An Underground Survivor at the Oscars: Holly Woodlawn, Puerto Rican Actor
Today Mediático presents another Oscars-themed reflection by regular contributor Roberto Ortiz, independent scholar, on the career of Holly Woodlawn, Puerto Rican transgender actor, pioneer, and Warhol superstar, mythicized in the opening lines of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and included in the “In Memoriam” section of the 88th Academy Award’s ceremony. Ortiz explores the significance of Woodlawn’s career and the terms on which she was memorialized at the Oscars suggesting that although it reflects the U.S. mainstream’s attempts at inclusivity with respect to trans people there’s a continuing exclusion of performers who, like Woodlawn, defy fixed identity categories and are still not welcome among the predominantly white, wealthy, hetero and homonormative Oscars ceremony audience.
I’m not afraid of playing a man; I was born a man.
And I’m not afraid of being a woman. I love women.
Too much is made of gender. I want people to say of me,
‘Here is a person who has something to offer besides gender.’
– Holly Woodlawn in The New York Times, 1970
…some little queens told me they had read my book,
adding that if it weren’t for me, they couldn’t do it…
What do you say when somebody tells you you’re Lana Turner?
– Holly Woodlawn in The Advocate, 2000
She was called a superstar though in truth she was more of a starlet. The caption on a publicity photo for her 1970 film debut described her beauty as “either original or freakish.” Her looks – androgynously thin, light-skinned, with green eyes, prominent nose and overbite – didn’t fit Latino stereotypes. The press termed her a drag queen, transvestite or female impersonator, but she resisted labels and was flippant about suitable gender-specific pronouns. She identified as an actor, but most thought she only played herself. Her most famous scenes showed her masturbating with a beer bottle and faking pregnancy with a pillow to collect welfare. She was considered an Underground Legend, Transgender Pioneer, Lou Reed Muse, and Warhol Superstar.
The “In Memoriam” video during the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony featured a bittersweet surprise: the inclusion of Holly Woodlawn (1946 – 2015), an underground cinema actor best remembered for her debut in the Andy Warhol presentation/ production Trash [https://vimeo.com/103046694] (Paul Morrissey, 1970). Unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, the Puerto Rican performer had a brief moment of posthumous recognition after her death from cancer complications on December 6, 2015, which was announced by her Trash co-star and friend Joe Dallesandro through his Facebook page. There were obituaries in major newspapers and trade publications, several online tributes, and Facebook shares from fans and friends. Many posts repeated the “immortalized” version of her story, reducing the 69-year-old’s life to the opening lyrics of the 1972 song “Walk on the Walk Side” and to her acclaimed performance in Trash, on which she only worked for six days in late 1969, earning 25 dollars per day. She was described as Andy Warhol’s and/or Lou Reed’s muse, two misleading labels that suggested close creative relationships. However, she hadn’t met Reed when he wrote “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song that offered snapshots of people associated with Warhol’s studio (the Factory) based on hearsay. And it was director Paul Morrissey, not Andy Warhol, who “discovered” Holly Woodlawn and turned her into a Warhol Superstar by casting her in Trash.
As Frances Negrón Muntaner (2004 & 2015) has argued, there was more to Holly Woodlawn than the Warhol Superstar label. Her involvement with Warhol’s Factory was actually brief. She only “starred” in two largely improvised Warhol productions, in which her co-stars were the main attractions. Trash’s real star was the very young, buff and oft-nude Joe Dallesandro, who appeared shirtless on the poster, and the publicity for Women in Revolt (Morrissey, 1971, which began filming before Trash’s release), including the DVD release cover art, privileged co-star Candy Darling, who dominated the film with Jackie Curtis. Despite irregular – and usually short – appearances in underground or independent cinema between 1970 and 2012, Holly Woodlawn spent more time performing on stage than acting in movies. However, cinema and music had the power to create her most enduring images (echoes of what happened to Carmen Miranda during the 1940s and 50s) and, like an aging classic Hollywood star, during her last decades she retold stories from her Factory days, gamely playing what became her longest role: surviving Warhol Superstar.
