I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Mary Harron’s Tale of Valerie Solanas, Starring Lili Taylor

Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol explores the political and psychological contradictions of Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Harron aims to show that Solanas’ tragedy stemmed from lack of self-awareness, possessing little understanding of her actions.

Solanas defined herself as a lesbian, though her orientation was motivated less by sexual desire than by living in a male-dominated society. Her hatred for men was activated by the way society regarded women as weak-minded and intuitive. Solanas thwarted the media’s attempts to categorize her as lesbian; she had slept with men and had lived with a man for a while

Harron sympathized with Solanas’ anger at being told what a woman should or should not do. When Harron was at the BBC, she was surrounded with “boy geniuses,” who were expected to go off and make movies, but she had to have “a lot more drive to prove myself.”

Various films about ambitious young women coming to the city to pursue their careers (Dance Girl Dance, Stage Door, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), influenced Harron’s perception of Valerie, along with intense psychological studies of demented minds like Taxi Driver.  Though Harron credits Taxi Driver and its character, Travis Bickle, her movie is more of a variant of Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Like Scorsese’s protagonist (played by De Niro), Solanas is an ambitious but untalented nobody obsessed with a celebrity (Andy Warhol) who rebuffs her.

Like Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta to Have It, the title has a B-movie ring, but the film turns out to be a conventional high-minded biopicture. The main action is interrupted with black and white sequences of Solanas looking straight into the camera and reciting passages from the SCUM manifesto.

The movie includes scenes from her college days, intended to dramatize her evolving “feminism,” but most of the narrative is inherently undramatic. Since Solanas’s pathology is full-blown from the start, the movie has nowhere to go dramatically, and there’s no suspense since Solanas’act is known.

Furthermore, Solanas is not interesting enough to be the center; she should have been a secondary character. Harron and co-screenwriter, Daniel Minahan, attempt to portray Solanas as a complex tragicomic figure, but she really is not.

As the critic Terrence Rafferty observed: “Solanas had her requisite 15 minutes of fame 25 years ago, and it was more than she deserved.” What compensates are the vivid production design and secondary characters that are more interesting than the leads. The re-creation of period decor and the atmosphere of the Factory with its Warhol crowd are vivid. The artist (wittily played by Jarred Harris), the bitchy luminary Ondine (Michael Imperioli), superstar transvestite Candy Darling (Stephen Dorff) are amusing, but they don’t get sufficient screen time.

From her work in documentary (The South Bank Show programs on Warhol, Jackson Pollock) Harron learned that “You have to balance every person’s account against what other characters say. Everyone has mixtures of good and bad about them in different proportions. The power relations with others, that is what’s important to discover.” There was some pressure to make Solanas sympathetic, but for Harron, the essence of the film is that she wasn’t.

Harron credits writer Minahan for encouraging her to make things up when dramatically necessary. Minahan and Harron consolidated some characters, without substantially altering the facts. Initially, they had Solanas gets thrown out of her apartment, or give someone a blow job for a place to sleep, but in the end, they cut these scenes out. The biggest challenge, which the film doesn’t meet, is to locate the catalyst that sent Solanas over the edge. Harron has no idea of why Solanas shot Warhol: “It wasn’t until the editing that I acknowledged that I just don’t know, and that I should leave it a mystery.”