For all of the hoopla and brouhaha being stirred up by those lusty cowboys of “Brokeback Mountain,” it is easy to forget that Andy Warhol took the subject of homosexual obsession to the big screen 40 years earlier. The film was “My Hustler,” and in truth that 1965 underground feature was much more frank about its subject matter than Ang Lee’s ride-‘em-cowboy flick.

By the mid-1960s, the movie taboo against homosexuality was down. But progressive depictions of gays (let alone lesbians) were rarities. In American movies, gay characters were portrayed as deviant misfits who inevitably met with societal scorn or tragedy (usually suicide). British films like “Victim” and “A Taste of Honey” were somewhat more open-minded in providing sympathetic (if epicene) depictions of gays.

“My Hustler” was radically different because it was not the least bit apologetic of the gay lifestyle. While the film dabbled in stereotypes (the bitchy queen, the rough trade call boys, even the fag hag best friend), no one was shown as a victim, let alone a freak. It was a raw, honest vision of a portion of the gay world which movie audiences never witnessed before.

Warhol was not, by any stretch, a polished filmmaker. His films were unsophisticated in their technique and production values were painfully low. In fact, “My Hustler” consists of two unbroken shots running 33 minutes each (the length of a 1,200 foot reel of 16mm film). While the visual aspect may seem stagnant, the film’s imagery and wall-to-wall talk makes its feel as if one if literally a voyeur to the mini-drama at hand.

“My Hustler” takes place on the Labor Day weekend at the beachfront Fire Island home of a wealthy and not-young queen (Ed Hood). He called a New York Dial-a-Hustler service and was sent a tall, muscular blonde hunk (Paul America). The film finds the older man on his deck watching his leased boytoy reclining on the beach. It is quite a sight to behold, as the hustler rubs suntan oil on his body and whittles with a piece of wood. And speaking of pieces of wood, the guy’s tight bathing suit leaves little to the imagination.

This scene is interrupted by two uninvited guests: Genevieve, the rich and bored socialite (Genevieve Charbon), and Joe, a late-30s hustler (Joe Campbell). The three sit on the deck and talk/bitch/dish among themselves about the stud in the sand. The camera pans back and forth between the deck trio and the hustler (there are no edits – just a continuous run of the camera). For long periods, the camera is fixated on the hustler while the others talk on the soundtrack. Joe claims to know the hustler, Genevieve states she can charm the guy with her sex appeal, and their mincing host belittles both of them with acidic camp remarks (he calls Genevieve a “fag hag” and calls Joe “the sugar plum fairy” – a line that Lou Reed would use in “Walk on the Wild Side”). All three make blunt comments about the object of their gaze (ranging from whether he is a real blonde to fantasizing about the length and width of what the bathing suit is barely concealing). Genevieve eventually makes her move and invites the hustler to go swimming with her.

The second half of the film is in a tight bathroom where Joe and the hustler (we discover his name is Paul) are primping and beautifying themselves. As they towel off from respective showers, brush their teeth, shave, comb their hair and apply cologne, they have a long and often disturbing conversation. It starts innocuously, with Joe inquiring about Paul’s education, interest in sports and current job status. Then it gets fairly icky as Joe tries to make a deal in which he would pimp Paul to the wealthier johns he knows. Paul, however, gives the impression of vague interest but strong doubts. His attempts to get straight data from Joe on everything from hustling’s cashflow to Joe’s age are met with evasive answers. He also ignores Joe’s attempt at seduction, both in flattery and when Joe rubs Paul’s suntanned back with Noxzema.

Towards the end of this conversation, Genevieve turns up to offer Paul the chance to go with her to France. He ignores her while combining his hair. The older man who hired Paul then turns up, offering to take Paul anywhere he wants and to pay for his education. He even offers to hire girls for Paul. Again, Paul ignores the advances. Then another woman (Dorothy Dean) who was not seen earlier in the film abruptly arrives. She is blunt about Paul’s future: “You are very pretty, but you’re not exactly literate and that would help in old age.” As Paul ignores her, she utters the film’s harsh closing line: “Why be tied down to these old faggots?”

“My Hustler” is a technically crude film, of course. But that reinforces its emotional crudeness. The characters look at each other and the world as a predatory world of hustlers and the hustled. The notion of emotional attachment, sincerity and friendship is alien here. The actors use language which Hollywood films of that time had yet to adapt (both scatological words and vulgar descriptions of sexual intercourse), and the lapses in rude language only intensifies the severity of the drama. The dialogue is all improvised, though none of it seems accidental – one imagines there was some degree of planning before it was shot (things like this just don’t happen by chance).

“My Hustler” was made over Labor Day by Warhol and Charles Wein. The division of directing responsibilities is not entirely clear. Warhol claimed Wein coached the actors while he handled the camera, while other sources question whether Warhol actually did anything but put his name on the movie. The film reportedly cost $500 to make, which is probably an extremely low exaggeration (especially if one takes into account the costs of purchasing and processing the film and striking prints).

The film also marked the first and only appearance in a Warhol production of Paul America. His real name was Paul Johnson and he was a non-professional actor discovered by a Warhol associate in a New Jersey dance club. He had the right look for movies, but off camera he was a drug addicted troublemaker. Johnson later claimed he was on LSD while shooting “My Hustler” and didn’t even know he was making a movie (I don’t buy that, particularly in the tight circular conversation he has with Joe in the film’s second half – you can’t do that while tripping the acid fantastic). He only made one more film, “Ciao Manhattan” starring Warhol protege Edie Sedgwick, with whom he shared a drug-addled romance. Johnson disrupted that film when he had a scene requiring him to drive down a New York street. He did – and kept driving. He was discovered a few weeks later in a Michigan jail.

Johnson was part of the Warhol world until accusations of art theft in the mid-1970s, at which point he disappeared. He was last heard from in July 1982 when he unsuccessfully attempted to reach Warhol by telephone (Warhol’s office was under orders not to forward his calls). He is believed to have passed away in the 1980s, but no confirmation of his death has ever been made.

“My Hustler” premiered in New York in December 1965 and generated a strong box office return. This was a period when Warhol’s films and underground cinema in general was finding wider audiences, and the taboo-breaking aspect of the movie clearly helped. However, it was not widely released and even to this day it is primarily known by its reputation and from articles by film scholars. The film was removed from circulation in 1972 (along with the rest of Warhol’s 1960s canon) and was unseen until New York’s Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art successfully pushed to have the Warhol films restored and returned for public appreciation.

“My Hustler” was never made available for commercial home entertainment release. A DVD was released in Italy, but no plans for an American DVD have been made. Bootlegs are not difficult to locate, but the visual quality leaves something to be desired (granted the original source wasn’t exactly a masterwork of pristine cinematography).

Even in so-so bootlegs, “My Hustler” is required viewing for anyone tracing the path of gay cinema out of the proverbial closet and up the ragged peaks of “Brokeback Mountain.” Quite honestly, the beginning of that journey was infinitely more intriguing than its current whereabouts.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on February 10, 2006 in Features by

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