After Holly Woodlawn’s death, many articles featured one of the black-and-white glamour portraits, taken by New York Times photographer Jack Mitchell prior to the release of Trash. They show the young Puerto Rican starlet striking classic Hollywood star poses. With penciled arched eyebrows and backlighting creating a halo effect on her hair, in one photo Holly demurely covers her chest with both arms and coyly looks away. In other photos, Holly seductively holds a cigarette – lips closed or slightly open – while invitingly looking at the camera. The “In Memoriam” video at the 2016 Oscars showed one of Mitchell’s glamour shots in which a feather boa frames her face. On the 2002 documentary A Look on the Wild Side, Holly says she used one of those photos to change the passport of a French Ambassador’s wife, impersonate her, and withdraw $2,000 from a UN building bank. After a successful first attempt, Holly returned – drunk – to get more money for drugs, but security caught her. Initially sent to the Women’s House of Detention, Woodlawn was still in the Tombs (the men’s prison) when Trash opened to generally positive reviews on October 1970. As Holly amusingly tells the story, the multiple masquerades (movie star, French ambassador’s wife, female prisoner) linked to her glamorous photo illustrate the contrast between her stardom dreams and her socioeconomic hardships (stealing money for drugs, imprisoned during the film’s premiere) as a poor, addicted, transgender Puerto Rican young woman.
Holly Woodlawn’s fleeting appearance at the 2016 Oscars reflected contradictions in the Academy’s response to the criticisms about lack of diversity among this year’s nominees that caused the resurfacing and trending of the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, created by April Reign (@ReignOfApril) in response to the 2015 nominations. On the one hand, memorializing a transgender Latina actor from underground cinema seemed like a gesture of inclusiveness that compensated for past and present failures to recognize transgender and Latino actors. After the release of Trash, George Cukor reportedly launched an unsuccessful campaign that could’ve made Holly Woodlawn the first transgender (and the second Puerto Rican after Rita Moreno) actor to get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Coincidentally, Holly Woodlawn passed away on the same day that the Kennedy Center Honors gala honored Moreno.) This year, Mya Taylor was overlooked on that same category for her work in Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015), an independent comedy about transgender women of color (like Trash, directed by a white man who drew on Taylor’s anecdotes to build the screenplay). The award went to Alicia Vikander from the hit biopic The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015), which earned cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne an Oscar nomination for his performance as Danish transgender painter Lili Elbe.
While it was touching to see her glamorized face in a video that also featured classic Hollywood glamour girls like Maureen O’Hara, Holly Woodlawn’s inclusion on the other hand creates the false impression that she was part of a film industry that had no place for her: “The worst was when I went to LA to become an actor but opportunities weren’t there. I came back to Florida to be a busboy and it was humiliating” (Negrón Muntaner 2015). Why honor someone whose closest connection to the Oscars was a failed nomination campaign and leave out – among others – a starlet like Joan Leslie, the Warner Brothers ingénue who starred in the Oscar-winning films Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942) and who participated in Academy events? Why offer viewers a glimpse of a deceased transgender actor but exclude transgender performer Anohni, one of the two vocalists (with South Korean soprano Jo Sumi) not invited to perform their Oscar-nominated songs during the ceremony? While Holly Woodlawn is recognized as a transgender pioneer, how many value her as a Puerto Rican actor and see her in relation to Oscar-winning presenter (but not nominee) Benicio del Toro or to red carpet favorite Jennifer Lopez (absent from the 2016 ceremony, but very visible in 2015, when she became part of a widely circulated GIF)?
