Andy Warhol's My Hustler
by Gary Comenas (2014)
to: LABOR DAY WEEKEND 1965: ANDY WARHOL FILMS MY HUSTLER
When My Hustler opened at the Hudson Theater on 10 July 1967 Bosley Crowther from the New York Times saw it mostly as an exploitation film. In his review of the film, titled "'My Hustler' Opens at Hudson: Warhol Work Made Up of 2 Conversations" Crowther wrote that it was "a typical Warhol rendering of a homosexual strip-tease with words, and it seems quite congenial in the Hudson, where it opened yesterday for what is known in the trade as an exploitation run." The previous year, the film had been screened at Jonas Mekas' well-respected outlet for art films, the Film-Markers' Cinematheque, where it had been billed as a "devastating scrutiny of socio-sexual mores:" The writer Parker Tyler listed My Hustler, along with Warhol's Harlot, Lonesome Cowboys and The Chelsea Girls, as one of the films that were the "desirable future of the avant-garde" in his 1969 book, Underground Film: A Critical History. (The list also included films by Hans Richter, Man Ray, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Jean Genet.) (PTA187-8)
Village Voice ad, 31 March 1966
But despite the earlier screening at Mekas' Film-Makers' Cinematheque (and the fact that Mekas wrote a regular film column for the Village Voice) My Hustler got a scathing review in the Voice when it played at the Hudson. Andrew Sarris rather than Mekas wrote the review:
Village Voice ad for Andy Warhol's My Hustler at the Hudson Theater 10 August 1967, p. 23
Andrew Sarris (The Village Voice, 27 July 1967, p. 17, 26):
"Andy Warhol's 'MY HUSTLER' (at the Hudson) is better heard than seen. It is reported that Chuck Wein wrote the viciously matter-of-fact conversations that accompany the epicene camera glimpses of a blond male beauty sunning himself on Fire Island's sand. The talk is outrageously funny and worthy of Restoration Comedy though lacking a moral or a raisonneur or dramatic action. This is the first movie in which I've heard the term 'fag-hag' used. Of course, the subject is laid on the line, and I doubt that even homosexuals are charmed by such brutal frankness. This is an ugly joyless movie. It is also anti-erotic despite its scabrous insertions. The underground has moved to the sexploitation circuit and the victims of sexploitation pay exorbitant prices to be punished for their erotic expectations. One kind of hustle is very much like another."
The seediness of the cinema it was playing in accentuated the film's reputation as a "sexploitation" movie. The New York Times reviewer noted "it has found an appropriate showplace at the Hudson Theater, which has recently been edifying its patrons with burlesque and nudie films." (BCR) J.J. Murphy, Professor of Film at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol, recalled seeing My Hustler at the Hudson in 1967:
"As a college student who attended the initial theatrical screening of My Hustler (1965), which played on a program with the black-and-white short Mario Banana #2, I can attest to the seediness of the viewing experience at the Hudson. After I passed through what seemed like a stained and filthy white cloth sheet that separated the actual theater from the lobby, my most vivid memory of seeing my first Warhol films involves the beams of that periodically emanated from the flashlight of a manic usher patrolling the aisles. These were aimed at viewers' crotches in order to insure that no one was masturbating. As far as I can remember, the audience was entirely male, and it was more likely the suggestive title rather than the Warhol name that drew most of them to the midtown theater. Yet, for all the flashlight action at the Hudson, My Hustler actually contains very little nudity." (JJM116)
Despite the salacious activity implied by the title, My Hustler consists mostly of conversations about a blonde hustler played by Paul America. The film takes place on Fire Island and begins with Ed Hood on his beach front verandah berating his servant while Paul sunbathes on the beach. (Hood would go on to appear in The Chelsea Girls and Bike Boy.)
