Along with his paintings, silk-screen prints and outré movies, Andy Warhol also created the modern notion of "celebrity."
If you wanted it bad enough, you could have it. You didn't have to do anything important to earn it. You could just will it.
"In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," Warhol famously said, with the authority of God giving Moses an 11th Commandment. And he was right, more or less. Just watch reality television.
But in this age of Paris Hilton and — rest in peace — Anna Nicole Smith, it's easy to think of celebrity as a tawdry thing. And some of the misfits who found brief fame as part of the entourage of druggie Warhol-anointed "superstars" at his Factory studio in the late 1960s were indeed, to use the title of a Warhol-produced movie, "trash."
Edie Sedgwick, his first and greatest underground-movie "superstar," wasn't.
She was an incandescent, luminous, blazingly electric, beaming spotlight of a young woman ... with a dark side. She was why the 1960s were called "swinging."
Yet she also was a prime example of a 1960s burnout. She was the proverbial train wreck waiting to happen, coming as she did from a dysfunctional but wealthy California family with suicide in its past. She had an affinity for a lifestyle that got her strung out on drugs and confused fame with money in the bank, causing her terrible financial problems.
To Warhol, she was a born movie star, a living work of art and a veritable twin. She arrived in New York from Radcliffe in 1964 and met Warhol in 1965. But by the time she died of an overdose in 1971 at age 28, Warhol had long washed his hands of her.
So, too, by that time, had Bob Dylan and his associates. She had come under their sway in 1965, and Dylan reportedly wrote "Just Like a Woman" about her. The movie Factory Girl presumes that she and Dylan — portrayed by Hayden Christensen as a Folk Rock superstar named "Billy Quinn" in the credits, presumably for legal reasons — had a torrid affair.
As played by Sienna Miller, the American-born British actress primarily known in the U.S. as being Jude Law's ex-girlfriend, Edie is a tragic figure, yes. But she's also so wildly, exuberantly alive to her extraordinary milieu that she is an exhilarating presence. She moves like a leggy, sexy high-energy drink. She and high-society-obsessed Warhol, played terrifically well by Guy Pearce, make a great pair. "She's a beautiful boy," he says of her, the highest compliment.
Miller looks amazingly like Sedgwick with the short, blonde hair, the ostentatious earrings, the heavy eye makeup, the dresses and the tights. Vocally, she uncannily captures Sedgwick in the way she expresses a nervous, smoky-voiced self-doubt even while joyously laughing and chattering. It's as if everyone she meets is an immediate confidante and soul mate.
For quite some time, this film by George Hickenlooper (The Mayor of Sunset Strip, The Man From Elysian Fields) flits by like a hip celluloid happening as Edie and Warhol move from party to party, project to project. The director has a flair for montage, split screen and other tricks and a love for weird, obscure 1960s oldies tunes (as Warhol himself did).
But while all this is happening, some of the film's darker themes emerge — often too obviously stated, alas. There was a lot of cruelty and exploitation going on behind the scenes at Warhol's Factory and behind Warhol's own mask of impassivity.
Rather than let that fact subtly emerge from what we can see, writers Aaron Richard Golub, Captain Mauzner and Simon Monjack let their themes be stated too obviously by the characters, mouthpiece-style. They also let the confusion in Sedgwick's own life emerge via people arguing with her, especially her boorish father, "Fuzzy" (James Naughton).
On the other hand, the film quite provocatively portrays both Warhol and Dylan (I'll dispense with calling him "Quinn") as powerful men who exploited Edie. And a scene between the two men — a smug, condescending Dylan comes to the Factory for a "screen test" while making fun of Warhol's appropriated pop art as a scam — has the delicious revisionist-history flavor of The Queen. Especially when Dylan's avaricious manager eyes the artist's Brillo boxes in the room.
Pearce's Warhol is unnervingly dead-on. Pasty-faced with a finger in his mouth, he seems guilelessly shy at first. But he's too self-centered to be compassionate and even intentionally goading of Edie when it serves his purpose. It's a cumulatively damning portrait.
Because Christensen isn't technically playing Dylan, he gets away with approximating the singer's Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde style without having to try to look like him. (He actually looks more like Mike Bloomfield.)
He suffers somewhat in comparison, since Miller and Pearce are in fact being Sedgwick and Warhol, but on its own terms it's an interesting performance. Christensen serves as a romantic truth-teller but so interested in telling that truth — and so sure whatever he says is the truth — he is blind to any hurt he causes.
Factory Girl is far from perfect, but it gets under the idol-worship of the era — as well as our own idol-worship of both Warhol and Dylan — to raise a few concerns. And in its compelling portrait of Edie, it shows how dangerously vulnerable someone must be in order to want to become a "superstar." But oh, how alluring it could be — for a while. Grade: B