Reviewing a film that one appears in can be tricky, raising questions about self-promotion and undue praise. And it’s hard not to take things personally, as when former Interview art director Marc Balet calls me an “asshole” for putting Nancy Reagan on the magazine’s December 1981 cover. But that is hardly the reason I have decidedly mixed feelings about The Andy Warhol Diaries, the six-part, six-hour documentary premiering on Netflix next week.
Based on the daily entries that Warhol dictated to his secretary, Pat Hackett, from 1976 until his death in 1987, the series was produced by Ryan Murphy, who most recently brought us Netflix’s lurid biopic Halston, and was directed by Andrew Rossi, whose previous subjects have ranged from The New York Times to André Leon Talley.
Alas, what they have come up with is a totally humorless, narrowly focused—through a queer lens, darkly—melodrama about Andy’s love life, or lack thereof. And so we get Andy the ultimate sad sack, pining for romance and finding only tortured relationships.
The overall gloom is not relieved by blurry re-enactments of a ghostly Warhol-like figure tottering through the overdone rooms of an imagined version of his Upper East Side town house, while maudlin lines from the diaries are intoned in a flat, A.I.-generated facsimile of his voice, devoid of the subtle modulations that in real life gave it a peculiar charm (and allowed him to indicate he meant the opposite of what he was saying).
Yes, Andy’s tone was sometimes wistful; but here it is relentlessly morose. Andy could be very, very funny—and clever and wry and hilariously deadpan—though you’d never know it from watching this film. He was the Oscar Wilde of Union Square, not its Virginia Woolf.
Each episode opens with a colorful, fast-paced, scene-setting montage, placing Andy’s life and work in historical context: the uptight 50s, the rebellious 60s, the hedonistic 70s, the materialistic 80s. These openers are among the series’s best elements.
They are followed in each case by a montage of black-and-white images from Andy’s youth and college years in Pittsburgh, accompanied by Nat King Cole crooning “Nature Boy,” a No. 1 hit in 1948, the year before Andy graduated from Carnegie Mellon and moved to New York. The lyrics seem particularly fitting for Andy:
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he …
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.
So far, so good: plaintive, poignant, melancholic yet hopeful.
The Three J’s
At the heart of the series are three episodes centered on the three younger men with whom Andy shared his most significant and intense personal relationships: Jed Johnson, Jon Gould, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The first was a true love story, until it wasn’t. The second, a delirious and frustrating struggle. The last, a platonic and fruitful creative collaboration.
As it happened, all three died tragically and too young—Jon of AIDS, at age 33, in 1986, while Andy was still living; Jean-Michel, at 27, of a heroin overdose, in 1988, a year after Andy died; and Jed, in the mysterious TWA Flight 800 plane crash of 1996, aged 47.
Jed, a beautiful boy from Sacramento, started working at the Factory in 1968, shortly before Andy was shot and almost killed by a disgruntled bit player in one of his underground films. He moved into the house that Andy shared with his elderly mother, on upper Lexington Avenue, to help her deal with her son’s long recuperation.
As has been known to happen, the patient and his nurse fell in love. Jed was nearly 20. Andy, nearly 40. Over the course of their 12-year partnership, Jed would edit several of Andy’s movies, decorate his new town house, on East 66th Street, off Park Avenue, and accompany him on his glamorous trips to Europe for museum openings, gallery shows, and portrait commissions.
But this decade of productive mutual happiness is glossed over by the Netflix filmmakers in their rush to get to the couple’s bitter breakup, and its X-rated immediate cause: Jed’s discovery of pornographic Polaroids Andy had been taking of male hustlers, who had been rounded up by Victor Hugo, Halston’s toxic Venezuelan boyfriend, at the aptly named Everard Baths. Andy called it “research,” for his “Sex Parts and Torsos” paintings and prints; Jed didn’t see it that way.
In a welcome counterpoint to this tawdriness, Jed’s twin brother, Jay Johnson, states in the series his belief that Andy and Jed “really were in love,” and affirms that they shared a bed in Andy’s house, matter-of-factly and discreetly leaving it at that. “I wish Jed had stayed with Andy,” he says in one of the many remarkably candid interviews that are a strong point of The Andy Warhol Diaries. “I think Andy loved Jed, and was good for him.”
Enter Jon Gould. A scion of an old New England clan and an executive at Paramount Pictures working under then chairman Barry Diller, Jon was introduced to Andy by the photographer Christopher Makos, who worked for Interview and was part of the Factory’s inner clique. The deal, as Chris explains in the series in his frank on-screen chat, was that he would find a boyfriend for Andy in exchange for an expensive watch. “I guess he never got loved,” he says. “Because I didn’t get my watch.”
To those of us who were working with Andy at the time, it was obvious that he was suppressing the hurt of losing Jed—“Oh, Bob, it’s just one less problem,” he told me unconvincingly the night Jed left, Christmas Eve of 1980—by going completely gaga over Jon Gould.
For starters, dozens of long-stemmed red roses would arrive on Jon’s desk at Paramount, to the point that he pleaded with Andy to stop—it was embarrassing him with his colleagues. Then came Elsa Peretti jewelry, Versace getups, first-class trips to the Deauville Film Festival, in France, and to Aspen to ski, dinners with Diana Ross and Bianca Jagger.