Ed Hood (to servant):
"What are you doing out of uniform? When I hired you I hired you for purposes of servitude, and if this is what you call service or servitude, it's not a very good idea. You're totally out of uniform. I placed an ad saying I wanted a servant who understood discipline. By discipline I suggested boots, some knowledge of belts and leather, and you turn up in this garb. It's obvious that you haven't the least idea of what kind of servitude that I had in mind. You know what you were hired for? Never mind, it doesn't matter. Take a look around there and you will see a blond boy. Look out there. You see him? Now you're hired not only for servitude and discipline, but as my bodyguard. And that means that you have to take care of that boy too. Take care of him in every way that he requires, and he may require some very special ways. If he wants anything, you're to get it immediately. If, on the other hand, he presents any difficulties, you're to help me in taking care of him. You follow what I'm saying? All right then, get me some ice in this drink." (JJM117-18)
Hood bets his neighbour, played by Genevieve Charbin, and an "ex-hustler," played by Joe Campbell, that "neither one of you can make him and you can both try - of course you can't try too hard - you can't try everything - I don't want your clothes coming off Genevieve." Genevieve then goes down to the beach to begin her machinations by applying suntan lotion to Paul America while keeping an eye on Joe and Ed on the verandah.
Paul America and Genevieve Charbin on the beach in Andy Warhol's My Hustler
Genevieve Charbin later went on to marry Bennett Cerf's son, Christopher on 8 July 1972. In an article in the Palm Beach Daily News (11 June 1972) giving details of the bride-to-be, she is described as the daughter of the president of an international silk and velvet firm. According to the article, she attended Wellesley and has a B.A. in physics and astronomy, having "graduated magna cum laude and elected to Phi Beta Kappa." In 1975 People magazine proclaimed Genevieve and Christopher "the trendiest couple in America." Cerf was a regular contributor to Sesame Street, which he also helped to create, winning two Grammy awards and three Emmy awards in the process.
Max's Kansas City door person Dorothy Dean also makes an appearance in the film. She pops up at the end even though she's not been seen previously in it. She, along with Hood and Charbin, interrupt the older, ex-hustler giving Paul advice on how to turn tricks. The film ends with Dean's comment "Why be tied down to these old faggots?"
The ex-hustler is sometimes referred to in cast listings as the "Sugar Plum Fairy" - a euphemism for a drug dealer. Joe Campbell, who played the part, was the ex-boyfriend of Harvey Milk in real-life. He had met Warhol through Ondine (the Warhol star, not the discotheque) with whom he had been friends as a teenager in Red Hook, New York. (AD49)
Paul America (L) and Joe Campbell in Andy Warhol's My Hustler
Campbell first met Milk at Riis Park Beach in Queens, NY in July 1956. Joe was 19. Milk was 26. Campbell soon moved into Milk's Rego Park apartment and they lived together until late 1962 when Milk asked him to move out. After breaking up with Milk, Campbell looked up his old friend Ondine and eventually ended up in My Hustler. Milk eventually moved to San Francisco where he gained fame as the first openly gay man to be elected to the Board of Supervisors, only to be assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, in November 1978.
Harvey Milk with a young Joe Campbell in the foreground
The star of My Hustler, Paul America, later gave an interview to the New York Times claiming that he hadn't been told what My Hustler was about at the time it was filmed and, in any case, he was on LSD the whole time.
"I was the male lead. But I was completely unaware of what 'My Hustler' was all about. They didn't tell me. I was on LSD the whole time, and I thought I was just going through some practice motions. It was shot in one day, and though we wanted to go back to Fire Island to finish it, we couldn't because there was trouble with the man who put up the money. We used his house for the movie, and it was destroyed - the furniture all torn up and burned in the fireplace. We were like little children in a playpen, or in a sandpit...
I got paranoid after making the movie. I was constantly on LSD and I saw cameras coming at me everywhere I went. Even the Con Ed men were shooting me from down in their manholes. It was that tiny bathroom that did it."
Although Paul America refers to "the man who put up the money," Paul Morrissey told Warhol biographers Tony Scherman and David Dalton that it was Dorothy Dean who put up the $500 that it apparently cost to make the film. (SC269)
After My Hustler, Paul America appeared in at least two unreleased sequels to the film and also made an appearance in Danny Williams' silent film Harold Stevenson.
