Brow Beat

Why Warhol Became the Symbol for Characters With Big Bank Accounts and Bigger Egos

Movie scenes with Warhol-style portraits in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ABC Television, NBC, the CW Television Network, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, and Universal Pictures.

When Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) arrives to her boss Katharine’s (Sigourney Weaver) place to housesit in the movie Working Girl, nothing announces the gulf between the two women as clearly as the art Katharine has hanging in her fancy Manhattan apartment: She has four Warhol-style portraits of herself on the wall, her face silk-screened and painted over with bright colors, as in the famous portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Katharine, the audience understands, has these portraits because she has everything, and meanwhile Tess is just a secretary from Staten Island.

Working Girl, released in 1988, may have been one of the first movies to turn Warhol’s portraits into a character signifier, but it’s hardly been the only fictional property to do so. In fact, it’s become something of a trope since then, the go-to piece of set decoration to depict how characters see themselves.

“I see it all the time,” said Diane Lederman, a production designer who has worked on movies and television with set décor that mimics Andy Warhol. “Because he’s so recognizable and so embedded in pop culture, I think that people resort to using him to symbolize [a character’s traits] because it’s something that an audience can identify with very readily.”

Bohemian Rhapsody, a musical biopic about Freddie Mercury and Queen, was one of last year’s biggest movies, and as it looks to make a big showing at this year’s Oscars, it’s worth examining its use of Warhol-style background art.

As a movie set in the entertainment industry—a business full of big egos—Bohemian Rhapsody is particularly primed to include Warhol-style art. New York’s Whitney Museum is currently hosting an exhibition called Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, and one part of it consists completely of portraits: “From 1968 to 1987, Warhol received hundreds of portrait commissions from business moguls, art collectors, socialites, fashion designers, models, royals, and celebrities of all kinds,” a description on the Whitney’s website explains. Celebrities are the kind of people who commissioned portraits from Warhol, so when a movie or TV show wants to convey that a fictional character is supposed to be famous in her fictional world, giving her a Warhol is an obvious way to do it.

There is a certain cachet that came with having an actual Warhol portrait; owning one was a real-life signifier. “When you hang your Warhol portrait on the wall, it’s kind of like putting up a billboard in your living room,” art historian and curator Trevor Fairbrother says in the Whitney’s audio guide. Hanging one in a character’s home or dressing room, then, makes for a uniquely meaningful piece of set decoration—what other background art could so easily convey so much about a character? Faux Warhols do this work on TV shows like Jane the Virgin and Desperate Housewives and in movies like Dreamgirls, Popstar, and Zoolander. In most cases, the owner of the Warhol-esque self-portrait is someone with an outsize sense of self-regard.

Bohemian Rhapsody’s use of Warhol-esque art both does and doesn’t adhere to the previously established rules of the trope. Images of all four band members, rather than any single one, appear behind them in the film’s contentious press conference scene, rather than at any one character’s home. Aaron Haye, the film’s production designer, told me that these posters weren’t a direct reference to Warhol but were based on the cover of the band’s 1982 album, Hot Space. “We based it on the album art and replaced the artists’ faces with the actors’,” he said. “The band always had press conferences for every album release. We looked at some reference photos from some of their press conferences and took a little liberty with it. We wanted to have a chance to feature that art because it was so specific and so graphic and cool.”

Though audiences have gotten used to Warhol-style portraits standing in for a character’s large ego and sense of self, Haye said he actually was going for something like the opposite here: “Freddie says it in the scene, the press are all picking on him and asking him questions, and saying, ‘As the leader of Queen, blah blah blah blah,’ and he’s saying, ‘Look, there’s four of us here.’ That’s how they felt as a band, that they were four equals. So we wanted to make sure all of their heads were of the same size and equal prominence. That was the story we were trying to tell visually.”

Haye was well aware of how these portraits are often used and what they signify. “There’s a trope whereby a character who thinks highly of themselves will often have an oversize portrait of them in their living room or their office or their library or study,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t have a large portrait of Freddie Mercury in his house; we had a portrait of Marlene Dietrich, because it was his inspiration rather than being inspired by one’s own grandeur.”

Haye did concede, though, of the art for Hot Space on which the press conference posters were based, “Probably the artist who did it originally was inspired by Warhol, but it was very much of that time.”

Scene from Bohemian Rhapsody with Hot Space album art in background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Twentieth Century Fox.

The portraits in Bohemian Rhapsody are brightly colored and posterized, meaning they only use a few colors to represent light and shadow instead of the whole spectrum of shades, but otherwise they don’t resemble many of the portraits hanging in the Whitney all that much. There may be a reason for that. The forms of other faux Warhols vary as well—the examples on Jane the Virgin and Desperate Housewives are very different in size and in palettes used than the Working Girl example, which would fit right in next to the real portraits, except that there are four of them instead of one. Some of this may be the result of set decorators taking inspiration from Warhol’s whole body of work rather than just the portraits, but there are also probably some deliberate attempts to insert difference going on.

That’s because the rules for set decoration are fairly strict: “When we put up anything, including a piece of thrift store art, or a famous Van Gogh or a famous Warhol, we have to find the estate or the owner for the rights of that piece of art,” set decorator Caroline Perzan told me. “You can’t copy someone’s style exactly.” This can be tricky to determine: There were other pop artists during Warhol’s era, and all were influenced by still other artists. But all the artwork that appears in movies must be carefully licensed, so if a movie or TV show wants to include art that looks like a Warhol, it will have to obtain permission, which can be costly. And if it wants to mimic the artist’s style but avoid paying, there’s always the risk that the style will be similar enough to still result in legal challenges. The Andy Warhol Foundation, which oversees licensing for Warhol’s work, declined to comment on how much it costs to include Warhol’s art in a movie, or what the threshold of similarity with his work is for requiring licensing.

Using Warhol-style background art might be criticized for being a cliché at this point, because it’s so unsubtle. Perzan said that sometimes set decorators fall back on it when they’re strapped for resources: She remembered designing, in a pinch, a large, repeating portrait of Terrence Howard’s character on Empire for his home office when she was working on the show, though that prop didn’t end up making it on air. But in set decoration, there can also be some virtue in the obvious. “Something that is a little more subtle or an artist that is not as well-known might exhibit that same characteristic, but if everybody doesn’t recognize it, you’re not really being successful in what you’re trying to say to an audience,” Lederman said. “Part of what we do in set decoration and production design is create these environments that, in a click, somebody watching will understand something about the person that inhabits that environment. You have to as much as possible pick things that a wide audience will understand.”

Even though Bohemian Rhapsody may not contain a direct reference to Warhol, it’s impossible to avoid the artist completely when we’re living in a world and culture that he did so much to shape. “His influence is everywhere,” Haye said. For Exhibit A, look no further than last Halloween, when Haye’s 7-year-old son chose to dress up as none other than Andy Warhol himself.