In spite of his considerable accomplishments, Paul Morrissey has often been treated as some sort of shadow of Andy Warhol. When Morrissey first ventured into the Factory in 1965, it was as a young filmmaker who had already directed a number of shorts. He quickly proved an invaluable player—Warhol’s manager for nearly 10 years, he was also a creative force during the production of Warhol films. The director came into his own with the so-called Flesh Trilogy—Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Heat (1971), films he wrote, photographed, edited, and directed on the scantiest of budgets. (Warhol’s only participation was financial, yet they’re still often called Warhol films.) All three star the Factory’s house Adonis, Joe Dallesandro. The camera was clearly enamored of his sullen good looks, brute presence, languid movements, sturdy if pimpled butt, and dangling cock. The naked male had never before been observed with such naturalness in an American film.
In the hypnotizingly minimal, almost home-movie-ish Trash—the warmest and funniest of the three—Dallesandro is an East Village junkie with crab lice and a potency problem. He’s quite poignant in the role, but the extraordinary transvestite Holly Woodlawn (the erstwhile Harold Danhaki) steals the film as Joe’s compulsive, trash-collecting lover. (“I saw some nice garbage up on 24th Street,” she yaps at one point, with a voice like an auto accident.) The director doesn’t use Woodlawn as a drag queen—on-screen she’s a woman whose dreams of family and normalcy are constantly frustrated, played by an actress giving a superb performance often marked by zany, self-deprecating humor. In an unforgettable sequence, she fails to arouse Joe, and in desperation masturbates with a beer bottle, grasping his hand as she climaxes, begging him to kick the habit so that they can really make out again. In lesser hands, the scene could have been camp grotesquerie—instead, it’s shattering. There’s clearly a puritan streak in Morrissey. Trash takes a deglamorizing line on hard drugs, but wisely stops short of moralizing. In its heart of hearts, it’s the cleanest dirty movie ever made.