Imagine, for a moment, that it is the 1960s – the last half of them, actually – and that you are a small-town boy attending a major Midwestern university in a major Midwestern city, where you are majoring in theater and art. One thing that is very big in your circle is Andy Warhol’s movies. Michael Ferguson’s Little Joe Superstar: The Films of Joe Dallesandro is a little bit more than nostalgia, and a little bit more than dèja vu: it is a lot that you never knew at the time, that in a way you wish you had known then but, in a way, you’re glad you didn’t.
The focus of the book, of course, is Joe Dallesandro, the beautiful, quiet young man who became, through the more-or-less happenstance intervention of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey, a heart-throb for both men and women. Those non-cinephiles who remember Dallesandro at all remember him as part of the Warhol Factory, one of the Superstars that Warhol created as part of what seems in retrospect to have been a tireless assault against the art establishment of the time. Dalessandro has gone on to maintain a career as a film actor – never a high-profile career, but a career – working internationally and with an impressive array of roles to his credit.
This is also the first book that had Dallesandro’s willing cooperation. Most of the illustrations are from his collection, and there is a short biography that relies mostly on Dallesandro’s own recollections. While there is no counter-testimony, Dallesandro reveals a consistency of attitude that leads me to believe his stance as someone who is not impressed by his own fame is a real one. This is only supported by the fact that he never really seems to have sought the limelight. Dallesandro and Ferguson also pull very few punches about his early life – he was what is commonly known as a juvenile delinquent, with what I have come to consider a very realistic view of growing up rough: the lyric from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” is right on, as far as Dallesandro is concerned: yes, he is the “Little Joe” referred to in the song, but he has a different interpretation than the obvious about making people “pay and pay.” In his words, “It was about how you got people who wanted to be a part of your life. The pay was that they became part of your life. . . . It was about what I wanted. New York was the place I came to get what I needed.”
Dallesandro comes across as much more subtantial – and much more level-headed – than one might think, given the milieu of the Factory with which he was so strongly identified. Even there (or perhaps especially there), Dallesandro was an outsider. It was when he left the Factory and lived in Italy for a number of years that he really began to develop a career as something more than a Warhol hanger-on (which, in truth, he never seems to have been).
The bulk of the book is composed of discussions of Dallesandro’s films, beginning with his one brief modeling stint for Bob Mizer’s Athletic Models Guild. Of particular value, for those interested in the careers of Warhol or Morrisey, is the discussion about Dallesandro’s first film for Warhol, The Loves of Ondine. Ferguson carries off a very substantial art-historical view of Warhol’s filmmaking and the beginnings of Morrisey’s career that helps build a rationale – or at least a real understanding – for what Warhol was actually doing at the time. (And, yes, it is true that Dallesandro’s career as an actor began with him literally walking on – he had come to visit a friend whose apartment was being used for the shoot. He wound up wrestling with Bob Oliva in his underwear as part of the movie.)
Little Joe was a gay icon back when the term actually meant something, and in spite of the fact that he himself is straight (or perhaps because of it – he seems to exude a kind of availability that has nothing to do with orientation), and one might even opine that he was exploited. That he was attractive goes without saying; what is more interesting, to those of us caught up in a culture that worships youth, is that Dallesandro – who was fifty the year this book was published – turned into an extraordinarily beautiful man, and I don’t think it was just a matter of appearances. It has more to do with an approach to his work and his context – and, one believes, his life – that was not non-judgmental so much as an approach that reserved judgment for those times when it was appropriate. It also has to do with his learning to take himself seriously, but not too seriously. (Dallesandro credits his survival of the Factory to that as much as anything else – the ones who didn’t survive were the ones who bought into the scene and their roles in it, although it goes without saying that they brought the seeds of their self-destruction with them.) Joe Dallesandro survived and succeeded on his own terms, just by being who he was.
This is a much more thoughtful and substantial book than I had expected, as well as being more thought-provoking – a characteristic that has more value than we often are willing to admit. Parting words: Never underestimate the power of fifteen minutes of fame.
(Companion Press, 1998)