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License to Lie

A biopic that isn't accurate can still be true.

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FACTORY GIRL ss

Directed by George Hickenlooper

Written by Aaron Richard Golub and Captain Mauzner

With Sienna Miller, Guy Pearce, AND Hayden Christensen

The long knives were out for Factory Girl, the new biopic of Warhol "superstar" Edie Sedgwick, before shooting had even wrapped. Lou Reed, a denizen of Warhol's Factory back in the 60s, told the New York Daily News he'd read a script for the project and with characteristic understatement called it "one of the most disgusting, foul things I've seen--by any illiterate retard--in a long time." Bob Dylan threatened to sue if the movie were released, arguing that it defamed him. Reviews cite a fair number of fudged details and argue that director George Hickenlooper belittles or simplifies Sedgwick, Warhol, Dylan, pop art, and the 60s. Everyone seems to dislike it for a different reason, but the general verdict is that it's false.

The bar for historical accuracy in Hollywood biopics hasn't always been this high--paradoxically, it's been rising even as the public has become more ignorant of history. During the studio era, writers frequently played around with the truth when telling the stories of great men and women. Michael Curtiz's Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) portrayed song-and-dance man George M. Cohan as a devoted family man, artfully omitting the fact that he'd divorced and remarried, but 60 years later it's still a classic. John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which chronicled the 16th president's days as a young lawyer in Illinois, is one of our most treasured films precisely because it's an exercise in mythmaking. ("When the legend becomes fact," one of Ford's later characters would declare, "print the legend.") Those films and others like them were prized for capturing the person's essence--or, in the case of the Ford film, the essence of how people felt about him.

Drawing heavily on Jean Stein and George Plimpton's best-selling oral history Edie: An American Biography (1982), Factory Girl follows Sedgwick from her blue-blooded adolescence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, through her wild times with Warhol in the mid-60s and her decline into fatal drug addiction. Critics have charged, with some justice, that the movie dumbs down Warhol's art and the social scene that swirled around his Manhattan studio, but the craziness of Warhol's Factory has already been done, in Mary Harron's 1996 indie I Shot Andy Warhol. Hickenlooper is more interested in the emotional texture of Sedgwick's friendship with Warhol, which provides the arc of the story despite all the flash and trash. What he reveals is both compelling and poignant: an arrangement that was sincerely affectionate but also rooted in mutual envy. Andy (an eerily vacant Guy Pearce) is mesmerized by Edie's style and social grace, while Edie (Sienna Miller) is awed by Andy's artistic brilliance.

Hickenlooper has considered the pathos of fame and its seekers before; his largely overlooked documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003) profiled Rodney Bingenheimer, a gnomish LA radio personality who measures his worth by his glancing relationships with rock celebrities. There's an element of Bingenheimer in the new movie's conception of Warhol, a man acutely aware of his own and others' status. One of the funniest scenes in Factory Girl shows Warhol, who was raised Catholic, sitting in a confessional eating Hershey's Kisses and telling the priest how a friend of his got punched by Norman Mailer at a party. "I know I should be happy for Mark that Norman Mailer punched him," Andy purrs, "but all I could think about was, will Norman Mailer ever punch me?" The scene must be invented, but it seems to nail the sense of contradiction Warhol cultivated in himself.

The movie's problems begin with the arrival of Hayden Christensen as Quinn, an aggressive folk-rock star who seduces Edie and antagonizes Warhol, prompting her ouster from the Factory crowd. Hickenlooper has called the character an amalgam of Dylan, Donovan, and Jim Morrison, but Christensen's performance is an absurd caricature of Dylan, complete with shades, motorcycle, wild-man hair, and righteous put-downs. Though Dylan has denied that he and Sedgwick were ever romantically involved, Hickenlooper gives Edie and Quinn a candlelit sex scene. Dylan may be angry that this ostensibly fake character is so obviously meant to be him; for viewers the real drawback of Christensen's lazy burlesque is that it fails so miserably to capture Dylan. Lack of accuracy can be excused, but not lack of truth.

One thing Hickenlooper can't be accused of is dishonoring Warhol's memory. After all, this is the artist who, the year after President Kennedy's assassination, was making pattern prints of Jacqueline Kennedy sitting in the Dallas motorcade and grieving at the president's state funeral in Washington. Nine Jackies and Sixteen Jackies must have struck many people as the most disgusting, foul thing they'd seen in a long time, but with his multiple images of celebrities Warhol let all his subjects know that their fame wasn't their own property, that their images were available to anyone to shape and stretch as he pleased. At the end of Factory Girl, Edie has cleaned up temporarily and faces the future hopefully, but her public image has become a curse, a two-dimensional version of who she really is. Not everyone is crushed by fame, but almost everyone is flattened by it.

For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.

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