Last July we learned that pioneering queer entertainer Holly Woodlawn was gravely ill and unable to pay for the health care she required and that a GoFundMe campaign had been set up to help make her remaining days peaceful ones by allowing her to be cared for in her home. Diagnosed with both brain and lung cancer, Woodlawn miraculously pulled through her latest medical crisis only to see the roof of her apartment collapse — twice — leaving her essentially homeless. [You can read some of the horrific details here.] Concerned friends moved the performer, forever beloved for her no-holds-barred turns in independent films such as Trash, as well as inspiring a memorable verse in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s anthemic ode to the cast of characters who populated Andy Warhol’s Factory, into an assisted living facility. As you might guess, it’s not inexpensive and being a fabulous former Warhol star doesn’t bring in the big bucks so if you’re a huge fan or just have an oversized heart with a plus-sized wallet, you’re invited to help defray the cost of keeping this living legend alive and comfortable. Director Mike Stabile, whose Seed Money is a riveting doc about vintage adult film director Chuck Holmes you should seek out, is currently at work on a nonfiction film that will chronicle Woodlawn’s tumultuous life. Stabile chatted with Queerty to offer an update on Holly’s condition and the status of his new project, and why we’re still fascinated with the great Warhol superstars.
Queerty: Your film Seed Money has been a big, well-reviewed hit at festivals around the country. What’s been the overall response to it and where can people see it?
Mike Stabile: The response has been really great. We’ll have played over forty festivals by year’s end, including New York on the 23rd. I knew this was an important story to me, but what I didn’t realize was how many gay men were affected by these films, and how many saw themselves in Chuck Holme’s story. I think a lot of people think it’s just about porn, or Falcon Studios. And it is, but it’s in some ways more about the role gay sexuality played in the fight for gay rights. People can see a full list of upcoming screenings here or on Facebook.
Your next project is a documentary about Holly Woodlawn. How did this come about?
I was introduced to her by director Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito, Tab Hunter Confidential), who had just shot an interview with her for his documentary I Am Divine! He had seen a short I’d done prior to Seed Money, and thought that I might be a good fit for Holly. I went over and talked to her, and by the end of the visit she was serenading me with “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. I rustled up a little money, got a new credit card and followed her to Art Basel Miami that year, for a performance for the Warhol Foundation.
What is it about Holly that makes her a worthy subject for a non-fiction film? Holly was one of our first trans icons. That intro verse in “Walk on the Wild Side” — Holly came from Miami F-L-A, hitch hiked her way across the U-S-A … — was certainly my first introduction to trans identity, and maybe to outsider culture in general. I don’t think I discovered Warhol, and certainly not her work in films like Trash and Women in Revolt, until much later. And, of course, she was at the Stonewall for the riots. Oddly, if you’ve read her memoir, Low Life in High Heels, these are in some ways the least interesting parts of her story. Holly really carved out an identity in the underground in a way that hadn’t been done before. She was both glamorous and a shit-kicker. I don’t think she’s ever given a thought to what other people think about her, she’s just living her life. She is an artist, a hustler, and someone who utterly without pretension. In an era when even fine artists are creating lifestyle brands, Holly stands out as someone who’s only interest is being true to herself. It’s tremendously inspiring.
What are some of your favorite Holly stories? Oh, there are so many. But I think what sums up Holly best is her relationship with champagne. She hates it. The carbonation make her burp, so no matter where we are, if someone hands her a glass she’ll just jam her fingers in it and swirls them around to get out all the bubbles. I can’t think of a better metaphor for popping high culture pretensions.
Holly has had some serious health concerns during the past months and there was even a crowdsourcing campaign to help her be cared for at her home. How is she doing lately?
She’s doing alright. She has brain and lung cancer, and because of issues with her liver, there’s no real treatment available. We’re just trying to make her as comfortable as possible. While she was in the hospital, the roof collapsed at her apartment building, so she’s now in an assisted living facility that is actually quite nice. She has a private room, and Turner Classic Movies, and a 24/7 nursing staff. And there’s a roof deck where she can get 360 degrees of Hollywood, including the sign. But none of this is cheap, hence the fundraising. Her 69th birthday is coming up, and she’s looking forward to having a party on the roof with all her friends.
How involved was Holly in the project before she became ill?
She’s been involved from the beginning, and has been very vocal about what she wants and doesn’t want. For the past few years, I was wrapping up Seed Money, and struggling to pay for that, so for Holly, we shot what we could on what we had for that. We were really supposed to start shooting in earnest in June, when she got sick. But she doesn’t want this to be about that.
Why do you think people are still so fascinated with Holly and the other great Warhol superstars of her heyday?
They were trailblazers who didn’t give a fuck what society thought. I think now, with social media, even on the progressive end, we’re hyperaware of society’s reaction. The Warhol stars didn’t do things because they wanted society’s approval, they did them because they wanted to. And they were doing it at a time when nearly everyone regarded them as freaks, if not criminals. They defied categories and really took a hammer to the politics of respectability. I think we could stand to learn a few lessons from them still.
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