“It’s a funny thing but no matter what I do, somehow it comes out right even if its meant to be a mistake. The most wonderful mistakes that I’ve done for the screen have turned out the most raging, fabulous performances.”–Mario Montez
One of queer film forefather Jack Smith’s “flaming creatures,” Andy Warhol’s “superstars” and Charles Ludlam’s “ridiculous,” underground drag actress Mario Montez sadly passed away this week in Key West. An inspiration to underground filmmakers, drag queens and anyone with a keen sense of camp and old Hollywood glamour, Montez is undoubtedly an influential figure in the subcultural history of film, theater, art and queer performance.
Born Rene Rivera in Puerto Rico, Montez began his career as Dolores Flores in Jack Smith’s iconic dream-like film Flaming Creatures, renaming himself Mario Montez after Smith’s favorite Hollywood actress/gay icon Maria Montez, who, let’s be honest, was already almost a drag queen. Learning his campy acting style from watching old movies, Montez’s exotic beauty fit right into Jack Smith’s oriental queer utopic visions, continuing to work with Smith in his perpetually unfinished epic Normal Love.
After working with Jack Smith, Montez acted in thirteen of Andy Warhol’s films, who became interested in Montez through Smith’s movies. Perhaps best known in Warhol’s silent Banana, in which Montez slowly and seductively eats a banana, a colorful pairing with Warhol’s risque film Blow Job, made the same year.
In addition to Warhol’s Screen Test #2 and Hedy, Montez starred in Jose Rodriguez-Soltero’s The Life, Death and Assumption of Lupe Velez, in which Montez as Lupe performs a love scene with Theatre of the Ridiculous’s Charles Ludlam. Co-founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company with Ludlam, Montez performed in some of the Theatre of the Ridiculous most notorious plays such as Turds In Hell as Carla the Gypsy Woman.
Unlike many of the other avant-garde superstars, whose life outside of locales such as the Factory and Jack Smith’s apartment/stage set is nearly unimaginable, Montez consistently held a day-job throughout his career. Even though Montez always performed in drag and was Warhol’s first drag Superstar before Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, he, as a devout Roman Catholic, had a complex relationship with drag, which he called “going into costume,” and continued to be fearful that his family or co-workers would discover his drag career.
In 1977, Montez quit the NYC underground and moved to Orlando, working clerical jobs. Remaining out of the public eye until 2006 in the documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Montez reappeared in a series of films by artist Conrad Ventur, re-performing and revisiting Warhol’s films such as Banana and Screen Test.
Shocked by the news of Montez’s passing (Aren’t all silver screen sirens immortal?), I found very little published on Montez’s death and important legacy. While I understand Montez’s over-the-top acting style, which some may say is awful, was certainly not for everyone, Montez’s camping easily lends itself to perfect date movies if you want to make sure your date loves ridiculousness as much as you do (we at Filthy Dreams call this a “trash filter”).
Beautiful and hilarious, Montez deserves better than a boring and unimaginative blurb on ArtForum (though ArtForum gets the credit of being one of the only art publications to make any mention of Montez’s death). Rather than pontificate any more on Montez’s significance to underground films, queer culture or drag, I dug up some of the best quotes on Montez from his famous and infamous friends, fans and colleagues.
“Jack Smith always said that Mario was his favorite underground actor because he could instantly capture the sympathy of the audience. And that was certainly true. He lived in constant fear that his family or the people in the civil service job where he worked would discover that he dressed up in drag. He told me that every night he prayed in his little apartment on the LES for himself and his parents and for all the dead celebrities that he loved, like ‘Linda Darnell and James Dean and Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Dandridge'” (Popism 228)
“A lot of Mario’s humor came from the fact that he adored dressing up like a female glamour queen, and at the same time, he was painfully embarrassed about being in drag (he got offended if you used that word—he called it “going into costume”). He used to always say that he knew it was a sin to be in drag—he was Puerto Rican and a very religious Roman Catholic. The only spiritual comfort he allowed himself was the logic that even though God surely didn’t like him for doing into drag, that still, if He really hated him, He would have struck him dead” (115)
“Mario had that classic comedy combination of seeming dumb but being able to say the right things with perfect timing; just when you thought you were laughing at him, he’d turn it all around” (228).
“I have worked with a lot of female impersonators, transvestites and drag queens since I first met Mario Montez in 1965 and discovered the dual nature of my own personality. I was on the set for the shooting of Jose Rodriguez-Soltero’s epic underground movie, the Life, Death and Assumption of Lupe Velez, in which Mario plays the title role. In her one sequence Jose intended that Lupe’s lover should discover her shooting up dope and break off their affair. Someone forgot to bring a set of works. Montez was applying layer after layer of lip gloss, patiently waiting until Jose got the idea to change the scene to Lupe’s lover discovering her in bed with a lesbian. But who would play the lesbian? Jose looked at me, “You won’t get in drag, will you” he said. ‘Why not?” I said, “I identify with lesbians”
My love scene on the silver screen with Mario Montez caused something of a stir. At the time it was a breakthrough. Now it’s history” (Ridiculous Theatre 12)
“Every time I see one of Mario’s wonderful performances, I’m taken back to that moment, when, thanks to Mario, I succumbed to ridiculousness” (Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol 44).
Let’s all pay tribute to our, taking the name from Ester Newton’s study of drag, “Mother Camp,” Mario Montez.