Andy Warhol Films Taylor Mead's Ass
The Homosexual Clown As Underground Star
by Sally Kempton
People have been saying for years that Taylor Mead will someday be discovered by the commercial theatre. This has never happened, at least not so far, and perhaps he will go on for the rest of his life as he has for the last ten years, playing Tarzan and the Queen of Sheba until his posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The retrospective, however, is inevitable. For Mead is the Chaplin of the New Cinema, or maybe the Ben Turpin; the Underground movie-star system was founded upon him, and he is its most significant figure. He is almost its symbol. And now that the Underground is surfacing, or at least getting reviewed in the Times, Mead can, appropriately enough, be seen at two New York theatres. He has a starring role in Andy Warhol's movie, "Nude Restaurant," at the Hudson, and he makes a guest appearance in "Conquest of the Universe" at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre.
One afternoon, a few days before the opening of "Conquest," he sat quietly in the back of the Bouwerie Lane, watching a rather frantic rehearsal and talking about his role. He comes onstage in the middle of the first act, sits down on a swing which has dropped from the ceiling, and sings "I'm Flying."
"They're hiring me to wreck plays now," he said with a slight smile. He sat with his knees up against the back of the seat in front of him, wearing a blue military jacket with red facings and looking the way he does in movies: sweet, pixyish and just a little sly. Fighting that image, he once wrote in his "Anonymous Diary of a New York Youth," "People are always saying Taylor Mead is sweet. I'M not sweet, I'm evil." Now he put his feet on the floor and continued:
"The director of the Picasso play (in St. Tropez last summer) told me when he hired me that he wanted me to wreck the play and you know what? I almost did. During the premiere, in the middle of the last act, I was doing my little dance and the woman who was playing the lead -- Renee Renoir, she's a big burlesque queen -- must have thought I was upstaging her, because all of a sudden I felt these claws on the back of my neck. I was so surprised that I flung my hands up -- to ward her off -- and it knocked her into this big balloon on the side of the stage. The balloon exploded and nobody in Paris could talk about anything else for weeks."
Taylor Mead is in his early 40's but looks much younger. He has a face like an old baby, an ageless, silent comedian's face which will probably never lose its quality of adolescent poignancy. His poignancy is, in part, simply physical: he has a drooping left eyelid, the result of a birth accident, which in certain lights gives him a look of whimsical pain. Both the whimsy and the pain are essential to his character. For Mead's is the classic modern role of homosexual clown, and implicit in that role are memories of beatings and jails and those humiliations peculiar to the homosexual in America. Mead once place an ad in Fuck You magazine which went: "Taylor Mead -- Readings and Sex." With characteristic self-deprecation he later parodied the ad in his diary: "Taylor Mead -- Readings and Sex, sort of."
He has been acting since he was a child. "We lived in Grosse Pointe and my mother used to take me to dinner parties. There was a period -- I was about 12 -- when I was the most desirable guest in Grosse Pointe. They would hold up parties for me. I used to play the piano and sing and talk. I had fantasies about doing that for the rest of my life."
But when he was 13 his mother died and he went to live with his father. "The change was very dramatic. My mother always let me drop my pajamas on the floor for the maid to pick up. The day after she died the maid came in and told me to pick up my clothes. It was really the palace guard changing overnight."...
"What I would really like is to play in musical comedy. Or in a big movie. I was once in a nudie, playing a deaf-mute dope-pusher, and in the end I fell into a subway track and was run over by the train. And people who had seen it, Puerto Ricans and people like that, would come up to me on the street and ask me why I wasn't dead. Really! They really believed it. I would love to work for that kind of audience.
"There's this absolute freedom in the Underground theatre, and it's great and everything, but half the time it means freedom to impose all your neurotic things on other people. This play I'm in now -- everyone's at each other's throats. They're all tremendously troubled people -- I include myself in that, of course -- and they're all involved in each other's hangups."
He picked up a red transistor radio from the floor beside his bed and began to play with the dials. "I wish people wouldn't think that I can only work in the Underground milieu," he said, snapping it off again. "I wig out over a lot of Broadway stuff. I'd like to work in formal theatre, with a real, formal director. Antonioni, Pasolini -- I'd like to work with Mike Nichols."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]