National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Factory Girl

There are many aspects to why the new film, “Factory Girl,” is opening to less than rave reviews this week. It’s an unsettling docudrama set in the 1960s Greenwich Village, about Andy Warhol (played by Guy Pearce), a Bob Dylanesque character (Hayden Christensen) and the lesser-known real life person Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller). Hardly romantic or nostalgic, it’s not intended to be.

In fact, there are a lot of reasons that many people insist on an unsoiled legacy for Warhol, in particular. There is a strong desire to glorify those days and, as for himself, Warhol has been elevated almost to the status of a deity.

If “Factory Girl” exposes clay in those beatific feet, then so be it. Many with a lot to protect from the continuing fiduciary value of the Warhol legacy, as well as many more wishing to protect their own daydreams and foggy recollections or yearnings regarding an allegedly pristine era, have and will dump on this film.

I have no clue of any motives of either the makers or detractors in the case of this project, and I deliberately ceased my on-line investigations into that because it seemed impossible, from the outset, to separate truth from self-interest in the reports.

The broad outlines of the film story are fact, however, undisputed. The young, rich and glamorous Edie Sedgwick dropped out of Radcliffe, became Warhol’s first starlet in the mid-1960s, and for a time, the two of them together took the New York social scene by storm. She was a fixture at Warhol’s legendary “Factory,” where his creative projects were nurtured amidst scores of edgy and flamboyant off-beats thrilled by his notion that their mere being was their art.

Warhol became disinterested in Sedgwick, whether out of jealousy over her affair with a Dylan-like figure, or for some other reason. Rejected by her lover, as well, unable to find any legitimate work because of her high-profile association with the perceived degeneracy of Warhol, she cascaded into a spiraling blur of drug use in her permanent room at the Hotel Chelsea.

Eventually dragged home to her California hometown after the death of her filthy rich tyrant of a father, she went into rehab. In 1971, she emerged and within months died of a drug overdose at age 28.

The film suggests this “little rich girl” was the victim of some heady exploitation by Warhol, yet at the same time she also begged for it. There was the fame and notoriety that he helped provide her, but it was painfully short-lived.

The most tragic element that comes through in the film, and rings true for any who lived through that era and remain honest about it, was the disinterest. In the counterculture, among the countless youngsters who left home to find themselves there, you were on your own, and in most cases, with very few resources to draw on.

Life was a crap shoot. Kids were assailed from all sides. On one side were angry and judgmental parents, Vietnam and political assassinations: among other things, the reasons for leaving home. On the other side stood cheap thrills, exploitation in a myriad forms, impersonal sex, ubiquitous drugs and the risk of homelessness.

In the film, Sedgwick describes her “fascist” (as they were called in those days) father driving her younger brother to commit suicide as a result of forcing him to confess he was gay. As it opens, she narrates about family photos on the mantles of so many homes. How those happily-posed shots hide reality, she mused.

The father in the film is depicted as angrily insisting on maintaining appearances as a respected member of Santa Barbara society, no matter what. Because of him, she said, no one dared cry at her brother’s funeral. No one but her.

But Warhol didn’t cry, either, over the loss of his once-adored Edie. His indifference did not end with her. A decade or so later, it extended to the brilliant young Afro-American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. In his case, too, his drug problem was perhaps considered quaint, until it killed him also before he reached 30.

Great pain and premature death as the price of creativity? How romantic in hindsight. How pathetically false.

For millions of idealistic young Americans who sought a life and new hope in a counterculture opposed to war and discrimination, surviving Vietnam, deadly drugs, untreated depression, fanatic cults, broken and hostile families, right-wing reaction, AIDS and, most of all, rampant indifference for more than two decades was like tip-toeing through a minefield.

For those who survived with a mind and future intact, it was by and large by sheer luck.