Lili Taylor's furrowed-brow Valerie Solanas careens through I Shot Andy Warhol like a party-crasher spoiling a not-very-interesting party. She's Adrenalin Woman, unable to refrain from singing her own praises to passers-by on the street or shouting at anyone who will (or won't) listen to her plans for making the world a better place. Her method? Eradicating men. She's exuberantly awful in a distinctively New York City way — but even at her worst she's 10 times more interesting than Warhol himself. As played by Jared Harris, the great pop icon and lord of the Factory is a bewigged, acne-scarred mumbler of such lines as “Great!” and “OK”; he's a mild little dweeb at the center of a cult of personality the movie wisely doesn't try to explain.
It's that cult of personality — the hip gang of which Warhol is somnolent leader — that Solanas desperately wants to join. Screenwriters Mary Harron (who also directed) and Daniel Minahan spend a lot of time limning Solanas' intellectual and political interests, her brilliance in college, her lesbianism, her literary genius, and all the rest of it, but ultimately it's hollow and irrelevant stuff: Like so many people who come to New York, Solanas wants, simply, to be famous, by any means necessary. Warhol is famous; she will work her way into his circle, and she will then be famous too — a debt he and the world owe her, because she is brilliant, and right.
It's tricky business making a movie about a heroine who's so patently, dangerously nuts. Harron manages by treating Taylor like a wild animal stalking prey — a homely creature of anarchic energy and perfect self-absorption. The movie neither condemns nor sympathizes; it simply presents its bizarre cast of characters in their own lurid glow and lets them play out their inevitable drama.
To Warhol, Solanas is an animal as well: a creature in some sort of human menagerie, briefly amusing but not worth sustained attention, which seems beyond his capacity in any case. He thinks, when she starts to pace and snarl distastefully, that he can just walk away, as he walks away from everyone and everything else that bores him. But by then it's too late.
Why does Solanas shoot Warhol, a man with little taste for confrontation? His gravest offense is not taking her hideous play, Up Your Ass, seriously, but that merely demonstrates that he does have some artistic and aesthetic sense. (In a very funny scene, he sits on a sofa with a group of his acolytes, reading a scene from the play about eating turds. “She's sick,” someone pronounces, and Warhol, agreeing, pitches the typescript over the back of the couch — where, presumably, it becomes part of the artistic landscape of the tinfoil-lined Factory.)
The bigger insult is that Warhol neither tells her the truth nor tells her off; he's like a huge sponge she keeps throwing herself at. She never penetrates it, but she's never frankly rejected by it either. There's never anything definite from Warhol or the Factory. They're a smarmy-mouthed, double-talking crew whose contempt would be unmistakable to anyone save someone like Solanas, a Scud missile not to be deflected by a genteel snub. They hold her hostage to her own immeasurable vainglory.
She does have her friends, Stevie (a forgettable Martha Plimpton in a forgettable role) and Candy Darling, a pre-op transvestite played by Stephen Dorff with just the right blend of girlish acidity and well-aged wistfulness. They furnish what little social balm there is in Solanas' life — but it isn't much, and it certainly isn't enough. Toward the film's climax even they find her unbearable.
Warhol, she concludes in her paranoia, is determined to suppress her, and he's in cahoots with her publisher, Maurice Girodias (a fabulously oily Lothaire Bluteau), who actually pays her an advance for a novel of which she's written not a single word. What she really wants is for one or both of them to publish her SCUM Manifesto (“SCUM” being an acronym for “Society to Cut Up Men”). They are reluctant. In the meantime, she hawks photocopies of it (to both sexes) on the street.
The movie returns repeatedly to the fact of Solanas' lesbianism without interpreting its significance. Is her man-hating an outgrowth of her desire for women, or does she desire women because, so utterly detesting men, she has no choice? For all her railing about male evil, it's plain that she wants to be a man and thinks that if she were one, she would find the power and fame she believes she's been cheated of.
The movie opens and closes with the shooting: a scene in which Solanas steps into a sparely decorated office at the Factory and coolly pops Warhol and a male assistant. She tries to shoot Fred Hughes (Craig Chester) too, but the gun jams. But then the pistol is the story of her life; when she's aiming it at Warhol she's the closest she'll ever be to having the dick that's her greatest and most secret desire. And when it jams, the fantasy bursts like a bubble: She's still a woman, famous now for 15 minutes as the woman who plugged Warhol, but nothing more.
“Please, Valerie, just take the elevator!” Hughes pleads, as the lift waits, door open, to carry her away from the carnage. And, obediently, she does.
The film's final credits suggest that Solanas (who died destitute in San Francisco in 1989) is something of a heroine to feminists. It's depressing to think that this might be so. Solanas didn't care about bettering the lot of women; she didn't care much about women either way. She cared about hating men. They were a group she envied and from which she felt she'd been unjustly excluded. But most of all she cared about being famous and powerful — about herself. She found her measure of fame and now has had a movie made about her life — but with its comic pathos, it can't be the movie she would have wished for.
I Shot Andy Warhol opens Fri, May 17, at the Embarcadero Center in S.F., the Shattuck in Berkeley, and Grand Lake in Oakland.