Camp David

CAMP DAVID DECEMBER 2008: VIVA HUGS A TREE

By • Dec 14th, 2008 •

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VIVA HUGS A TREE

My favorite anecdote about VIVA, the former Warhol superstar and current successful painter of landscapes, has to be the story her longtime friend Barbara Steele told me about a hike in the woods these two were enjoying when all at once–confronted by a tree of great beauty–Viva in a self-induced state of rapture ran towards her object of desire and wrapped herself around this mighty oak with abandon, discarding her wardrobe as she went. However, her bliss was short-lived as she discovered the tree to be covered with small insects and debris that now had attached itself to her nude body.

Viva let out a shriek as only she was capable of and Barbara, not quite sure what was wrong, went over to see what she could do to help her distraught companion. Viva was screaming that she was being bitten and itched like mad so Barbara knelt down in front of her and began to pick away as many insects and offending objects as she could. While this was taking place a group of boy scouts came walking by, just in time to observe what appeared at a distance to be two middle-aged lesbians engaged in some depraved sexual act.

I was introduced to Viva by Barbara early in 1978 as a potential client for my talent agency. I already represented Barbara, and now Viva was looking for an agent as she was in need of money, a situation that presented itself often in the life of this particular superstar.

The first thing that you noticed about Viva was her enormous green eyes. In films she had the ability to transform into a goddess, with a face both aquiline and aristocratic with hyper-hollow cheeks offset by hair most often done in a frizzed-out, unkempt style. The look was, however, disrupted whenever she spoke as her voice did not match her looks. Viva had a whiny, tedious voice that could really make you want to hang up on her if she was on the rampage, complaining about the world in which she was forced to live.

Barbara Steele in 8 1/2

So much time has passed since Viva and I knew each other that it is important to realize how much the image and legacy of Andy Warhol continues to play in her life. I used to wonder what connection placed Barbara Steele and Viva–two very different personalities–as friends. It is not so difficult to understand when you compare their film personas; both owe their careers to one man. For Viva it will always be WARHOL and for Barbara it will always be FELLINI. In the case of Barbara Steele one might want to add to that the Italian Horror master MARIO BAVA, since her film career really began with BLACK SUNDAY, which did not impact her as a person like Fellini did; his influence would resonate throughout her life in films.

Viva was crowned a superstar by Warhol in 1967 and for three years she appeared in films like BIKE BOY (1967), NUDE RESTURANT (1967), THE LOVES OF ONDINE (1968), LONESOME COWBOYS (1968), and BLUE MOVIE (1969). Every one of these films shares one thing in common: Viva speaks a kind of intellectual babble while undressing, and in the case of BLUE MOVIE, doing the sex act for real on-camera with Louis Waldon.

Nothing Viva would do after that would have the same impact as her connection to Andy Warhol’s Factory and, like Barbara Steele, she would play off her Warhol persona in other directors’ films, like Agnes Vada’s LIONS LOVE, in which Viva plays herself – a film goddess on the lam, visually Garbo acting like Zasu Pitts on drugs. After that, except for vanity projects in the form of video diaries made by her then-husband Michel Auber, Viva would exist on film as an effective cameo in such films as MIDNIGHT COWBOY and CISCO PIKE. Woody Allen liked her energy and outre style enough to use her in PLAY IT AGAIN SAM.

I can’t say enough about CISCO PIKE. As one of the most underrated films of the 70’s, it was a failure when it was released in 1972, which was a shame because all of the performances were exceptional. The depiction of Los Angeles was totally on-target for the times, yet it is let down by the even-then dated references to the hippie movement, not to mention treating grass like it was a hard drug. As one of the few people who actually saw CISCO PIKE in a theater, Viva is what I remembered best. The female lead is supposed to be Karen Black, yet when Viva is on camera she is the one you notice because of her off-kilter line readings, and in 1972 she was a fresh face in Hollywood, not to mention several months pregnant during the filming of her scenes. When Barbara asked me to see Viva, it was this film that had already convinced me that she should be working in Hollywood. Viva was and is a unique personality and unlike some cult figures of the underground she was capable of so much more as an artist.

Another similarity for both Viva and Steele for me as their agent was trying to explain to Hollywood producers exactly who these ladies were and why all their films were so hard to see and in some cases hard to watch. It did not help my case with Viva that she appeared in the Warhol films speaking her own dialogue in situations largely improvised; in other words, could she really act? For Barbara it was slightly different, yet most of her Italian films were dubbed, so her performances were visual and those directors tended to use her like architecture, which added to her mystique.