Holly Woodlawn was born Haroldo Santiago Dankahl in Puerto Rico from a short-lived relationship between Aminta Nilda Rodríguez Franchesci, of the southern town of Juana Díaz, and a US soldier of German descent. Aminta left her child with her family and migrated to New York, where she met and married Joseph Ajzenberg, a Jewish Polish immigrant. After sending for her child, the family moved to Miami, where Holly grew up as Harold and eventually adopted the Ajzenberg last name. On early 1962, fifteen-year-old Harold embarked on the journey mythicized by Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Holly came from Miami FLA/ Hitchhiked her way across the USA/ Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she.” Once in New York City, Holly lived as a street kid, started doing drugs and turned tricks for money: “I did what everybody does, you know, because the poor little kids, you know, the things they have to do (…) I had to sell my little chochita at fifteen…” (“Holly Woodlawn 1992 TV Interview”). She also worked as a stripper, sales clerk and, “passing” as female, she worked as a model at Saks Fifth Avenue.
During those years, Holly Woodlawn found inspiration, paid close attention and valued the work of classic movie stars. It wasn’t a passive mode of film fandom. Queer underground performers like Woodlawn emulated their favorite movie stars, without necessarily attempting a close physical resemblance, but also mocked them affectionately. They looked through the heteronormativity and the exoticism of the images (like Hollywood Orientalism) and creatively appropriated them, without the present-day attitude that demands rejecting them as sexist cultural appropriations. Female stars symbolized milestones in Holly Woodlawn’s retellings of her life story. The movies of Spanish folkloric singer Lola Flores were tied to her early childhood in Puerto Rico, where a gay uncle introduced his nephew to the pleasures of what can be considered Hispanic camp. Watching the glamorous Lana Turner costumed as a sexy pagan priestess in The Prodigal (Richard Thorpe, 1955) was a revelatory moment growing up in Miami. Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) supplied the name Holly (“because I used to whistle for cabs, and so did she, in the movie,” she explained on TV in 1979). Elizabeth Taylor’s Orientalist image as Cleopatra (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963) inspired her during her early years in New York City. A Woodlawn Cemeteries sign seen on Lucile Ball’s sitcom allegedly gave the idea for her last name in 1969. And comparisons to Hollywood stars differentiated Warhol’s “drag superstars” during the early 1970s: funny redhead Jackie Curtis (Lucille Ball), elegant blonde Candy Darling (Kim Novak) and exotic brunette Holly Woodlawn (Hedy Lamarr).
Andy Warhol, but her relationship to the Factory began around her time on the chorus of Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit (1969), written by friend Jackie Curtis and staged by the underground theater group Playhouse of the Ridiculous. Director Paul Morrissey reportedly saw an interview on Gay Power in which Woodlawn falsely claimed to have turned down an offer to be in an Andy Warhol picture. Morrissey, who favored casting non-realistic performers, asked Woodlawn to participate in his next movie, the follow-up to his very successful Flesh (1968), a hustler story starring Joe Dallesandro that featured Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. Impressed by Woodlawn’s performance, Morrissey expanded her role and she became the most important female character in the movie.
