The Radical Authenticity of Holly Woodlawn’s ‘Trash’ Performance

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Holly Woodlawn was not nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol-produced 1970 film, Trash. This is unsurprising. Forty-five years later, the Oscars still have yet to recognize a transgender actor. And then, of course, there’s the fact that Low-Budget Semi-Pornographic Pseudo-Exploitation Flick is not a genre the Academy tends to reward (though it would have been amazing seeing Woodlawn’s famous Miller High Life-dildo scene excerpted in the Best Actress nominees montage).

Despite Trash’s overall divergence from the shellacked, sexually conservative films one thinks of as Oscar-friendly, however, one director of such films very legitimately tried to get the newcomer actress on the ballot for her role as Holly Santiago. As many obituaries of the actress, who died Sunday, have noted, George Cukor — director of My Fair Lady and The Philadelphia Story — campaigned that year to get her an Oscar. The film she starred in may have been Oscar-resistant, but Woodlawn demonstrated in it that she was an adept and nuanced actress. Genuinely demonstrative of human struggle, resilience, and fallibility, her performance was surprisingly aligned with what is most valued in “Oscar-caliber” turns.

In Trash, Woodlawn plays the girlfriend of Joe — the central flaccid penis/plump buttock/character of Morrissey’s film, played by Joe Dallesandro. Holly spends her days scrounging around local trash heaps to furnish her apartment and build something of a life for herself and Joe. Meanwhile, Joe spends his days scrounging for heroin and, in his travels, attempting to break a spell of impotency by flopping up against any female character whose path he crosses.

Despite embodying the conservative stereotype of a degenerate (excessive makeup, excessive yelling, and excessive uses of the word “garbage” to emphasize that that’s how we should read the characters), unlike Joe, Holly’s character has visions of personal improvement and empowerment. These she executes with comic incompetence, as when she attempts to secure welfare by feigning pregnancy with a pillow-fetus — but she strives for meaning and happiness nonetheless. These goals appear especially hard for her to attain, given that she’s attached to Joe, who seems more prone to destruction than anything else. Despite being a first-time actress, Woodlawn naturally knew her way into the depths of a character arc: in a film that often resists the audience’s emotional engagement, she courted it.

Holly is hilarious, but she’s also the only character whose humor seems self-aware — in a sad, longing way. And that’s because she’s the only one who really appears to have an inner monologue. In that aforementioned scene where Holly uses a bottle of the worst beer known to man as a dildo — and a proxy for her impotent boyfriend — the scene is somehow played not merely for shock value, but also for interiority. (That being said, Woodlawn once boasted that “that beer bottle scene is to [her] career what eating dogshit was for Divine in Pink Flamingos!”) There’s a strange futility to the act (which she performs while striving for connection by clutching her catatonic boyfriend’s hand) that makes it into something of an emotional ballet. Her character is smart: she knows it’s sad as she’s doing it, and Woodlawn displays both extreme pleasure and disappointment at once. “Tomorrow it’s going to be with you,” she tells the heroin-dazed Joe as she prods herself with the Miller. “You’re better than that beer bottle. Joe? No more beer bottles.”

These are clearly funny lines. Her honesty doesn’t make them any less funny, but it allows them to reach for something besides pure absurdity and excess. Similarly, the lie she tells her prospective welfare officer — “My father minces vegetables at Blimpie. How much [money] can you make off vegetables?” — is belly-laughable. But she’s enigmatic and determined enough to make us truly wonder at the history behind her fake sandwich-preparing father.

One cannot imagine the same enthusiasm having arisen for Jane Forth, Andrea Feldman, or Geri Miller’s acting in the film. (These actresses play the other women with whom Joe has limp dick-stymied sexual encounters.) Even Dallesandro himself isn’t genuinely moving like Woodlawn. These other actors’ performances are all wonderfully bizarre and almost atonal, their emotion and cadence somehow operating on entirely different planes. But all of them were acting in the mode of non-actors camping it up for a film destined for cult status.

Trash‘s other players, whose performances are similar in timbre to those found in John Waters’ films, seem to embody Morrissey’s idea of comedy. No matter how tragic or pathetic their characters’ histories may be, they’re amusing — and meant to be so — for their hollowness and performative unpredictability. The unruliness of their acting is evocative of the freedoms and “loose” ideals Paul Morrissey (who, despite what people may assume based on his aesthetics and adjacency to Warhol, is a staunch conservative and devout Catholic) disdained the era for fostering.

At the time, the type of camp-acting we associate with films confronting societal notions of sexual “degeneracy” — essentially, the films of John Waters, Jack Smith, Paul Morrissey, and other art/cult filmmakers — provided pretty much the only film roles available to trans and gender-nonconforming actors. These films clearly resisted the mainstream and (through explosive campiness and pride taken in exhibiting gratuitous, unsexy sex) subverted bourgeois mores. Morrissey, the self-proclaimed conservative, was always far too enamored of the “trash” he depicted to avoid making films that felt groundbreakingly queer. Though Woodlawn certainly performed acts in Trash that shocked contemporary audiences, she also managed to naturally transcend the stylistically stilted form of acting that usually accompanied them — and perhaps this was her most radical act.

These (sometimes unintentionally) pioneering queer films tended to predominantly draw their campy magic and sense of irreverence from the artificial performances of their non-actor stars. Morrissey has spoken of his unique casting choices by bragging that he was “the first to use transvestites that didn’t play transvestites, and no one has done it since… the artifice of using a man as a woman makes it more of a movie. And movies are great because they create artificial situations, and only through artificial situations does the real truth sneak out.”

Morrissey’s logic and word choice are typical of a historic misunderstanding of trans identities and notions of what authenticity means therein. And despite the filmmaker’s seeming fetish for artifice, artifice certainly is not what Woodlawn delivers in her performance. It doesn’t fit tonally with the in-your-face defiance of traditional film acting that so often accompanied displays of marginalized sexualities and gender performances in cult cinema of the 1960s and ’70s.

Woodlawn’s acting is far more grounded within the human emotional plane than the performances of the film’s cisgender actors (who, traditionally, wouldn’t have been limited to “cult” movies, and thus didn’t need Trash as a space to explore something more authentic). Rather than adhering to this mode of emotionally distant anti-acting that is so common in queer cult cinema, Woodlawn created a space for herself to develop an authentic character in Trash. She insisted on seizing an opportunity to simply exist onscreen, to be the one real human among a cast of (hilarious and fascinating) people playing art-film cartoons.

In 1970, the roles available to most trans actors were — either in the empowering-cult-film sense or in the mainstream-invisibility sense — trash. Holly Woodlawn found a way to sculpt that Trash into an unexpectedly magnetic performance.