By the time Viva came to me her husband Michel Aubar was not in her life, at least at that moment in time. She was raising her daughter Alexandra by herself; they were the two musketeers and they were soul mates as well. I remember so well the first time they came to Century Park East where the Del Valle, Franklin and Levine Agency did its business on the 13th floor. Viva and Alexandra arrived with shopping bags full of magazines–mostly old copies of INTERVIEW and ROLLING STONE, collectors’ items even then, with Viva on the covers of some and articles in all of them about her adventures at the Factory with Warhol. The one thing she did not bring were photographs of herself, which I had specifically requested of her on the phone. “I need head shots for both the Academy Players Directory and one great shot for me to send around town,” to get the word out that Viva Superstar was in Hollywood and ready for her close-up. If only we were in the Hollywood of the twenties, where a personality like Viva would have been entirely at home, and no matter how many films she made, Mr. and Mrs. First-Nighter would never hear that voice of hers.

Viva brought me an autographed photo of herself from her latest film, FORBIDDEN ZONE, which would be released a year later (1980), achieving immediate cult status as it featured the band Oingo-Boingo with the then-unknown Danny Elfman. Viva was dressed for the film like a Christmas tree ornament on LSD and–you know what?–it suited her somehow. Viva had no headshots with her but a woman who has been in the New York scene with the likes of Warhol should have boxes of 8X10’s by this stage of the game. What I did not take fully into account was how constantly moving from one location to another, with perhaps only the infamous Chelsea Hotel as a constant, made it difficult for her to hold on to memorabilia. I was surprised a few years later when we did our interview for FILMS AND FILMING to discover that Joe Dallesandro had two boxes of photos. He would have had more but Paul Morresey borrowed all his stills from DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN that he did in Italy and never gave them back…poor Little Joe.

My plan for Viva was to let Hollywood know that this woman was a legend in underground cinema and now was ready to become a legend somewhere else, like Hollywood. I knew this was what she really wanted in an odd way, and for all her protests about the mediocrity of the bourgeoisie, Viva wanted mom and dad to see their little girl finally make it big in films other than those that reside in the abyss of underground cinema, screening from the grindhouses of 42nd Street.

After our initial meeting at the office I set about sending off some publicity stills taken from LIONS LOVE to Mike McLean, a great guy who happened to be casting a comedy about Dracula. LOVE AT FIRST BITE would bring George Hamilton back into the public eye in what was to become a major hit upon release. However, Bob Kaufman’s original script had a much funnier reason for Dracula’s departure from Transylvania than they would end up with in the final film. It seems the Count had a Countess who nagged and nagged until even the grave was no escape, so he packed up his coffin and took his slave Reinfeld to the Big Apple. I think Mike had seen the Warhol horror films and with that in mind, that I had a client who was forever linked to Andy’s Factory stars, he was more than interested in seeing what Viva Superstar had to offer.

This moment in my working relationship with Viva was the best because all the planets were in alignment. I phoned her with the news and of course the first thing out of her mouth was how fast could she get a paycheck from those bastards at the front office? I was so hyped about finding a part for her I just said whatever she wanted to hear because at last Viva was in line to do some really good work in a film that would be seen by the entire world, and with any luck this would launch her on a career as a comedic talent that I was convinced was her destiny.

I know all good things must come to an end, but not before they even have a chance to get started! It was but three days later that I would receive the news that the studio was canceling negotiations with my client as she was “‘blacklisted’ from working in Hollywood over a dispute with the makers of CISCO PIKE. It turns out that Viva was to do some publicity for the film in New York, was sent there by the producers for that purpose, and after they gave her the expense money and airline tickets she went to New York and then just kept going until she arrived in Paris, never to return or do anything she was contracted to do regarding CISCO PIKE. This little tidbit had never been brought to my attention during all my conversations with Viva over the past three months.

I will always regret that Viva did not play Countess Dracula in the George Hamilton film, because when Viva is right for something there is just no one else to play it but Viva. It is no accident that she never really took off after her glory days with the Factory. Warhol liked to play God with his superstars and they all suffered for it in one way or another. The Factory was known for its in-house paranoia and dishonesty among the “golden lads and lassies.” Viva was quick to lash out at her mentor, and lost favor with him after some ugly business in Paris where she tried to force Warhol to send her money by threatening to write about what she saw at the Factory, naming names, etc.

Anyway, the relationship did not end with the demise of the Hamilton project, and for a few more weeks I would keep trying new things, even though the blacklist awareness was an almost impossible obstacle to overcome. It did not help either that Viva would phone me at the agency at least three times a day to inquire as to how and when something was going to pop up and enable her to pay her bills. I know this routine by heart as Kenneth Anger has the same problem in life: fame, with no possibility of an income because of it. Artists like Viva and Anger need patrons to survive. Both of them can write, and in Viva’s case her true calling is to paint, and it would be decades before she realized what she always knew since childhood: that she had a gift for art and that one day it would take her back to where she always needed to be–in front of a canvas.

