In May of 1999, I flew to Los Angeles, armed with a tape
recorder and a stack of blank cassettes to do a string of interviews with a
motley assortment of characters that could be pigeonholed in any one of these
unflattering categories: Hollywood's Unjustly Forgotten; The Overlooked Career
Of…; or Aging Horribly and No One Cares. Some worked out and others didn't.
Among them was Forrest J. Ackerman, founder of Famous Monsters Magazine and
godfather to a generation of horror film directors. He welcomed me into his
Hollywood Hills mansion, cackling cinematically through a loudspeaker when I
rang the bell, then later insisted on answering all my questions in Esperanto;
Mr. Blackwell, the acid-tongued fashion critic and one of the original Dead End
Kids in Hollywood in the 1930s; and Pat Ast.
I may have been the last journalist to interview actress Pat
Ast, Warhol Superstar and best known for her role in Paul Morrissey's Heat (1972),
before she died in October of 2001. I had just spoken to her a few months
before she died. I was back home in New York watching TV when to my amazement,
I spotted her jazzing it up in the background of Donna Summer's 1980 video
"Bad Girls," of all things, as one of three backup singers. There was
Pat – all 200-plus pounds of her in a floral mumu with flower behind the ear,
flanked by two black vocalists, punctuating the song with the crucial refrain Ahhh….toot-toot
– yeah -- beep-beep! Without knowing why exactly, I called her up and told
her what I was watching. She sounded like she wasn't sure who it was, but
gamely played along.
German poster for Warhol's "Heat" showed Sylvia Miles and Joe Dallesandro
When I visited her in '99, she was living with her
Australian shepherd Winnie in a small cottage overgrown with bougainvillea and
wisteria vines in deepest Hollywood.
It was one of those bungalows in a garden court hidden from the street,
evocative of the days of blacklisted screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo, or
Nathaniel West smoking and writing Day of the Locust.
Pat Ast was the sort of performer who was able to get cast
by the sheer force of her personality. But apart from her role in Heat,
her only significant role, she created a mosaic out of flavorful bit parts and
cameos – mostly parts that made good use of her obesity and furious energy. In Heat,
a sun-baked, speedfreak retelling of Sunset Boulevard, Ast plays Lydia, the lewd manager of a seedy residence
motel in L.A.,
where her new tenant, Joey Davis (Joe Dallesandro), is a former child TV star
who has just moved back to town to resucitate his career. He meets up with an
equally washed-up actress, Sally Todd (Sylvia Miles) and tries to seduce her in
a bid to use her influence, what little of it she still has in the industry.
Everyone is in denial about who they are and delusional about who they used to
be, none more so than Lydia.
She's not going to let her surroundings get in the way of being a misunderstood
seductress, as she feels just as much in the running for Joey's carnal
attention as any of her competition.
Pat makes use of her "ample" charms in "Heat"
Most of the flat, deadpan dialogue was ad-libbed, thanks to
the talent of such people as Miles and Ast in front of the camera. Take this
exchange between Sally and her daughter, Jessica (Andrea Feldman):
Sally : ...And you're NOT a lesbian. I
mean, everybody has girlfriends. Men have friends, women have friends. That
doesn't make you a lesbian. Do you sleep in the same room with her? Jessica:
Sure. How else can I be a lesbian? Sally:
Where does Mark sleep? Jessica:
With us. Sally:
In the same bed? Jessica:
In the same bed. Sally:
Is that a way to bring up a boy? He'll be a lesbian! Lydia:
"Is that so unbelievable...to believe?"
Even her cameo appearance in The Incredible Shrinking
Woman (1980, directed by her old friend Joel Schumacher) as a housewife
made to eat aerosolized cheese in a supermarket parking lot had me howling
beyond reason. Her comic timing and deadpan delivery was genius.
I took her to lunch at a place on Sunset, and as she began
to warm to me, the stories began flying, fast and furious, half-finished,
digressed upon, or riffed on to the point of improvisation. I could see the
influence of her father, a Catskills comic, in her vaudevillian timing.
Half-way through answering a question, and suddenly she'd break into song (a
powerful voice, I noted) or snap out a fan from nowhere for an impromtu Mikado.
Comic routines, burlesque ditties, a stream-of-unconsciousness that defied
transcription. One minute she was a purring pussycat, and the next, a clawing
madwoman, spitting food at me or knocking over water glasses. Our neighboring
diners were visibly appalled. My poor tape recorder lay there on the table,
diligently recording it all, and I thought: There's just no way. I found her
monstrous, magnetizing, hilarious and insane.
Even though I could never transcribe the tape, I do remember
the essentials. From what I could tease out of her, she had grown up in
Brooklyn, attended the mythic ErasmusHallHigh
School in Flatbush, supposedly in the same class
as Barbra Streisand (according to Pat they sang together in choir). After high
school she worked in a box factory and did other odd jobs before being hired by
the designer Halston to work in his showroom where she met Andy Warhol &
Co., charming celebrities, writers and directors, some of whom wanted to make
her their muse, while others wanted to strangle her. It was also during this
period she met and befriended a window dresser named Joel Schumacher, who was
doing copious amount of drugs. They spent summers together, sleeping on the
beach in Fire Island if no one would host
them. (Later he would break into films first as a costume designer, then as a
director. His first major feature was The Incredible Shrinking Woman.)
After being fired off the Broadway musical Nine by
Tommy Tune for trying to "steal the show," Pat moved to L.A. in the mid-70s and
made a name for herself doing potent cameos in films such as The Duchess and
the Dirtwater Fox (1976), Foul Play (1978). Her last signifcant
acting job was as Edna, the warden in a women's penitentiary in Reform
School Girls, starring punk singer Wendy O. Williams, a role she visibly
Pat's likeness adorned the one sheet poster for "Reform School Girls"
She stopped getting roles in the 80's, when, after tripping
over a cable on the set of a film and then filing suit, she gained a bad
reputation for being high-risk and uninsurable Her offers for work dried up and
she retreated to her little Hollywood hideaway, where she disappeared into the
bougainvillea blossoms like a feral cat.
Paul Morrissey, whom I called in East
Hampton to talk about Pat Ast, didn't want to be bothered.
Nonetheless, he's to be congratulated for making the most of her talent.
Somewhere I still have a photo I took of her after our
(well, my) disastrous lunch interview. She is standing on Sunset Boulevard with
the aid of a cane in one hand and the fan in the other, spread beneath her
chin. The look in her eyes says it all: Careful, I Might Say Yes.