Mary Woronov: Queen of the Independence! By Brian Kirst
"That’s debatable", Mary Woronov responds when someone calls her a star. Indeed, as someone whose beginnings were as a performer in the Theatre of the Absurd in the 1960’s, Woronov is seemingly not comfortable with exalted labels. She simply wants you to "watch the movies, look at my paintings, read my books" but a pedestal is something she prefers to not be put upon.
Besides, at 65, Woronov is in the prime of her life – still painting, writing and acting. She looks incredible with stylish, slightly graying hair (now shortly cropped) and her trademark machete sharp cheekbones. And though she urges genre fans to look to the horror classics to broaden their horizons, she is the proud star of many a favored motion picture herself.
In fact, Woronov, recently in Chicago for showings of two cult favorites that she starred in – Rock N Roll High School and Death Race 2000, has appeared in almost too many films to list. From Eating Raoul (which she co-created with frequent collaborator Paul Bartel) to Chopping Mall to Night of the Comet from Club Fed ("It’s a terrible movie!" she states) to Warlock and Nomads – Woronov has surely appeared in one of your guilty (or otherwise) favorites.
While Woronov appeared in many of Andy Warhol’s early avant garde classics and such well regarded genre nuggets as Sugar Cookies (with fellow terror legend Lynn Lowry), Oliver Stone’s Seizure and Silent Night, Deadly Night, Death Race 2000 was her introduction to the production house of Roger Corman and California B-Movie making. (In fact, Woronov didn’t even realize the Death Race 2000 qualified as low budget film making until after having several other film experiences.) The strength Woronov displays as Calamity Jane in Death Race 2000 was probably a benefit of her prep school training and Warholian experiences, though. Woronov began her fascination with force and the duality of gender when playing male roles during stage productions at her all girls’ school. She was further indoctrinated into this ascetic by often playing the masculine type aggressor in Warhol’s films. In fact, Woronov notes that is ironic that Gerard Malanga, who brought her into the Factory universe, was using her to get involved in Warhol’s filmmaking. "You had to have a girl," Woronov remembers. But Woronov had such a powerful presence that she wound up playing the roles that Malanga would have – rendering him unnecessary.
Told by Bartel, an old New York theater friend (who was directing Death Race 2000), that Corman would take one look at her legs and hire her, Woronov recalls that Corman never once bothered taking a gander at her statuesque stance. He hired her anyway. In fact, the only time Corman even showed up on the set, once production began, was when co-star Sylvester Stallone refused to disrobe for a massage sequence. Corman rushed onto the set insisting that he made "T and A" films and that Stallone’s drawers were coming off – and they did! ("Maybe he was trying to turn over a new leaf," Woronov muses about Stallone whom, at the time, had just recently appeared in the pornographic The Italian Stallion.) Woronov also recalls that Corman wanted to play up the blood and guts while Bartel was insistent on highlighting the more comedic aspects of the film. While, Corman ultimately disagreed, he eventually allowed Bartel to do what he wanted – which Woronov believes is one of Corman’s strengths as a producer and why the film is still so beloved 33 years later. Woronov who exudes a tender vitality as Calamity Jane also, amusedly, noted at the time of filming she couldn’t operate a vehicle and had to be dragged around by the crew. When it is observed that her cameo in 1979’s boisterously fun Lady in Red (written by John Sayles) also revolved around speed, Woronov notes that "I eventually learned how to drive".
When asked about her experiences filming the classic "Angels in Chains" Charlie’s Angels episode, Woronov states the series’ leads were good businesswomen and that at the time "Hollywood was afraid of lesbians" so it was up to her to bring out the more butch aspects of her character Maxine.
Woronov’s contribution to Eating Raoul, Bartel’s horror-black comedy, includes much more than her indelible portrayal of Mary Bland. Woronov thought it would be hard for audiences to buy her as Bartel’s mate, so she came up with the character’s frigidity angle. She also praises the crew who continued to work on the picture even when Bartel ran out of funds to pay them. Woronov is also quick to point out that she and Bartel never married – something the publicity seeking Bartel used to claim in interviews.
Night of the Comet, meanwhile, is notable to Woronov because director Thom Eberhardt allowed her to write her own death scene and she maintains it is her favorite onscreen death thus far. Woronov also recalls that the young Eberhardt had a difficult time maintaining control as his decisions were always being second guessed. She believes it is still a good film despite that fact and sardonically notes, "What else are you going to do at the end of the world, but shop?"
Woronov is currently thrilled about the prospects of younger filmmaker Ti West. West, whose credits include The Roost, recently directed her in the Rosemary’s Baby-esque The House of the Devil. Woronov maintains that West has been toiling in genre films to get a more bizarrely personal project off the ground and she hopes that he is able to do it.
In fact, Woronov, who states Rock N Roll High School changed her life (it introduced her to California punk and released her from a marriage of convenience) and that Jackson County Jail was one of the wildest film making experiences ever (she believes lead actress Yvette Mimieux was never the same afterward because of the director’s drug fueled antics), seems truly to enjoy the energy and collaboration of low budget filmmaking. It appears that she found something a bit sterile about her bigger budget efforts (including Black Widow) and that the freedom she finds within a circle of true artists is her ultimate milieu. But this is not surprising, especially when it comes down to one simple fact – America’s true Queen of Independence is definitely Mary Woronov!