Factory Girl, George Hickenlooper’s biopic of actress/socialite/Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, is a bit like Sedgwick herself—whatever substantial qualities it might once have possessed have been wasted, picked over by rumor and gossip, and sullied by the pawing of many hands. Since the Weinstein Company snuck the film onto screens in December to qualify for Oscar consideration (yeah, good luck with that), Factory Girl has had a troubled release history. Most recently, its opening date was held up after Bob Dylan threatened a defamation lawsuit.
Dylan (called “The Musician” in the credits, though he’s clearly the object of Hayden Christensen’s drawling impersonation) feared the film would imply he was responsible for Sedgwick’s death by overdose at the age of 28. In a last-minute reshoot after the initial screenings, new footage was added, including the flash-forward framing device in which we see Edie (Sienna Miller) telling her own story on a therapist’s couch. If Dylan’s only concern was defamation, he needn’t have fretted about the release of Factory Girl. Its portrait of the artist as a young a-hole isn’t exactly flattering, but it still manages to be hagiographic by all but declaring that Edie would have been saved if she’d only managed to bag the elusive Dylan.
The galumphing voiceover narration was apparently another product of the film’s last-minute makeover. The much more effective talking-head interviews with Edie’s real-life intimates (including her brother Jonathan, who recently came out with an even seedier Dylan-related claim) have been moved to the final credits, where, along with stills of the incredibly photogenic Sedgwick (one of the few biopic subjects to be even more attractive than the actor portraying her), they remind you with a start what a fascinating movie you could have been watching.
There have been other rumors around Factory Girl, too—most recently, tabloids speculated that Miller and Christensen (who dated in real life after Miller’s then-fiance, Jude Law, cheated on her with the nanny) had engaged in unsimulated intercourse while filming Edie and Bob’s graphic love scene. By now you’re thinking, fine, cut through the hype and tell me about the movie already—but you tell me, where does one end and the other begin? See, it’s just like Edie herself!
This tension between surface and depth, glamour and authenticity, was at the heart of what made Warhol’s work so radical. It’s also what made Edie the ideal Warhol muse: With her blankly luminous beauty, she was a Marilyn Monroe-like projection screen for the desires and fantasies of others. But the director, George Hickenlooper (Hearts of Darkness, The Mayor of Sunset Strip), doesn’t find either Warhol’s art or Edie’s opacity particularly interesting. For a movie about the tumultuous friendships among artists, musicians, and filmmakers during one of the 20th century’s periods of creative ferment, Factory Girl is remarkably incurious about cinema, music, and art. The story plods through the stations of the cross of Edie’s life, linking each instance of her outrageous behavior to its equal and opposite childhood trauma. The screenplay by Captain Mauzner (Wonderland) makes sure we understand how important Warhol’s work is by having Edie rush up to him at parties, piping, “Your work is so important!” And I can’t let my favorite line of biopic dialogue, spoken by Edie’s authoritarian father, go unquoted: “Let me get you a steak, Warhol. You look like you could use one.”
I wouldn’t go as far as Lou Reed, who called Mauzner’s script “one of the most disgusting, foul things I’ve seen—by any illiterate retard—in a long time.” (With Warholian sangfroid, Hickenlooper responded, “I love Lou Reed. I love him for hating my project, which can only bring it more attention.”) There have been far-more-disgusting scripts by illiterate retards. But there’s no question it’s the writing that weighs down this project—the film’s surfaces are shimmering and vibrant, the pacing brisk, and the performances consistently strong (despite some strange casting choices: Jimmy Fallon as a Svengali-like impresario?). Sienna Miller literally shines as the enigmatic heiress—like Angelina Jolie in the 1998 TV movie Gia, she invests a stock fallen-waif part with genuinepathos.
The movie’s best scene pits Warhol (movingly incarnated by Guy Pearce) and Dylan against each other in a junior-high-school-style showdown for the attentions of the popular girl. Dylan, invited to the Factory to film one of Warhol’s “screen tests,” refuses to sit down to be filmed, and Warhol refuses to give him any direction at all. The resulting power struggle is both funny and painful, with each artist trying to out-“I don’t care” the other as the eager-to-please Edie hovers in the background. It’s a rare moment in which the movie has something to say about the constant small humiliations of the famous, and the desperate insecurity of those who depend on their favor.