharios. And now there is, at last, a non-Warhol movie, Agnes Varda’s "Lions Love," an outrageous comedy in which Viva plays Viva, an underground movie goddess waiting for that big Hollywood break. The film, and especially Viva’s performance in it, created a stir at the recent New York Film Festival and is now at the 72d Street Playhouse. Incredible as it sounds, Viva manages to suggest a hippie Dietrich, a gregarious Garbo and a turned-on ZaSu Pitts –- all at the same time.

Like all good movie goddesses, Viva has perfected the Art of the Interview –- sort of. It is evident the second she opens the door of her Hotel Chelsea apartment that she will never receive a Seal of Approval from Good Housekeeping –- there are no shades or curtains on the windows, and copies of Shock and Kiss are scattered everywhere. And yet Viva makes you feel right at home. Smiling warmly, she presses your hand in hers and looks into your eyes, thereby giving you the perfect opportunity to look into hers. They are green and enormous; her skin is pale, her lips thin, her cheeks hyper-hollow.

The next thing in the room that you notice is a strikingly buxom girl. She is wearing black braids, a brown beret, and a bulging blue sweater – a dramatic contrast to Viva’s bosomless red velvet and black silk slack suit. "This is my secretary, Donna," Viva says in a soft sing-song. "She’s having her breasts amputated in a couple of weeks."

"Not really amputated," Donna volunteers. "Just reduced. Ever since I was 16, people have been making fun of them. They’re just too big."

"Nonsense," says Viva. "I wish I had boobs like that."

The next thing you notice is a young man named Michel. He looks like Ringo Starr and talks like Charles Aznavour. He is, in fact, a French underground moviemaker and he is married to Viva.

"Not there," he says, as you struggle to find a chair. "Come in here where it is more comfortable."

Since the chairs in the bedroom are littered with bits of clothing and what appear to be extremely lifelike, extremely naked paper dolls, you sink as casually as possible onto a large rumpled bed, where you are instantly joined by the star and her entourage.

Viva stretches and groans. "I’ve been sitting at the goddam typewriter all day," she says, "and my back is killing me. Michel and I are writing my autobiography. You’d better call it a fictional semi-autobiographical novel."

Some of the facts and fancies that emerge during the highly informal, three-hour, three-way interview are perhaps better left to the imagination –- or to the publication of that semi-autobiographical novel. Like the time Viva learned to paint nudes from a plain-clothes priest in Paris, or the time she set up housekeeping with an actor and his wife, or the time Donna had a date with a foot fetishist and she got a cramp in her leg, or the time Viva sang vespers in an Italian convent, or the time Donna set out to woo Viva’s kid brother, or the time Viva and Michel were scolded by the police in Positano for sleeping in the nude.

"We’re starting our novel right at the beginning of my life," Viva says.

When was that?

"Say that I’m in my mid-twenties –- better make that mid-toward late twenties, and that my real name is Janet Sue Mary Hoffman O’Dare."

O’Dare? Then you’re Irish?

"No. Auder –- that’s Michel’s last name," she giggles, nuzzling up to her shaggy-haired, 25-year-old husband, who sits cross-legged and grinning beside her on the bed.

The Auders met for the very first time last New Year’s eve at a party given by Viva in Paris. Michel stumbled in at 4 a.m. with an upset stomach, looking for someplace to sleep. "But Pierre Clementi was already asleep in the bedroom," Viva recalls, "so Michel had to settle for yogurt."

Viva married Michel last March in Las Vegas, on a day off from "Lions Love." It was the first marriage for each of them, unless you count Viva’s hippie wedding with Allen Midgette, another Warhol discovery. "The ceremony with Allen was a mixture of Indian Indian and American Indian," Viva says. "We had the Dalai Lama’s prayer wheel and everyone danced around us. Say, maybe Allen and I are still married! But I don’t think so –- the guy who performed the ceremony was just a hippie. Our marriage lasted three days. My landlord was throwing us out and I got mad at Allen because he wouldn’t help me pack."

But getting back to "A Star Is Born," Part One. Janet Sue Mary Hoffman was one of nine children in a well-to-do family. "My father is a self-made man, a big criminal lawyer who never lost a case. He’s writing a book now called ‘In Hot Blood.’ We lived on a big estate in Syracuse, with a lake and a lot of boats. But we had to rent the boats from my father when we wanted to use them. In fact, we had to rent anything that needed a key to start it. I think my father sort of digs my being a movie star, but my mother says I’m dragging the family name through the gutter. The last time she went to the movies was to ‘The Great Caruso.’ "

Viva is a graduate of Marymount, the Catholic girls’ college in Tarrytown, N.Y. In fact, she seriously considered becoming a nun, but she says that Bishop Fulton J. Sheen convinced her that she was not cut out for the sisterhood. She spent her junior year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and discovering that there is more to life than meets the average Syracuse eye. After graduation, she came to New York, where she began drifting through several jobs, mostly in modeling, and several love affairs, mostly with non-marriageable men.

