The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
I'd be willing to bet that you probably know who Mary Woronov is, whether the name rings a bell or not. She's not exactly an actor of prominence, but instead of vast prolificacy—at least in certain genres, or rather, all of them.
Discovered first by Andy Warhol after skulking around his Factory, she danced with The Velvet Underground and later cut an indelible portrait in his Screen Tests films. Her most well-known work with Warhol was in his crown jewel, Chelsea Girls, as Hanoi Hannah, an unassuming BDSM dominatrix clad in slim pants and a silk blouse. These were roles that didn't really require much of Woronov other than looking really sinister and in control. In fact, it seems much of her career is predicated entirely on her sharp-boned lion's face. She's also perennially thin and six feet tall, and, despite these memorable characteristics, not exactly much of an actor.
But her shortcomings in skill haven't precluded her from finding incredibly steady work—since Warhol she's appeared in over sixty films and dozens of popular TV shows, in some capacity or another. If you're into genre pictures, especially those attached to Roger Corman, or the best titles to lurch out of Troma Studios's teenage-boy production house, Mary Woronov would be on the shortlist of familiar faces. Because of her work in some of the most critically beloved B pictures of all time, she has quite a robust cult following, having even published a memoir called Confessions of a Cult Queen (which I haven't read, but not for lack of trying) and, should you become intrigued at all by this versatile low-budget leading lady, she's likely headlining a panel at a comic con near you.
And now, my selections of the finest genre pictures that happen to have the occasionally stiff and mesmerizing Mary Woronov in them. But truly, in researching this column I revisited and came across so much of her awesome work that this list is hardly scratching the surface.
1. Death Race 2000 (dir. Paul Bartel, 1975)
This movie has to go first because of its classic cult status, plus it's the first time I first encountered Ms. Woronov or her breasts (did I mention she does a lot of nudity?). Woronov is, to be fair, one of the last reasons why you should experience this film if you haven't already—it's a pretty insanely brilliant satire representative of all the reasons why genre pictures are awesome—i.e. they're weird and unkempt enough to be totally, shockingly intelligent. But, as the premise goes, four racecar drivers compete in the Annual Transcontinental Road Race, a rabidly popular and extensively televised state-mandated sport in the United Provinces of the future, during which racers attempt to sacrifice as many fellow humans as possible. The most dazzling performances are by David Carradine (sigh, of course) as Frankenstein, the veteran racer with the most obsessed fan base, and his rival, played by a super young Sly Stallone, as "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo. Woronov has the distinction of being the sole female driver, Calamity Jane, and, in true pre-feminist 1970s plot structure, the first driver offed under mysterious circumstances. The reason why it's a noteworthy Woronov role is basically because it's a sublter tone for how she's cast in other films—strangely sexy, aggressive, and somewhat androgynous. She's the only female competitor in this death-racing boys' club, after all.
2. & 3. Eating Raoul and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (dir. Paul Bartel, 1982 and 1989 respectively)
I've cheated and put these movies together because they're perfect companion films, a fact that becomes terribly obvious not just through the casting decisions (there's basically an ensemble repeat, including Woronov, Bartel, and resident brown person Robert Beltran) but also their pointed thematic implications.
The beloved black comedy Eating Raoul is set in Los Angeles in the heyday of swing parties, sex toy shops on every corner, and rampant crime. Paul and Mary Bland (Bartel and Woronov) are a couple of non-libidinous squares just trying to scrape together enough money to open a restaurant in the country. After accidentally killing a gold-medallion-wearing sleazy neighbor after he tried to put the moves on Mary, they realize how easy it would be to kill perverts and take their money, so they set her up with a salacious personal ad and a P.O. box and begin taking clients. Raoul, a Chicano con man, enters their lives after a botched theft, and gets in on the racket. As Mary and Raoul develop a sexual relationship, Paul becomes suspicious, and before long, everyone's as immoral and opportunistic as the other. This was one of Woronov's first starring vehicles and managed to her win her some critical attention, though I'm pretty sure it was the first and last time that ever happened.
In Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, Robert Beltran returns to seduce Woronov, but this time he's the lower-class chauffeur of the lovely Claire (Jacqueline Bisset), a recently widowed washed-up TV actress. Like some perverted Chekhov play, one weekend Lisabeth Hepburn-Saravian (Woronov), her disabled son Willie (Barret Oliver), her famous overrated playwright brother (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his new wife To-Bel (Arnetia Walker) all go to stay in Claire's mansion while hers is fumigated. Bartel shows up as Claire's quack "thinologist," Dr. Mo Van de Kamp (a chocolate-gobbling cairn-terrier molesting creep), another layabout constantly at the home. If the fantastically pretentious title isn't heavy enough to indicate that we're neck-deep in another comment on Southern California culture, then the comically overblown dialogue (best line from Bartel: "Where is my chien sauvage!" in reference to aforementioned terrier) will elucidate what we're working with here. Personally, I think Scenes is a far stronger comedy than Raoul. Woronov isn't any more lively this time around, though her wooden comic delivery lands more naturally amidst all these over-actors, including the ever-marvelous Wallace Shawn, who shows up as her womanizing ex-husband, Howard, in what can only be a small nod to his punch line role as Diane Keaton's beguiling ex in Manhattan.
4. Sugar Cookies (dir. Theodore Gershuny, 1973)
The best way to describe Sugar Cookies, the Citizen Kane of Mary Woronov's career? That's easy: Lesbian Vertigo. This film was a product of Woronov's then-husband, Theodore Gershuny (who also directed her in Silent Night, Bloody Night) and Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman (in the pre-Troma days), with an associate production credit from Kaufman's Yale classmate, Oliver Stone. The premise is pretty awesome: A skeezy pornographer, Max (George Shannon) convinces his greatest star to commit suicide as part of some serious fetish play. Her lover, Camila (Wornov), an associate of Max's, arranges to hire an innocent girl (Lynn Lowry) who's a dead ringer for the deceased star in the ultimate revenge plot. (Sound familiar? Maybe like a 1984 De Palma premise?) These are clearly the selfsame idle and lecherous rich lampooned in the Bartel films. While there's an excessive amount of sex scenes (really, I'm saying that about a B-movie focused on the porn industry) the general withholding of information provides for juicy tension. In a way, this role embodies everything the tall, ice-cold Woronov has since been typecast for, but it works so well. She's like what I always wanted to be in college: a powerful, feelingless lesbian. She's a villain and a hero all at once, desired by men and women alike. That kind of gender role/sexual fluidity I find to be fairly unbelievable in most actors, but Woronov's silent command of an armchair rivals only, like, a Raymond Chandler mastermind.
Since she's got so many excellent titles under her snugly-fitting belt, I'll just name a few other worth viewing. Despite the name, Silent Night, Bloody Night isn't so much a Christmas-horror fusion film to add to your collection, but really a nicely paced low-budget thriller. There are definitely production weaknesses, but throw in a virtuous Woronov protagonist, a mute John Carradine, and a sepia-toned insane-asylum murder sequence populated with Warhol notables like the transsexual Candy Darling, and everything is just as wonderfully disturbing as it ought to be. Woronov highlight: Her terrifying shrieks as she scrambles away from the villain in the final sequence.
Woronov dons a jumpsuit as one of my favorite 1980s archetypes, the sexy scientist, in 1984's Night of the Comet, a brilliant hybrid of the Valley Girl, zombie, and post-apocalyptic film. This one also features Robert Beltran. Here again, Woronov's severe facial features and deadpan delivery don't render her exactly trustworthy, but the small role plays with that deception perfectly.
And, finally: the Roger Corman–produced Rock & Roll High School of 1979. Don't see this movie because of Woronov, though her Miss Togar, the sadistic disciplinarian with two horny hall-monitor henchmen in tow, is another riff on her natural dominatrix disposition. Don't even see this movie because of the Ramones, who famously guest star and are, bizarrely, treated like epic sex symbols. Just see this movie because you are an American, and you care about exquisite moments in American culture. That should have been my argument for this entire column, but I hadn't thought of it until just now.