During this period she lived in West Hollywood off Robertson, with a landmark on the corner of her street in the form of a plaster statue of John Huston on a horse as the fictional character “Buck Loner” from the film MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, just inside the courtyard of The Sundance Cafe. The Sundance Cafe was a Tex-Mex joint with a patio and tables inside, its walls covered with autographs of the famous that have eaten there. Barbara and I had many a taco in that place over the years and when they closed it she tried to buy the colorful wooden chairs they used inside. Viva had rented a small house which was barely furnished with anything but books, magazines and the odd table and chairs. One night I got a call from her: she was freaking out because apparently she had just figured out that West Hollywood was primarily gay, and that her neighborhood was no exception. At night after the bars would close the gay men that lived all around her would stand in their front doors in the dark, naked, as cars slowly drove by looking for some late night action. Viva was concerned about how this might affect her daughter, although as young as Alexandra was at the time, she had lived in the land of Bohemia more than most children her age. I was convinced she would survive–at least better than her mother seemed to be at the moment. (“David you have got to get over here and check this out–Oh, my God, there goes the same guy back around again!”)

I lived so close to Viva that I decided to walk over and calm her down, as it was a hot summer night and I was sure this would be a hoot on many levels. What would happen next was beyond the valley of the dolls. Viva was suitably distraught when I arrived at her front door and quickly ushered me inside, turning off all the lights so we could watch unobserved as the sexual conga line of cars made their way around the block, over and over. Viva had rolled a joint for us and I brought some wine so we sat there on her floor with the door open listening to the mating dance of West Hollywood. I seem to remember one song that kept being played on her radio that night: it was “Lola” by The Kinks, and I can never hear it to this day without remembering the “electric candlelight” that glowed that night so many summers ago because it indirectly resulted in my one and only one-night-stand with Viva Superstar. The combination of grass and booze plus some kind of sexual voodoo that happens every once in a blue moon created a window for the impossible to happen as she and I had never felt any chemistry on that level during our relationship as agent/client. One must just take a line from the era and simply blame it on the boogie.

A few days later Viva stormed into my office and demanded that I end my representation of her. She was leaving Del Valle, Franklin and Levine for lack of progress in getting her a job, and before I could even say fine, have a nice day, Viva went over to where I had placed several frames of clients we represented and removed her autographed still from FORBIDDEN ZONE, and then asked me for any of her copies of INTERVIEW I had on hand plus her headshots. As she departed her final put down to me was, “The only job you ever gave me was a blow job!” and with that Viva Superstar headed for the elevator screaming, “You belong on the 13th floor!”

I, of course, told this whole thing to Barbara Steele who was most amused and thought it a shame that Viva was so impossible to help. They have remained friends forever it seems, and later on she and I would add Mary Woronov to the mix. Several years later I was helping Barbara with her Thanksgiving dinner as she was entertaining around twenty of her friends. As I was arriving with wine and a second turkey to help with the overflow, Barbara took me aside and said, “Guess who is here?” I dared not even guess when she whispered, “VIVA, and she wants to make up.” So in the holiday spirit of the evening I walked over to Viva, still recognizable after all this time, and when she saw me she looked and said, “Oh yeah, I remember you now. Barbara said we got it on once. Is that so?” As she said that Genevieve Waite came over to us and I immediately changed the subject by telling her I still had my cast album of MAN IN THE MOON, her Broadway show with music by her then-husband John Phillips. The show lasted one performance on Broadway and featured another one of my clients, Monique Van Vooren.

The last time I saw Viva was in 2005 at the Getty in Los Angeles. She was there with her daughter Alexandra and we had a wonderful time chatting away. Alexandra Auder is a beautiful and intelligent woman now and Viva remains her best friend. Time has mellowed Viva. She is painting full time now, and I am told she is a success, living in my old stomping grounds of Palm Springs. It will always amaze me just how much genius can alter the lives of those it touches. For Barbara the experience of making 8 1/2 has stayed with her a lifetime, and I was there when she gave Fellini a final embrace before he passed away, when he came to Los Angeles for the last time.

As for Viva, her time with Warhol lasted less than five years, yet his legacy will always be a profound one, and she has more than had the15 minutes of fame Andy predicted we all would have in this life. For a woman named after a paper towel, Janet Susan Hoffman has outlived her critics and mentor to reside where Hollywood chose to recreate their LOST HORIZON in the thirties. Viva had a Lost Horizon when acting was her goal, but now all that is behind her and her horizon looks very bright indeed.

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3 Responses »

  1. David, what a fun and fabulous article on Warhol superstar Viva! I think your stories are great and I look forward to reading your upcoming memoir. I hope this story is included in it. Loved your Forry Ackerman piece and look forward to your next article!

  2. A wonderful series of stories about what my now adult step-children would call ” The Pre-Club Kid Art Scene”. Warhol was a trip and I recall chatting with Lou Reed about the whole art scene of NY in the 60’s. Again-thanks for the share!

  3. David, this was a fascinating read. I hoped to hear more about Viva, my neighbor in Syracuse as I was growing up. She disappeared into the art scene and all I had were family stories, not always favorable. I do remember that her father begged her not to publish her book. She printed his letter in the conclusion of it. Her family was actually conservative Republican. There was an autographed picture of Joe McCarthy on the grand piano in the living room. Thanks for fleshing out the details with a kind hand.

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