A Eulogy for Ronald Tavel, by George Abagnalo
Given at the Memorial for Ronald Tavel
Anthology Film Archives, New York City, December 13, 2009
In this kind of situation I think of my Italian Catholic aunts and uncles, and what they used to say whenever someone died. If we could go back in time, and if my aunts and uncles had known Ron, they would be saying to me now: “Well, you know George, Ron is up in heaven now, and he’s with Jack Smith, and they’re watching Maria Montez movies.” But today I would say: “No, they’re not watching Maria Montez movies; they’re in bed with Maria Montez!”
I first met Ron in 1968. I was a teenager at the time. The meeting lasted ten minutes. And then I didn’t see him again until 1985; seventeen years later. It was then we became very close friends.
Often, when I think of the friendship Ron and I shared, I see it as a study in contrasts. Ron had been associated with the Warhol factory during its early period. I had been associated with the Warhol factory during what I call its middle period. And so we couldn’t share any stories. But we could exchange stories. He was able to tell me stories about the early period, and I was able to tell him stories about the middle period.
One thing that we found our stories had in common was a sense of dissatisfaction. Once, when we were exchanging our stories, Ron took note of the thread of negativity that ran from one story into the next, and he said to me: “Well, George, I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Another example of our contrasts was apparent when we talked about movies. Ron’s favorite movies were from the forties and fifties. His favorite movie stars were people like Maria Montez, Guy Madison, and Gordon Scott. My favorite movies were mostly from the sixties and seventies. My favorite movie stars were people like Carroll Baker, Jean Paul Belmondo, and Francisco Rabal. And so we couldn’t share movies either. Sometimes Ron would show me some of his favorite movies, and I wasn’t able to appreciate them as much as I would have liked. And when I showed some of my favorite movies to Ron, he wasn’t able to appreciate them as much as I know he would have liked. But it didn’t matter. Because we both knew “the feeling;” that wonderful feeling that a young man has when he goes to the movies and he discovers that he is a cineaste; when he watches movies that are so special for him that he experiences something like rapture; when he watches movies that seem to have been made just for him, and he is overcome by “the feeling” – Ron and I both knew about that. And so it didn’t matter that the movies weren’t the same. And it didn’t matter that the movie stars weren’t the same. We both knew about “the feeling,” and so everything was all right.
One of my favorite things about Ron was his playfulness. Once we sent emails repeatedly back and forth, arguing about whether or not you can actually catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of Gordon Scott’s scrotum, in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle. “No, no,” Ron said, “you want to see it, so you think you can see it.” “But Ron, Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle is in black and white, so the piece of scrotum is going to show up as light grey! You have to look more carefully!” “No, no, it’s not there; you’re crazy.” On and on we went. I still have all of those emails. Now that’s something for the archives.
Another of my favorite things about Ron was his intelligence. Sometimes we would stay up talking until four, sometimes even five in the morning. Ron usually did most of the talking. He would tell me about the history of literature, of theatre, and of playwriting. He would give me the names of all of the different periods, and all of the different theorists. He would explain the various theories, and the conflicts that resulted. I was enthralled.
Sometimes we would go out and be with other people. It was during these times that I began to notice something about Ron. I could sense it; in time I came to know it. Ron had a difficult time finding other people who were as smart as he was – as knowledgeable, as creative, as analytical. And this was one of the sadnesses of Ron’s life. This was a man who was alienated as a result of his own brilliance.
Now what I loved most about Ron was his iconoclasm. What I’m about to say may offend some of you; if so, please forgive me, and please forgive Ron. Once, a number of years ago, I said to myself: “You know, I really don’t think this Tennessee Williams is as wonderful as so many people seem to think he is.” And so one night, I brought this up to Ron. “Tennessee Williams!” he said; “One of the worst! Pure bosh!” “But Ron, he’s so honored, so celebrated, so respected.” “George, don’t you understand, the more horrible it is, they more they love it!” “But Ron, what about Suddenly, Last Summer?” “Suddenly, Last Summer? Pure nonsense! Are we expected to believe that a group of young boys chase after a man, kill him, and eat him? Raw? Where in the world did anything like that ever happen? This is supposed to be a realistic drama! At the end of the play we are made to believe that the girl’s story must be true! What was it with these boys, anyway? Were they hungry or somethin’? How hungry could they have been? Absolute idiocy, and I am not going to discuss it any further!”
Do you remember when Ron would give you that devilish expression? “And I am not going to discuss it any further! I have spoken!” Now because I was friends with Ron Tavel, I know that that last line comes from Maria Montez, in Cobra Woman.
I loved Ron very much. I will miss him very much. And I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to celebrate him today with you. Thank you.