And then smash, bam, along came Andy Warhol, who named her Viva –- after Viva Paper Towels. Sad to say, not all of the critics jumped on the Viva bandwagon. There were those, in fact, who went so far in the other direction as to make painful comparisons between Viva and Dracula’s daughter and to refer to her as a fag-hag (presumably because many of the Warhol heroes seem more smitten with other Warhol heroes than they do with Viva).

"How can they call me a fag-hag?" says Viva, in mock-shock.

"No, this is not true," says Michel, obviously wounded. "Viva is no fag-hag."

"They think that because I do something in a movie, I do it in real life," Viva asserts. "But I’ve only played myself once or twice. In ‘Nude Restaurant,’ in ‘Blue Movie’…"

"Blue Movie" is the Warhol film that was seized by the New York City Police because it seems to be showing Viva engaging in sexual intercourse with Louis Waldron. How much of that movie is for real?

"Let’s just say I’m a very good actress," Viva says. "Actually, I haven’t seen all of the movie yet, but what I have seen is beautiful. Andy used the wrong kind of film by mistake. He used outdoor when he should have used indoor. There’s a lot of sun coming in the window, and it makes everything a hazy blue."

Viva considers Warhol a super moviemaker, even if he does use the wrong kind of film. "And there’s something good about him as a person, too," she acknowledges. "He makes us feel that we’re a group of artists sharing in the creative process. But the idea of group sharing should go all the way. You shouldn’t have to worry where your breakfast is going to come from. And your rent. I don’t have next month’s rent, and it costs $450 for these two rooms. Andy claims he can’t afford to pay us, that he never makes good deals. But somebody told me that he just bought three brownstones on the Lower East Side. He has given me checks from time to time, but sometimes when I call to ask for money, he says, ‘Try to get in the big time, Viva, so we can all get in the big time.’ You shouldn’t have to beg for money that way. I toured 50 colleges lecturing for Andy, and he didn’t pay me a penny. ‘It’s good practice for you,’ he told me.

"Michel and I really do need money. I didn’t get very much for ‘Lions Love,’ and I’m not getting much from TV anymore. I’m banned from the Johnny Carson show because of ‘Blue Movie.’ Maybe they’re against heterosexual love."

Perhaps the prestige that comes with being the star of a New York Film Festival hit will help stimulate Hollywood interest in Viva. Her festival luck, however, has been rotten in the past. Take the 1968 New York Film Festival. "Allen Midgette and I were doing a dance at the closing night party, giving everybody a good show. Allen took off his shirt, stooped down and started giving bird calls. All of a sudden, three plain clothesmen rushed in and dragged him across the dance floor, kicking him as they went. I threw myself on Allen, trying to protect him, so they began kicking me in the head. They dragged us into a corridor, but still within view of everyone at the party. They kept kicking us. I was really freaking out, and I didn’t even notice that they had pulled off my blouse. I rolled up my scarf and began hitting one of them in the face, so they kicked me all the harder. Inside, I’m told that Norman Mailer was dancing the ‘Blue Danube.’ Jeanne Moreau and
Francois Truffaut were also there. But nobody came to help us, except the Italian director Bertolucci. I can tell you one thing –- I’ll never vote for Norman Mailer.

"I wanted to make a speech at the festival this year, after the showing of ‘Lions Love.’ I wanted to say, ‘It’s nice to be here this year under such auspicious circumstances –- after having been beaten up last year.’ But I was afraid it would embarrass Agnes Varda."

In the final scene of "Lions Love," Viva looks soulfully into the camera and complains that once again she has been talked into doing a film in which she must take off her clothes and make up her own lines.

"That’s really the way I feel," Viva says. " ‘Lion’s Love’ is very beautiful, but I’m still hoping for a period piece, with costumes and lines. I would have loved to play Katharine Hepburn’s role in ‘The Lion in Winter.’ "

In the meantime, Viva and Michel are trying to scrounge up $50,000, the amount they feel they will need to get their own modernized version of "Cleopatra" before the cameras. Viva, of course, will play the title role –- only this time the Serpent of the Nile will be bisexual. Louis Waldron will play a homosexual Antony, and Taylor Mead a heterosexual Caesar. If the movie turns out to be the masterpiece Viva and Michel expect it to be, their problems will be over.

"Maybe then they’ll stop calling me ‘Andy Warhol’s Star.’ And I don’t want to be ‘Agnes Varda’s Star,’ either."

Viva sits up straight on the bed and runs her fingers through her tormented hair. "I just want to be Viva."

TO READ MANY MORE OF GUY FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS--FROM DENNIS HOPPER TO CATHERINE DENEUVE TO HENRY FONDA TO AMANDA PEET TO ALFRED HITCHCOCK TO BUTTERFLY McQUEEN TO JACK BLACK TO JEAN ARTHUR--CLICK HERE.