Understandably, Jon was thrilled and grateful for the doors Andy was opening for him. But he also worried that being seen as Andy’s companion would hurt his career, and he would pull back from him for weeks on end, keeping Andy on an emotional roller coaster.
Among the revelations in the Netflix series—and there are quite a few—are the romantic poems Jon wrote for Andy and, even more surprising, the poems Andy wrote in return. If Andy and Jed were patient and nurse, Andy and Jon were Verlaine and Rimbaud—and we know how that affair ended, with the younger poet stabbing the older in the hand and abandoning Paris for Abyssinia.
Jon retreated to Los Angeles, only returning to New York after he was deathly ill with AIDS. Andy, who hadn’t set foot in a hospital, convinced he would die if he did, since he was shot nearly 20 years earlier, visited Jon every night at the hospital in an effort to nurse him back to health. This act of devotion is portrayed with another blurry re-enactment, but in this case it hits home.
Jean-Michel Basquiat came into Andy’s life about the same time as Jon Gould, but the contrast between the two friendships could not be greater. For one thing, Jean-Michel was not gay, which simplified things. Andy may have had a crush on the charismatic half-Black, half-Latino kid, but it took the form of genuinely mutual affection.
They were comfortable in each other’s company; there was none of the uneasiness, the nervousness, that one felt between Andy and Jon. And, of course, their relationship was grounded by the extraordinary project they embarked upon, soon after meeting, of making art together. Andy was a worker, first and foremost, and the surest way to get close to him was to work with him. The scenes of Basquiat brashly painting over Andy’s efforts, of the bad boy dissing the master, and the master loving it, are among the most fascinating and joyful in the series.
In fact, the episode covering Basquiat is by far the best of all. It captures the explosion of energy and excitement around the emergence of graffiti art and a burgeoning new downtown art scene. And there was Andy, who had been dismissed by the cognoscenti as a silly society portrait painter, in the middle of it all, hanging out at Area, the hippest new club, with Jean-Michel and Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente.
“Andy had retreated to uptown,” says Kenny Scharf, another up-and-comer in the 80s art world. “Jean-Michel brought him back downtown to us artists.” There are also excellent interviews with Fab Five Freddy, Futura (formerly Futura 2000), and Lee Quiñones, illuminating the street-art movement and Basquiat’s role in its rise.
Ironically, it was Jean-Michel’s success that undid his closeness to Andy. In a 1985 New York Times Magazine article titled “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist,” he was described as a “gallery mascot.” Deeply wounded, he cut himself off from Andy.
Andy Warhol was the Oscar Wilde of Union Square, not its Virginia Woolf.
For me, the problem with this in-depth, well-made series is its endless sadness, treating Andy’s life like one very long downer. It’s as if he never had a happy day in his life, a gross misconception reinforced by the filmmakers’ leaving out almost all the good times recorded in his diaries.
In their interviews with Hackett, Makos, Vincent Fremont (Andy’s right-hand man), and me, the filmmakers seemed to believe that we had closed ranks to whitewash Andy’s image and hide the truth about his private life. They confuse nonchalance about one’s sexual preferences with denial, which could not be further from the truth in Andy’s case—or ours.
“Oh, just look at my movies,” Andy would answer when journalists asked him if he was gay. The man who made Blow Job, My Hustler, and Lonesome Cowboys was not in the closet. Nor was the artist who painted the Ladies and Gentlemen series with such flair and emotion. Or the man who posed for Makos in a Kim Novak–esque wig and full makeup.
Like Garbo, Andy cultivated mysteriousness, and, with his instinct for fame, he knew that keeping people guessing kept them coming back—none more so than the press. He was encouraged in this approach by his longtime manager Fred Hughes, whom the filmmakers have chosen to barely mention, even though he was the most important figure at the Factory after Andy himself: president of Andy Warhol Enterprises and executor of his estate, a dandy who modeled himself on the Duke of Windsor and Fred Astaire, a protégé of John (né Jean) and Dominique de Menil, the Medicis of Houston. Fred created ambiguity about pretty much everything, from his ancestry to his sexuality. The epitaph on his gravestone, he said, would be “Was he, or wasn’t he?”
What Andy was not was a gay activist, and for this he was criticized, particularly after AIDS took hold and killed so many gay men, including Robert Hayes, who had succeeded me as Interview editor in 1983.
Andy was not an activist of any sort. He pretended confusion about political issues with journalists, and didn’t hesitate to accept commissions from Willy Brandt, the socialist chancellor of West Germany, on the one hand, or the Shah of Iran on the other. Although a liberal Democrat, he had to be dragooned by Jackie Onassis into making a poster for George McGovern’s 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon. I’ve always maintained that my former boss had one cause and only one: the Andy Warhol cause.
An important point to make about Andy—one which the creators of The Andy Warhol Diaries have failed to make evident—is that he wasn’t just gay or, to use the fashionable onetime insult, queer. Andy was also an American, a Catholic, and a coal miner’s son who made himself a millionaire. Above all, he was an artist who could laugh at himself.
The Andy Warhol Diaries premieres on Netflix on March 9
Bob Colacello was editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine from 1970 to 1983 and wrote the Warhol biography Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. Colacello, who is at work on a biography of Nancy Reagan, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL