Proud Mary

Pub date August 1, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

ACTRESS AND AUTHOR If you love to watch cult movies and pay tribute to the stars that make them great (and in San Francisco, who doesn’t?), Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass screening of Death Race 2000, featuring a live appearance by Mary Woronov, is something special. Woronov isn’t your average actor — she’s a painter, great writer, and performer whose roots in the Playhouse of the Ridiculous are often unjustly obscured by her Warhol-era exploits, both of which predate her Roger Corman–produced bouts with Hollywood. And Death Race 2000? We’re now six years past the date targeted by Paul Bartel’s 1975 movie, yet its nightmare vision of fascist TV remains hideously funny — right on time, if not ahead of it.
“It is,” Woronov agrees by phone from Los Angeles. “As a country, we’re out of our minds! We’re the greatest polluter, we have the most corrupt government, and we have the biggest weapons of mass destruction. We’ve conducted the most wars since World War II. And I’ve been living here under the illusion that we’re democratic.”
“The media has completely lulled us into nothingness,” she continues. “People can be told that their pensions will be taken away but the head of the corporation will increase his own pension two million dollars — and they don’t do anything! They don’t riot! They just go, [assumes a zombie voice] ‘OK.’ What happened to us?”
A big question, but Woronov’s next novel, What Really Happened, might answer some of it — even if she makes a point of saying the book isn’t political. What it is, though, is the latest outgrowth of a creative birth that took place when Woronov, facing the idea of death (“I got an illness that was merely an infection, but they told me it was cancer”), kicked drugs at the age of 50. “My brain started working and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I started writing,” she says.
The results have included one memoir (1995’s Swimming Underground), one short-story collection (2004’s Blind Love), and two novels (2000’s Snake and 2002’s Niagara, which sports this great first sentence: “I started drinking in the day, and by the time I got to the supermarket I was so loaded I need a cart to stand up”). Publisher Amy Scholder discovered Woronov, and Gary Indiana has raved about her work, but even if she’s now able to call herself a “great writer,” she can also be hilariously blunt. “I wrote Swimming Underground because I thought it would make me famous,” she says. “To my disappointment, I got a review in the New York Times that said I was too busy crawling around the bathroom floor to say anything real about Warhol.”
As if the New York Times qualifies as an authority. In fact, Woronov’s take on the Factory uptown era, praised by Lou Reed as the best of what is surely now a library bookcase worth of efforts, is as distinct and dominant as her appearance in films such as 1966’s Chelsea Girls. Were the other Superstars intimidated by her and by the whip wit of her friend, the infamous Ondine? “People were very intimidated by Ondine,” she says. “People were mystified by me. For one thing, I didn’t have sex. For another, I acted like a guy, merely as a counterbalance to the transvestites and the female energy there. I did theater and I was a really good actress, so I didn’t have the desperation of the other girls who thought Warhol was somehow going to make them a star.”
The theater that Woronov “did” wasn’t exactly forgettable Broadway nonsense. Along with Ondine (who once played the role of Scrooge there), she took part in the Café Cino scene memorably described in Jimmy McDonough’s Andy Milligan biography The Ghastly One. She also worked with Playhouse of the Ridiculous’s great Ronald Tavel and John Vaccaro. “Their sensibility was extremely feminine, extremely bizarre,” she says. “They were camp at its highest level, where you accept the most strange things and are entertained by them.”
This sensibility inspired some of Woronov’s most memorable film performances, such as Miss Togar from 1979’s Rock ’n’ Roll High School. “I dressed like an aberration of Joan Crawford,” Woronov says. “Everyone else is in modern dress and I look like I’m from the 1930s. The thing about [Miss Togar] is that, you know, she’s a fucking pervert. What makes it wonderful is that I don’t play a pervert. I play someone commenting on perversion — just like a transvestite plays someone commenting on female-ism.”
Woronov’s own female charms suit Death Race’s Calamity Jane, and another classic collaboration with Bartel, 1982’s Eating Raoul, truly allows her Amazonian sexiness to bloom. “I knew I was sexy, but there was still a dichotomy of gender slippage,” she says, discussing prude-turned-dominatrix Mary Bland. “I was still denying [sexiness] and yet showing it — like an underslip.”
At the forefront of ’90s new queer cinema with roles in movies by Gregg Araki and Richard Glatzer, Woronov continues to add to one of the world’s most colorful filmographies. Recently, she appeared in The Devil’s Rejects, and she praises the film’s director, Rob Zombie, as an honest man and class act in an industry full of phonies.
Today, Mary Woronov remains in LA. “For writing, you can’t beat it, it’s such a peculiar place — it’s like a swamp,” she says with a laugh. “Everybody I know is moving to Europe or talking about moving but not moving. I have decided I’m not going to move. I really want to stay here and wait for the revolution. I do believe there will be one.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
Sat/5, 11:59 p.m.
Bridge Theatre
3010 Geary, SF
(415) 267-4893
For a complete Q&A with Mary Woronov — and to find out why she hates Warhol — go to the Guardian’s Pixel Vision blog, at