After My Hustler, America appeared in a few other Warhol films from 1965: the unreleased sequels, My Hustler: In Apartment and My Hustler: Ingrid, and also Dan Williams' silent film Harold Stevenson, in which America, Gerard Malanga, Stevenson, Sedgwick, and others converse and drink wine while posing photogenically on a couch in a New York hotel suite. Another four-minute silent portrait of Paul America, shot on the beach during the making of My Hustler, has been found in the 'long version' of that film, in the edited montage by Dan Williams that was added to the sixty-six minute film in 1967. At the end of 1967, after a brief spell in the U.S. Army, America obtained some legal assistance and convinced Warhol to reimburse him retroactively for his role in the by-then commercially successful My Hustler; America reportedly received $1,000 in several instalments. That year America also starred with Edie Sedgwick in John Palmer and David Weisman's film Ciao! Manhattan (1967-71), but his role in the movie ended in 1968 when he was imprisoned in Michigan on drug-related charges." (AD26, 29)
In regard to the $1,000 paid in several instalments, as mentioned by Callie, the 1967 New York Times interview with Paul makes reference to a payment of $500. In the article, Guy Flately writes, "Paul America, who skyrocketed to fame, if not fortune, in the title role of Andy Warhol's 'My Hustler,' recently rushed in where other superstars have feared to tread. With bullish determination - and a little legal assistance - he managed to hustle $500 out of Warhol for his performance as the naughty-but-nice beach boy in Andy's erotic epic... When Variety headlined this boffo bit of news, everyone from International Velvet to Mario Montez crumpled with shock." Paul is quoted in the article as saying, "I think Andy was always willing to pay, but somehow he was never there when I called, or it was 'come back tomorrow.' It's hard to be angry with him... he's so sweet, but he's... Andy. You can't argue with him and get him to write checks. He just 'oohs' and 'aahs' and calls in someone to take over the conversation for him." (GFL)
Although (as pointed out by Callie) Paul America appeared in a number of Warhol films, Warhol later remembered him as being only in My Hustler, and barely remembered that:
Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol Diaries, 6 July 1982):
"With the eclipse of the moon we got letters from the faithful nutty-letter writers, people like Joey Sutton and Crazy Rona. And Paul America called - I don't know from where - but the office has a list of 'Do Not Take Calls From' people so they didn't put the call through. And they said he was saying that he was one of my superstars, but he was never even in one of my movies. Oh wait! My Hustler! I forgot, (laughs) he was the star. He (laughs) was My Hustler." (AWD450)
According to Interview columnist (and sometimes editor), Bob Colacello, Paul had made a previous attempt, in about 1974, to contact Andy by visiting him in person at 33 Union Square West, but Warhol made a quick escape into the back office:
Bob Colacello (Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close-Up):
"Paul America had been a silver-Factory Superstar. Tall, blond, and handsome, he had appeared in a single movie (like Valerie Solanas), playing the title role in My Hustler, shot on Fire Island in the summer of 1965. Now, nine summers later, he was back, pressing the buzzer at 33 Union Square West, an alumnus coming to call. He was buzzed in on the strength of his name, but the minute he came through the bulletproof door we knew it was a mistake. He was unrecognizable: huge, bearded, beer-belly, in overalls and faded flannel shirt, wild eyes roving until they met Andy's and locked into a terrifying stare, 'Oh, hi,' said Andy, 'gee.' Paul America stood there, staring. 'Oh,' said Andy gently, 'I'll tell Pat you're here.' He walked toward the back room as quickly as he could without running. Paul America stood there, staring at Andy's disappearing back, like a ticking time bomb. And then he turned and left. And Vincent shouted, 'You can come out now, Andy.'" (B233)
Paul America died on October 19, 1982 in Ormond Beach Florida after being hit by a car on his way home from a dental appointment. His My Hustler co-star, Ed Hood, was strangled to death by a real-life hustler in 1978. (FM427)
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