As Tears Go By: The Soap Opera as Inspiration in Drama Queens


In a 1977 essay, high priestess of film theory Laura Mulvey praised the melodramas of Douglas Sirk for “probing the pent-up emotion, bitterness and disillusion well known to women.” Sirk’s impossible-love weepie, All That Heaven Allows, starring Jane Wyman as a middle-aged widow who falls for her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), serves as the urtext of MOMA’s clever, ambitious series devoted to this surfeit of feeling—and its dismantling—in an often-overlooked source: avant-garde film and video from the past 70 years.

Besotted with Hollywood, Andy Warhol wryly recapitulated Tinseltown excess, glamour, and off-screen scandal. In Soap Opera (1964), Baby Jane Holzer, a honey-maned, 23-year-old Park Avenue socialite, silently performs a lover’s spat over the telephone; the mute, emotionally overwrought segments of Warhol’s movie (which also includes face-slaps and crotch-rubbing) are interrupted by footage from old TV commercials pitching char-broiled steaks and Pillsbury cake mix. More loony incongruities abound in Hedy (1967), featuring Mario Montez, Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar, as Hedy Lamarr, the MGM goddess who had recently been arrested for shoplifting. “I must be beautiful because I am the most beautiful woman in the world,” Hedy imperiously declares to her plastic surgeons. While the camera rapidly zooms in and out, Jack Smith leers in the background, the Velvet Underground tunes up off-camera, and the past-her-prime starlet endures handcuffs and humiliation, wondering, “Where are my husbands now?”

Where Warhol found inspiration in lurid Hollywood Babylon, others in the series become the stars of their own unhinged fantasy-worlds. Supremely bonkers yet always engrossing, Eleanor Antin’s 1976 video The Adventures of a Nurse (Parts I and II) stars the artist, dressed in an all-white nurse’s uniform, manipulating (and, in her Bronx bray, providing the voices for) foot-high, hand-painted paper dolls—her “actors” in a romantic saga about altruistic Nurse Eleanor and her many swains, including a fragile poet, a Harley biker, and a louche French ski instructor. Antin’s work revels in sudser codes as much as it critiques the cliché of the self-abnegating heroine. Kalup Linzy, another creator and star of unclassifiable soapy spectacles, mines the bathos of the cell-phone conference call in Ride to da Club (2002), part of his Conversations wit de Churen series. A five-minute piece filled with memorably monikered hyphenates—Big-Dick Johnny, Cross-Eyed Ray—Ride boasts more knowing, hilarious back-stabbing, sexual intrigue, and eye-rolling than Tyler Perry could ever hope to squeeze into a Madea feature.