A Falling Superstar in ‘Housedress’

The scene at The Factory in New York City is something today’s pop culture fanatics like to remember, taking into account the craziness that took place in Andy Warhol’s inner circle and the peripheral effects it had on the art movement.
When Lou Reed wrote the lyrics to ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ he showcased three of the most influential characters starring in Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s films. Perhaps the most experimental, innovative, revered and legendary of the three is Jackie Curtis.
Born John Holder, Jr. in New York City to a broken middle-class home, Curtis grew up in the shadow of the external influences that would later shape his life. While his grandmother, Slugger Ann, lived over a bar she ran, Jackie’s aunts all lived in the limelight of B-list superstardom.
His visionary capabilities were only beginning to show when he started writing and acting on his own. After that, everything spun out of creative control.
Writer / director Craig Highberger’s documentary ‘Superstar in a Housedress,’ presented Thursday, May 17 by the UC Irvine Film and Video Center, showcases the rise and fall of Curtis as the artist that pioneered and steered the art movement into a whirlwind of revered creativity. Students of that art movement look to Curtis’ creativity with awe, as opposed to today’s arguably less genuine creative world. Interviewing legendary artists from that time, such as Curtis’ co-stars Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn from the films ‘Women in Revolt’ and ‘Flesh,’ Highberger creates a milieu of artists, most of whom knew Curtis as somewhat of a family star, one whose death would lead to the complete loss of a world.
Though the film was released in 2004, it was not until last Friday that the UCI Film and Video Center obtained a copy for this event, which was introduced by Marie Cartier, a screenwriting lecturer in the Department of Film and Media Studies. Cartier’s friend Alexis Del Lago, an Andy Warhol superstar who took part in the creative happenings at The Factory, made a special appearance.
‘Darling, everything you do is an art,’ Del Lago told the audience, after nostalgically thinking of what her mother used to tell her, as she sat, striking a pose.
‘Superstar in a Housedress’ forces people to ask the question, ‘What would the movement at The Factory have been like had Curtis not wielded it with his frantically creative mind?’ By watching a film dedicated to the proliferation of an entire movement in the art world through the vast body of work Curtis created, we can see that most of it would not have happened had Curtis not been Curtis.
In brilliantly sequined loose pants, black pumps, a top of tulle and conveniently placed patches of fabric, Del Lago appeared at the UCI screening under mounds of pearls and sparkling jewels, with a glamorous black feather boa trailing behind. Del Lago reminisced about times with Curtis and how his death led to the downward spiral of an entire generation of innovators of art.
Just weeks before he died at age 38, Curtis created an entirely new persona for himself: Shannon Montgomery. At the funeral, friends, peers and admirers packed his casket with packs of Kools and pictures of James Dean and Gary Cooper, and covered it in glitter and stuck a wand at Jackie’s side. Red and gold glitter covered the gravestone and the graveyard at Putnam Valley.
This was Curtis’ effect on the generation of performers, playwrights and artists he left behind. ‘Superstar in a Housedress’ shows Curtis as a cross between the class of Audrey Hepburn, the slapstick of Lucille Ball and a prize fighter. While most of his costars were too feminine and serious, too wild and zany, Curtis was cerebral, raw and sincere. In a film full of androgynous and transgendered names, divas and glamorous icons, they all herald the life of Curtis, right to the bitter end.