Trash is structured around the absurd encounters between a young, handsome but impotent drug addict (Joe) and several women who are briefly interested in him. Usually described as a comedy, the film’s tone is more ambiguous thanks to the performances, especially Holly Woodlawn as Holly Santiago, Joe’s trash-collecting girlfriend who devises a scheme with her pregnant sister to collect welfare. Despite claiming writer credit, director Paul Morrissey only gave actors rough sketches for the scenes and they took it from there, ad-libbing all or most of the dialogue. As the title shows, Morrissey had a very low opinion of his characters, but has been very complimentary of Woodlawn, even though she fit the profile of those he disregarded as “trash.” Morrissey’s efforts to create humor came from a condescending and moralistic point of view: “[These lives] were pointless and therefore comical and humorous and I always looked for the ridiculous situation and the strange over-the-top behavior of people to indicate the point that these were people who were leading what were basically sad and ultimately worthless lives” (Factory Days, 2006). Humor was a central part in Holly Woodlawn’s personality, but to different effect. According to Holly, “I wanted to look ridiculous, to make people laugh. But I also wanted them to feel something for me, to feel something for that pitiful girl with no future” (Flatley 1970). Her empathy for Holly Santiago subverts the director’s intentions to make his “outcasts, deadbeats and losers” simply look “silly” and “idiotic.” During her interactions with Joe Dallesandro’s character, she conveys a sincerity that disrupts the disregard the director shows for his characters by putting them in absurd scenarios and by often filming them from unflattering angles. In the film’s most notorious scene, Holly’s committed performance partly destabilizes the exploitative setup, which has the stupefied Joe stripping down to his underwear while his girlfriend masturbates with a beer bottle. She forcefully moves her naked body through the couch while visibly holding the bottle, moans amusingly incongruous lines (“I want welfare!”), and extends her other hand to caress Joe’s impotent body, which leads to a surprisingly moving final gesture of Joe and Holly clutching each other’s hands.
Though far from a crowd-pleasing film, Trash became one of the Factory’s most successful releases, played out-of-competition at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, and enjoyed a successful run in Germany. While Holly Woodlawn relished the attention – “When I saw my name in lights… it was like everything I had ever lived for” (“Arena: Tales of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” 1993) – her acquired Warhol superstar label euphemized the reality of being an underground starlet. During the studio system, starlets were young women who aspired to become stars. Paradoxically, the quest for stardom required that starlets do what movie stars refused to do. As Leo Morin notes, the starlet “would like to imitate the star’s comportment, but she is obliged to do the reverse: whereas the star flees her admirers, the starlet must look for hers, even create them; whereas the star reveals her soul, the starlet must exhibit her body” (44). In the studio era, that meant posing for cheesecake photos, agreeing to publicity stunts, and making personal appearances at public events. Studios hired, groomed and heavily publicized them as potential box-office attractions, usually putting starlets on seven-year-long contracts with the option to drop them when they failed to deliver. They were subject to executive decisions about the course of their careers, but the studios also provided salary and training (like acting lessons).
Like Hollywood studio starlets, the Warhol superstars were asked to show up at the Factory and participate in photo shoots for publicity purposes. The Factory, however, didn’t provide its players with preparation or income. If they needed money, they would call and ask Warhol to give them some. The Factory also didn’t have any plan to buildup their superstars with suitable follow-up roles in films. After Trash, Woodlawn played mostly brief parts that stressed the weirder (or freakier) aspects of her “trashy” starlet/ superstar persona: initiating orgies as the nymphomaniac in Women in Revolt, giving facetious answers “as herself” in the mockumentary Is There Sex After Death? (Jeanne Abel and Alan Able, 1971) or waiting on a gynecological examination table in Heaven Wants Out (Robert Feinberg, unfinished until 2009). Her only time as the lead was playing the dual roles of “Eve Harrington” and “Rhett Butler” in the unsuccessful Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers (Robert J. Kaplan, 1972), a low-budget 16mm film (blown to 35 for theatrical release) that spoofed classic Hollywood films. Her best post-Trash showcase, however, was Broken Goddess (Peter Dallas, 1973), a silent short intended for a pre-stardom Bette Midler. The short premiered on a double bill with Salome (Charles Bryant, 1922) and screened at the start of Woodlawn’s cabaret act in the late 1970s. Unintentionally, although she would play other small roles in underground or independent movies, Broken Goddess also marked the end of her early film “stardom,” three years after Trash’s premiere.
