You would think Andy Warhol's Factory would be a great setting for a movie. Populated with colorful characters and fuelled by an anything-goes attitude, surely you'd think there are interesting stories that have yet to be told about the period. I Shot Andy Warhol immediately springs to mind as just such a film, and it's an example of one that worked.
Not the case with Factory Girl, a biopic about Edie Sedgwick, the rich socialite who dreamed of being an artist and ended up starring in several of Warhol's no-budget movies and setting fashion trends as she and Andy partied their way through the city. She was an alluring presence on the 1960s New York scene, one who lived glamorously and died tragically. Surely she'd not be the subject of a dull movie? As infamous Vogue editor Diane Vreeland (as played by Illeana Douglas) tells her in the final reel, at least you're not boring.
Yeah, try again, DV! Factory Girl is as dull as they come. Hollywood needs to wake up and realize they need a new formula for biographies. Director George Hickenlooper seemed like a good choice to captain this ship. As a documentarian, he displayed a talent for capturing both the artistic journey gone awry (Hearts of Darkness) and odd fringe characters stuck in their own little world (The Mayor of Sunset Strip). He shows none of that insight in Factory Girl; instead, he takes the same familiar trek that so many biopics have traveled before him.
The first half of Factory Girl is completely in love with Warhol's studio and with the legend of Edie Sedgwick. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the chops to actually capture the scene. If this were a movie about a singer or someone who actually did things that were palpable and easy to convey, they might have had an easier time, but Hickenlooper and his crew of writers seem at a complete loss to explain what actually went on inside the Factory. As a cheat, they show their beloved icons sitting around gabbing and being pretentious and hope that our collective memories of the period can fill in the gaps. We're told that Sedgwick captured the imagination of all who saw her, but we just have to take it on faith. Sienna Miller is gung-ho in her portrayal of Edie, constantly moving, always speaking, but she doesn't have the same spark her subject had. Fans of Edie Sedgwick would watch films of her doing absolutely nothing. I can't imagine anyone ever doing the same for Sienna Miller.
With nothing else to show us, Factory Girl banks on the inevitable decline. Sadly, a once bright star spiraling down into a drug-induced oblivion is nothing new, and without the weight of a substantial build-up, there's not much to hang our sympathy on. So, the filmmakers try another tack and concoct a love triangle. Despite having a platonic relationship, Andy and Edie were inseparable, and thus, when earnestly cool folk singer Billy Quinn shows up, it shakes the foundation of this precarious relationship.
Quinn is a stand-in for Bob Dylan, an obvious fact ol' Bob is none too happy about. Nor should he be. This character is so blatantly him, it hurts. The filmmakers go out of their way to help you keep thinking it's Dylan by never really calling Billy Quinn by name. I left the movie thinking his name was Taylor for some reason, but I should have known they'd go for something more obvious and pseudo-clever. Billy Quinn is probably meant to evoke "The Mighty Quinn," a song written by Dylan. Get it? I guess since there is a contemporary singer called John Wesley Harding, they had to dig deeper into the troubadour's back catalogue for the right kind of nameplay.
The big insult for Bob, though, comes in the casting. Hayden Christensen! Whose bright idea was that? He's terrible in the role. He plays the entire thing with one facial expression and one vocal inflection, never changing either. Every word out of his mouth is deadly serious and ridiculously profound. You would never believe the guy told a joke in his life. Putting Christensen in the role is like getting Marty Feldman to play Mick Jagger; it's that bad.
The performance looks all the more worse when you put the actor in the same room as Guy Pearce. As Warhol, Pearce is the one bright spot in this movie. He's incredible. Russell Crowe may have been the star to break out of L.A. Confidential, but for my money, Pearce is easily the better of the two. The man is a chameleon, and he somehow captures Warhol's effete demeanor without letting any of the eccentricities come off as caricature. When you stack this nuanced performance against Hayden Christensen swaggering around like he's some kind of working class stiff, the whole thing falls apart. Not to mention that they make the confrontation between Warhol and Quinn/Dylan fit into a regular nerd vs. jock paradigm. Who is Factory Girl trivializing more? These great artists or Edie Sedgwick, whose problems all seem to stem from the fact that too many men love her?
But then again, if we didn't have this standoff between her two "boyfriends," we couldn't have the wonderful symmetry that somehow pervades the life of anyone famous enough to have a movie made about them. You know what I mean, how in these movies every phrase uttered in the first act will be repeated in the third act, every act of artistic inspiration will have a concrete analogue in the "real world" of the narrative. Edie has a daddy who is a real bastard, so it's going to be made quite clear to us that Warhol and Quinn somehow fit into her problems with her old man. Even better, her father is an overbearing man's man, while her dead brother was a homosexual their pop bullied into suicide. It all lines up! Each man has a doppelganger.
No one's life can be sufficiently retold in ninety minutes. As a result, we get slop like Factory Girl that tries to dazzle us with what we already know and what we think we recognize rather than taking the time to find something solid about the subject that the filmmakers can honestly portray. There is an interesting movie to be made about Edie Sedgwick, but Factory Girl isn't it. In fact, if George Hickenlooper wants to go back into the editing room and put together a documentary about the actress, I'd totally watch it. The short scroll of photos and testimonials from friends and family that accompanies the closing credits made me feel much more informed about the woman than the preceding hour and a half. I think that's telling you something.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.