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Factory Girl (Reviewed)

by Gary Comenas

There was so much negative pre-publicity about this film that it was difficult to approach it with an open mind. Bob Dylan’s lawyers were on the warpath soon after the project was announced. To avoid a lawsuit his character was changed to a thinly disguised hybrid musical artist who was described as a combination of  Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Donovan. Lou Reed saw the script and called it “one of the most disgusting foul things I’ve seen – by any illiterate retard – in a long time.” Then there were all the negative comments posted on IMDB and other film sites by fans who accused director George Hickenlooper of  factual inaccuracies without  ever having seen a  single frame of the film. The truth is that Factory Girl is neither good nor bad. It is innocuous. One could excuse its factual inaccuracies if the film succeeded creatively. But there is nothing particularly artistic or "cutting edge" about this film.

Prior to its release both Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce were tipped as possible Oscar contenders. The film was brought out on December 29th for a limited one week run in Los Angeles to meet the Academy deadline before retreating for yet further re-editing. Although Sienna does do a good impersonation of the blonde Edie during her Warhol period, she is less effective at portraying the brunette Edie during her "pre" and "post" Warhol phase. Factory Girl begins and ends with a 1970 brunette Edie on the psychiatrist's couch talking about her life as the film flashes back to it. In 1970 the real Edie was on a daily regime of prescribed drugs (mostly "downers") supplemented by non-prescribed drugs and alcohol as evidenced by her performance in the non-Warhol film, Ciao! Manhattan. But Sienna's brunette Edie is not the Edie of Ciao! Manhattan. She's lucid and nondescript rather than out-of-it and interesting. Miller is much better at playing the blonde Edie during her Warhol days. She has Edie's raspy voice down to a "T" and in footage filmed to replicate real documentary footage from the era Sienna really does look like Edie. Unfortunately, however, sometimes the film seems like a compilation of imitation documentary footage and little else. This film isn't boring - it just isn't exciting.

Guy Pearce's portrayal of Warhol is sometimes effective and sometimes isn't. It's difficult portraying Warhol in films because most viewers are already familiar with the real thing but an actor's portrayal of a real person has got to be more than just an impersonation of that person. David Bowie's portrayal of Warhol in Julian Schnabel's film, Basquiat, was better. Bowie may not have looked as much like Warhol as Pearce does in some scenes, but was much better at capturing Warhol's fey personality. But then Basquiat was made by an artist about an artist and embodies an artistic sensibility that Factory Girl lacks.

As for Hayden Christensen who plays the hybrid folk-singer Billy Quinn, his performance is almost laughable (more Humphrey Bogart than Bob Dylan), but he has little to work with script-wise. His first line to Edie after meeting her backstage at a concert venue is “I gotta go to work sweetheart” as he meanders to the stage with his guitar.

The script seems uneven as though it had been written by a committee. Sometimes the dialogue seems obvious and redundant although there is one well-written scene when Andy meets Edie's mother. Warhol says to Mrs. Sedgwick, “I think your daughter’s going to be super famous” and the mother asks “And what would be the value in that Mr. Warhol?” Warhol responds, “Well, I think everybody wants to be famous” and the mother has the last word: “Well, I had much higher hopes for Edith.” In one cutting sentence Edie’s mother dispels the American myth that Fame is everything.

Edie and Andy's break-up forms the dramatic nucleus of the film with an out-of-money Edie badgering Warhol to be paid for her film performances. Warhol’s apparent stinginess about paying his actors has been documented in various books on the artist but what must be remembered is that before The Chelsea Girls, none of Warhol’s films made much money, including those which featured Edie Sedgwick. Footage of Edie was originally supposed to appear in The Chelsea Girls but was edited out of the film after her break-up with Warhol and is now sometimes shown as a self-contained film called The Afternoon. Edie was not as big a star as this film portrays. She may have been a superstar in New York, but I'm not sure how popular she was in Nebraska. Prior to the release of this film she remained mostly unknown in the U.K. where screenings of Warhol's films are still (unfortunately) relatively rare.

Edie made films for Warhol for about a year and a half, yet Factory Girl does not really go into what happened to her after she left the Factory. One trap that this film does not fall into is to blame Warhol or Dylan for introducing Edie to drugs. As if to emphasize this point, Edie says in a voice-over near the end of the film “I’m not saying that anyone else is responsible. I made life decisions that I regret…” The fact that this is a voice-over and that she uses the contemporary term “life decisions” gives the impression that this sentence may have been added during one of the film’s numerous re-edits, possibly as extra protection against potential lawsuits.

The film ends as it began – with Edie on the psychiatrist’s couch. The psychiatrist tells her “I’m so happy you’re well, Edie” – a highly unlikely statement coming from a psychiatrist – and then we see Edie walking out of the psychiatrist’s office. A final explanatory note appears on the screen: “Edie returned to Santa Barbara in 1968 where she struggled to control her drug dependency. She was released from Cottage Hospital for the last time in the summer of 1970. A year later she married a fellow patient. That fall, Edie died from a drug overdose. She was 28 years old.”  It is an abrupt ending and gives the impression that the people making this film ran out of time or money or both. This is followed by a short interview with Guy Pearce as a long-haired Warhol being interviewed the day after Edie’s death. Following this is schmaltzy MTV type of footage of Warhol (Pearce) and Edie (Miller) when they were still “together.”

The inclusion of the explanatory note about Edie’s final ending is reminiscent of  Ciao! Manhattan which ends with a different final note: “Three months after the completion of filming, Edie Sedgwick, who portrays herself in the role of Susan, suddenly died at the age of 28. We dedicate this motion picture to her memory.” But whereas the Ciao! Manhattan message seems genuinely heartfelt, the Factory Girl message is so abrubt that it doesn't really connect emotionally with the viewer.

The co-director (with John Palmer) of Ciao! Manhattan, David Weisman, is currently working on a documentary about Edie Sedgwick, along with co-director Melissa Painter, for theatrical release. If the Weinstein Company had been smart they would have got the distribution deal for the documentary rather than for Factory Girl. Footage of a real Edie is preferable to footage of a fake Edie. Weisman and Painter's documentary is eagerly anticipated. In the meantime if you want to see the real Edie, get the DVD of Ciao! Manhattan.

Gary Comenas