Besides the limited opportunities for a transgender Puerto Rican actor who was not respected as an actor, Holly’s career suffered from her addictions: “At that point I was just like the loose maniac. I just wanted to get laid and get high, so I’m not making any excuses for myself. I was having a good time… I just wanted to have a fabulous time” (“Arena: Tales of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” 1993). Director Peter Dallas left testimony of the challenges that Holly’s drinking brought to filming: “Holly was a raw talent – fascinating, original, but totally undisciplined. The Woodlawn persona could be brilliant one moment but unable to recreate or even recollect it the next. Part of it was the lack of experience; part of it, the booze.” During the next decades, Holly Woodlawn worked primarily as a cabaret performer. Despite getting good reviews, Woodlawn’s infamous reputation also affected her. In his memoirs, Continental Baths owner Steve Ostrow (2007) unfavorably compares Holly’s cabaret act to her contemporaries: “I had no objection to a class drag act like Charles Pierce or Gypsy but had always resisted putting Holly on as she was usually more stoned than Mount Rushmore, although in form she could be alluring and had quite a following. (…) With Holly, one never knew what to expect.” Online videos give us glimpses of her acts during the 1970s and 80s: her “Cabaret in the Sky” show with Jackie Curtis (1974), her shows at Reno Sweeney’s Paradise Room (1977) and SNAFU (1980), her covers of 1960s pop songs at downtown venues (1980s), performing a Cher classic at a Gay Pride Concert or playing Maria in a parody of The Sound of Music by Scott Wittman (both 1986). Woodlawn’s act was also featured in Resident Alien (Jonathan Nossiter, 1991) a documentary about Quentin Crisp in which the British queer icon comments: “I think Holly Woodlawn is definitely a star, but at the moment a mini star because she lacks organization.” Later, Felicity Mason (aka Anne Cumming) also laments to her friends: “What upsets me… is to see that talent thrown away.”
Holly Woodlawn’s few moments of mainstream exposure were her appearances in network TV talk shows. Two of them featured her with trans celebrities who achieved some degree of mainstream celebrity: Christine Jorgensen and Divine. Trash had premiered on the same year as two Hollywood films about transsexuals: Myra Breckinridge (Mike Sarne, 1970), a widely publicized adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, starring Raquel Welch, and The Christine Jorgensen Story (Irving Rapper, 1970), a low-budget biopic about the first celebrity transsexual. On April 1977, Jorgensen and Woodlawn appeared separately on a Geraldo Rivera special titled “The Search for Sexual Identity” (Woodlawn’s part starts around 49:30). By adopting an “avowed allegiance to white heteronormativity” (Skinner 2011: 9), the media savvy Christine Jorgensen successfully built a profitable image as a “good transsexual” after news of her sex surgery turned her into an instant celebrity in the early 1950s. The “ladylike” Jorgensen serialized her life story for American Weekly (1953), released an LP with an interview (1958), appeared on talk shows, toured with her nightclub act, published her autobiography (1967) and lectured on the college circuit in the 1970s. On the Geraldo special, the middle-aged Jorgensen, wearing a white pantsuit and pearl jewelry, graciously and articulately responds to Rivera’s questions, projecting a gentle demeanor and tone. To Rivera’s satisfaction, Jorgensen carefully explains about transsexuals by drawing on science and sociology. During her segment, however, Woodlawn responds to questions about transvestites in terms of performance and theatricality (“look at kabuki theater, Greece… I mean, not the play… but no, Greek theater, all that… that’s what, I, I guess that’s what I… you could relate me to…”) and her humor belittles Rivera’s pursuit of “intelligent” answers (GERALDO: “Do you feel you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body?” / HOLLY: “I’m just trapped”). Rivera tries to get Woodlawn to explain herself in relation to the “transvestite” category. He wants her to act as spokesperson and to produce a specific type of narrative: “you really have been anguished from time to time and that’s what I wanna know about (…) I mean, the confusion in yourself. Are you man? Are you woman? Are you just a man who prefers women’s clothing…?” Woodlawn, however, finishes off his line of questioning with the brilliantly dismissive: “What difference does it make… as long as you look fabulous?”
