Mary Woronov Visits Midnight Mass

Dennis Harvey August 3, 2006

Most of us couldn’t justify ten public minutes on the wrong side of the lens. (Home movies don’t count.) But there are certain people who hypnotize the camera like cobra does mouse. Sometimes they are too idiosyncratic for movie stardom, resigned to making the occasional striking impression while duller talents get farther faster. Still, time will out: Erstwhile Hollywood “failures” like Louise Brooks retroactively burn up the screen in ways that foster ever-growing cult adulation, while many better-paid contemporaries slowly fade into the dustbin of cinematic arcana.

File under “Undervalued But Essential” Mary Woronov, a Warhol Factory “superstar” in the ’60s, exploitation starlet in the ’70s and campy B-pic icon ever since who has always — ALWAYS — been better than her material context. Traveling up from L.A., where these days she divides her time acting, painting (she’s an accomplished visual artist), and writing (books to date include the novel “Snake” and Warhol-era memoir “Swimming Underground”), she’ll appear this weekend at a Midnight Mass screening of “Death Race 2000.”

That 1975 Roger Corman-produced drive-in hit was her first collaboration with actor/director Paul Bartel. They’d later co-star as murderous yuppie couple The Blands in 1982 cannibal comedy classic “Eating Raoul,” which he’d created specially for them both — and the teaming of leonine, effortlessly commanding Mary with pudgy fussbudget Paul proved such comedic genius that they were teamed up nearly 20 times altogether, only a few under Bartel’s own direction. (Alas, secure funding eluded planned “Raoul” sequel “Bland Ambition,” one of the most-lamented movies ever left unmade.)

It was “Death Race 2000” that brought Woronov permanently to L.A. at the behest of Bartel. The latter was a friend of her then-husband (Theodore Gershuny, who directed her in several obscure features including “Sugar Cookies” and “Silent Night, Bloody Night”) and was casting his first feature for prolific drive-in-flick producer Roger Corman. Mary played one of several contestants (others including top-billed David Carradine, fresh from “Kung Fu,” and Sylvester Stallone just one year pre-“Rocky”) competing in a televised transcontinental “death race” in which drivers are encouraged to do anything to win — and are even awarded points for running down pedestrians en route. Such proto-“reality TV” mayhem is a principal means by which this near-future’s fascist U.S. government keeps citizens in a media-hypnotized stupor.

In 1975, “2000” seemed the last word in outrageous bad-taste black comedy fantasy. Three decades it’s suspiciously like The Way We Live Now.

“Death Race 2000” was an immediate hit and cult favorite, ensuring more work for transplanted East Coaster Woronov. Good news, since her original affiliation with Warhol (memorably appearing in films including “Chelsea Girls,” touring as a whip-wielding dancer in his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” multimedia show with the Velvet Underground) had long ended, nailed shut by his reclusiveness after being shot by Valerie Solanas. That experience, combined with years onstage with NYC’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, had made the striking six-foot actress without formal training a master at camp and improvisation. While both styles were anathema to mainstream Hollywood, they were very much valued in Corman’s seat-of-pants productions.

“No circumstances could be stranger than [working on] the Warhol films, and Corman was like the Warhol of the West,” she says now. “He was very cheap. He encouraged ‘the kids’ to go out and do their own movie without policing them at all. The atmosphere was very familiar and at ease for me. When you didn’t like your lines, you improvised, which I had always done.” She also routinely came up with her own character concepts and costumes, like the “aberrant Joan Crawford” look for evil principal Miss Evelyn Togar in 1979’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” another Corman-produced cult fave.

Mary Woronov carved out a definite niche for herself in the still-wild ’60s hangover of the 1970s, scoring gigs on afternoon soap opera “Somerset” and even “Charlie’s Angels” (she played a sadistic possibly-lesbian prison warden — not her last such role — in the infamous “Angels in Chains” episode) as well as in numerous, variably tongue-in-cheek drive-in flicks.