On 1979, Holly Woodlawn appeared with Divine and director Ron Link in Tom Snyder’s show to promote their play The Neon Woman. Woodlawn compared her infamous beer bottle scene in Trash to when Divine eats dog shit at the end of Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972). While both actors played characters of limited ambitions (Divine wants to be the filthiest person alive while Holly hopes to get on welfare) that lived among and were perceived by society as being trash, Divine and Holly projected very different personalities. In some of her most famous scenes, Divine owned public spaces with her flagrantly plus-sized presence, whether walking through Baltimore or talking to journalists dressed in a tight red dress. By contrast, the very thin Holly spent most of her film inside a basement apartment and her memorable scenes were bizarre situations that became unexpectedly moving. Like Geraldo Rivera, Tom Snyder starts off with the need to categorize. During their interview, the two agree with Holly’s explanation on why they didn’t appear in drag: “The reason we’re not doing this now is I don’t live in women’s clothing. I do it as a living.” They also agree with rejecting the labels “transvestite” because (“that’s someone who lives in drag,” explains Divine) and “female impersonator.” Woodlawn then explains that she went from wanting a sex change to wanting to perform as woman: “What I really wanted do is… I enjoy the idea, the whole thing of fabulous women.” Also, John Waters wrote other roles that expanded Divine’s Pink Flamingos screen persona, including her mainstream breakthrough in Hairspray (1988), whereas Paul Morrissey didn’t cast Woodlawn in other movies after her ad-libbed performances in Trash and Women in Revolt.
The Geraldo Rivera interview is particularly interesting because he, like Woodlawn, is Puerto Rican with a Jewish background (or “JewRican,” as he self-describes). Rivera starts the segment by categorically stating: “Holly Woodlawn is a man, a man who does a nightclub act as a woman…” As introduced, their exchange about sexuality is between two men from the same generation who share a similar ethnic heritage that is never addressed. The “transvestite” label separates them and erases the shared “Puerto Rican man” identity. That separation of identities is consistent with the ways in which LGBTQ histories have usually been told in the United States. Writing about the role that trans activist Sylvia Rivera, of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage, plays within the Stonewall imaginary, Jessi Gan notes that, “Rivera was poor and Latina, while some transgender activists making political claims on the basis of her history were white and middle-class. She was being praised for becoming visible and transgender while her racial and class visibility were being simultaneously concealed” (2007: 127). Despite the growing awareness and popularization of “intersectional studies,” the elision or downplaying of Holly Woodlawn’s ethnic heritage could still be seen in posthumous online tributes (such as this one by Transparent producer Zachary Drucker) that recognized her as transgender pioneer without fully addressing her Puerto Rican identity or background.
Given their “unruly” behavior, intersectional identities and rejection of fixed categories, translatinas like Holly Woodlawn and Sylvia Rivera can be more challenging to claim for current transgender politics. Rivera disliked being defined solely by gender-based categorizations: “I’m tired of being labeled. I don’t even like the label transgender” (Quoted in Gan 2007: 135). Woodlawn also rejected categorizations, not only from straight TV interviewers like Geraldo Rivera but also from gay media: “Categorize myself? I don’t… no. It goes beyond that, ‘cause I don’t really categorize myself because once I start thinking of categorizing myself then I really get stuck in a rut” (“Holly Woodland at Reno Sweeney from Emerald City TV 1977”). Her semi-exploitative roles in underground cinema didn’t precisely offer “positive images” of women and she would identify in interviews as a man: “The truth is that I am a boy. It’s only on stage that I dress as a woman and wear woman’s clothes. The person that I invented is a very glamorous female one. But I have no intentions of getting a sex change or any of that stuff” (Sutclife 1978). As Penny Arcade (2015) noted: “In this period where many transgender women and their advocates are delicate, touchy and prissy, it would behoove them to understand a Holly Woodlawn, rough and ready, not bothered by pronouns, not bothered if her beard was showing.”