Still, it was surprising when the hilarious 1982 indie “Eating Raoul” nearly boosted her and frequent collaborator Bartel into the major leagues. They played Paul and Mary Bland, an incongruously prissy (and platonic) marital couple in an L.A. rife with horny “swingers.” After accidentally killing one of the latter, then pocketing his fat billfold of cash and selling his remains as horsemeat to an undiscriminating taco stand, the Blands become meat-is-murder entrepreneurs — harvesting “those filthy swingers” one by one, then eventually by the hot-tubbing bulk.

This much-loved sleeper hit should have “made” both Bartel and Woronov. But his subsequent directorial features were disappointments (including bigger-budgeted effort “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,” in which Mary co-starred with Jacqueline Bisset) and the “Raoul” was forever delayed.

Her career chugged along uninspirationally between TV guest-star assignments (including such unlikely showcases as “Hart to Hart” and “Murder, She Wrote”), the rare mainstream movie bit (“Black Widow,” “Dick Tracy”) and juicier parts in often direct-to-video exploitation movies that could accommodate her edgy comic snap. (Especially recommended: 1985’s snarky women-in-prison melodrama “Hell Hole,” wherein she plays yet another cartoonishly malevolent “lesbian” matron.)

“The acting that I really like is camp, which I consider a maligned form — it’s actually more intelligent because you’re commenting on the material rather than simply communicating it,” she says. “It’s like a transvestite comments on femaleness. Gender slippage is another thing I picked up from Warhol, I became the girl who was a guy, but obviously not a dyke. Number one, I’m not ugly, number two I am very sexy and very female. But I love playing with the other thing. So I brought all that with me in a package to Hollywood. It scared them to death. You go on a regular set, everything you do is programmed by them — your makeup, your mind, your actions. I always found it very restrictive.”

Such restrictions resulted in a whole lot of roles as mean receptionists, nasty doctors, and snotty aliens (“Babylon 5”). “The only time I really loved acting was when I had a group of people around who really understood the insanity we were making,” she says, adding “I won’t go up for roles anymore, I won’t audition — they have to hire me on the spot. I don’t miss it, either. I worked in a golden time where people (supporting actors) were actually paid, for one thing.”

These days Woronov spends most of her time writing — a fourth novel is on the way — and making her richly colored, expressionistic, physically vivid yet psychologically fraught paintings. Nonetheless, she appeared as recently as last year (an eyeblink cameo) in Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects.” And a decade ago she directed several episodes of the cable erotica series “Women: Stories of Passion,” an experience she says was “fabulous, I had a great time. I’m good at directing and writing, so it was very rewarding. But it was softcore — so I could never parlay it into real jobs.”

Hmm. Given an indie-feature budget and carte blanche, what could she accomplish? I, for one, would like to know. Calling from her longtime Koreatown home at age 63 — when she says she’s “very sexy” as if it were a statement of resume fact, you don’t doubt her for a moment — Mary Woronov is still full of matter-of-fact surprises. She cheerfully recalls one treasured 1970s exploitation-film shoot as “crazed with drugs, they paid people for overtime in cocaine.” She nonchalantly notes that an affair (undertaken in reaction to her ex-husband’s cheating) with a younger rocker led her into L.A.‘s nascent mid/late ’70s punk scene, “which I loved,” but admits she’s happily lived alone ever since — “which I love.”

She admits “I was never really allowed to act in Hollywood —I was trying to fit in, and yet of course I can’t, I never could. When I became poor, it [trying to get mainstream roles] was very frustrating.” But she also says “LA has been very good to me. It’s a strange town, great for a writer. It’s just not a good place if you’re desperate.”

One gets the feeling no subject is off limits for Mary Woronov — and if one is, she’ll verbally smack you down without hesitation. She will no doubt be great company at the Midnight Mass “Death Race 2000” revival.