The publication of A Low Life in High Heels (1991) put Holly Woodlawn back on the spotlight as a Warhol Superstar survivor. (Mario Montez, the other Puerto Rican Warhol Superstar, was living in Florida and was even presumed dead by some. See my reflections on her career here) Although Madonna – who put her in the background of her “Deeper and Deeper” video (1992) while she paraded dressed as Edie Sedgwick and Udo Kier emoted – expressed interest for a film adaptation, her memoir was largely overlooked: “Unfortunately, the book did not do well. I had to do my own book tour! But it was worth it. I just wanted people to hear my voice” (Negrón-Muntaner 2015). During the next decades, Holly Woodlawn’s main role became that of surviving superstar, appearing in documentaries that honored former colleagues: Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, Lou Reed, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Divine, among others. Despite health problems, during her last decades Woodlawn performed in cabaret, played cameo roles in independent movies, and good-humoredly granted interviews about her years in the underground scene. She also posed on 2006 for British artist Sadie Lee, who made a series of oil portraits about Woodlawn’s aged body.
A posthumous appreciation in The New York Times affirmed that Holly Woodlawn’s performances were “never really an act. Holly was that loopy in life” (Trebay 2015). According to Quentin Crisp: “Holly Woodlawn is a success at being Holly Woodlawn which is the Andy Warhol principle” (Resident Alien, 1991). The blurring of on and off-screen images, while longing to be taken seriously as an actor, brings to mind the three Latina stars from classic Hollywood cinema that became camp icons in the 1960s: Dominican Maria Montez, Mexican Lupe Velez and Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Many have insisted – and some still insist – that their screen performances were also “never really an act,” even though they followed scripts and there is ample evidence that they were very self-conscious performers. While most movie stars end up “playing themselves,” Latina actress were typecast into playing their own persona from the start, with little to no possibility for reinvention. In terms of attitude, Holly Woodlawn had more in common with Dominican movie star Maria Montez than Mario Montez (see my earlier Mediático post on Maria and Mario here). Holly and Maria self-proclaimed their stardom ahead of time and their interviews reveal their wit and self-awareness. However, during her short life, Maria was able to marry French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont and attempt to renovate her exotic star image as a postwar wife and mother. Her marital connections also helped launch a European film career that sought to showcase her as an actor, not just a sex symbol. (And, while they don’t reveal a great actress, the better ones show that Montez could deliver more expressive screen performances.)
When Life featured photos of Maria Montez in costume for her star-making role in Arabian Nights (John Rawlins, 1942), the magazine noted: “Her part also requires her to be imprisoned in a harem guarded by leopards, and to escape with Jon Hall on horseback over a 24-ft. bed. By such feats, Maria says she is determined to win an Academy Award in the next five years.” That teasing comment is symptomatic of how Latina performers were perceived during the studio era. They could become minor stars and be guests at Academy Awards dinners, but the idea of them winning awards for their stereotyped roles (Mexican Spitfire, Brazilian Bombshell, Queen of Technicolor) was ridiculous. The contrary demands between fulfilling a bankable Latino stereotype and “acting” in a way that the Academy considered “award-worthy” was reflected in the careers of the first Oscar-winning Puerto Rican actors. The Princeton-educated and Tony-winning actor-director-producer José Ferrer didn’t fit Hollywood’s “tall, dark and handsome” Latin lover stereotypes. Ferrer won his Oscar for floridly reciting verse as a long-nosed French nobleman in the costume drama Cyrano de Bergerac (Michael Gordon, 1950). His other nominations were also for playing Frenchmen in costume dramas: Joan of Arc (Victor Fleming, 1948) and Moulin Rouge (John Houston, 1952). However, his acclaimed transformative roles (which required strapping his legs and walking on kneepads as Toulouse-Lautrec) didn’t lead to film stardom, though there were some opportunities as film director. Unlike José Ferrer, Rita Moreno paid her dues by taking the studio publicity buildup route, with obligatory cheesecake photos, stereotyped publicity as a Latina starlet and secondary ethnic roles. She got her first and only Oscar nomination for playing Puerto Rican, with darkened skin and dubbed singing voice, in West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), but the award win didn’t generate the non-stereotypical opportunities she hoped for. By the time Holly Woodlawn made her film debut in Trash, Moreno’s latest part had been as one of the women in Marlowe (Paul Bogart, 1969).
The prospect that a transgender performer in underground cinema who found inspiration in Maria Montez-style roles could’ve been the third Puerto Rican to earn an acting nomination is now only a queer utopian fantasy. In reality, the third winner was Benicio del Toro, who reportedly “worked hard” to master a Mexican accent for his role in the crime drama Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000). Despite the increased visibility and awareness about Latino and transgender issues, performers who defy fixed identity categories like Holly Woodlawn are still not welcome among the predominantly white, wealthy, hetero and homonormative audience at the Oscars ceremony who laughed at Chris Rock’s provocative jokes which addressed Hollywood’s “diversity problem” in strictly black and white terms. Woodlawn’s limited filmography is a reminder that the US film industry has had little to no place for performers like her to develop careers. Their narrow prospects have been in underground or independent circuits with alternate “star systems,” like the Warhol Superstars or the “stars” of psychotronic films, which copied, honored, ironized and/or subverted classic Hollywood stardom without offering the same prestige and financial benefits.
In 1978, while promoting her cabaret act in London, Holly Woodlawn told the press that she sought backing for a “sort of autobiographical” screenplay “about an impoverished underground starlet who smuggles dope to make money for a trip to California to see the Academy Award ceremonies” (Wake). The real-life trip to Los Angeles didn’t result in acting opportunities or Academy Awards. Despite the disappointments, Woodlawn conveyed an upbeat and confident attitude that came across as simultaneously loopy and charming in her multiple interviews through the years, including two that were filmed for European television. The first interview, from 1996, opens with the glamorized middle-aged Holly singing wistfully about classic Hollywood stars during her cabaret act. Holly then stands with the Hollywood sign behind her and gives an abridged version of her story while images show her walking through the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As the interview cuts back to her singing “airbrushed… I want to be airbrushed…” there is a mixture of heartfelt longing and knowing parody that endears while eliciting laughs in the audience. Later, Holly visits what used to be the Max Factor Museum and meets the petite former MGM star Anita Page, in her mid 80s, so frail that she needs help on the sidewalk. There is something touching about watching Page and Woodlawn momentarily standing side-by-side, enjoying the moment, despite experiencing very different modes of stardom in their lifetimes. Fifteen years later, in the documentary Girls in Popsong, Woodlawn is the one who needs help to walk inside a movie theater, where she clearly enjoys sharing anecdotes. Through most of the segment, however, a blonde Holly Woodlawn is shown reclining like her idol Lana Turner in The Prodigal, looking glamorous despite slight body shakes. In both interviews, Woodlawn admits the shortcomings of being a Warhol Superstar and/or Lou Reed muse. However, rather than lamenting herself, she asserts: “Can I be honest with you? I love it.”
Arcade, Penny. “Penny Arcade Remembers Holly Woodlawn.” Out.com 10 Dec. 2015.
Flatley, Guy. “He Enjoys Being A Girl.” New York Times 15 November 1970: D15.
Gan, Jessi. “ ‘Still At The Back of the Bus’: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle.” Centro Journal 19.1 (2007): 124-139.
“Holly Woodlawn, 1992 TV Interview.” You Tube. 28 Feb. 2016.
“Holly Woodlawn at Reno Sweeney from Emerald City 1977.” You Tube. 7 Dec. 2015.
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[…] An Underground Survivor at the Oscars: Holly Woodlawn, Puerto Rican Actor by Roberto Ortiz […]
This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read about Holly. Incredible work!!
I will pass this on to the author! He’ll be pleased. Thank you for reading Mediatico. Please subscribe