One miserably cold day in January 1977, frustrated with the dearth of underground acting jobs in film and theater and the cruddy condition of New York in general, Mario Montez—featured player in Jack Smith’s polysexual fantasia Flaming Creatures (1963), Andy Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar, and a regular in Charles Ludlam’s unhinged plays—left the city that had been his home since he was eight and boarded a bus headed for the Sunshine State. “I went to Times Square, and I got two papers: The Miami Herald and the Orlando Sentinel,” Montez recalls. “I looked to see which city had more jobs and lower rent, and that was Orlando.” He eventually landed a job as a file clerk for an insurance company, a position he held for 12 years. (“That’s where I’m getting one of my pensions.”) From 2006 through 2010, the man who once danced as Dolores Flores in Smith’s avant-garde magnum opus worked as a greeter at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios theme park.
Born Rene Rivera in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1935, the cinema-besotted Montez took his stage name in homage to Maria Montez, queen of B-movies such as Cobra Woman. When asked over hot chocolate and a tartine at a Prospect Heights café what other golden-era film stars he loves, Montez takes a long pause, finally settling on Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s comeback vehicle for the legendary silent-era actress. “In a way, I’m going through a similar period myself at the moment,” Montez, 76, laughs, referring to his re-emergence in the spotlight after a 30-year absence.
He began to resurface in 2006, appearing as a talking head in Mary Jordan’s documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. In 2009, Montez flew to Berlin (his first time on a plane: “I figure, when you get older, you get a little more aggressive”) to participate in a festival devoted to Smith’s work. Last year, Columbia University hosted the day-long conference “Superstar! A Tribute to Mario Montez.” And on Sunday, Montez will introduce a program of Smith films, including Flaming Creatures, at MOMA; later that day, he’ll be at MOMI to take part in an onstage discussion with Agosto Machado, another luminary of New York avant-garde theater, following the screening of two of Montez’s greatest movies, Warhol’s Screen Test #2 (1965) and José Rodriguez-Soltero’s Lupe (1967).
“Jack Smith always said that Mario was his favorite underground actor because he could instantly capture the sympathy of the audience,” Warhol writes in POPism, his chronicle of the 1960s. After watching Screen Test #2, a 66-minute-long close-up of Montez submitting to the outrageous demands of an offscreen Ronald Tavel, you’ll agree. Constantly primping, vamping, and removing strands of wig hair from his mouth, Montez cheerfully and undauntedly “auditions” for the role of Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame as Tavel barks, “Say di-a-rrhea,” and, “Give me that real cockteaser look!”
“It just dehumanizes me,” Montez says of Tavel’s cruelty in the film, though he can still laugh about the experience. “In my mind . . . I was gonna get that juicy role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Montez’s brilliantly guileless performance style, heightened by his deep love of Old Hollywood glamour, also made him perfect to “play” disgraced Tinseltown goddesses Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr in the Warhol films More Milk, Yvette (1966) and Hedy (1966). But the dutiful, drug-abstaining Montez, a 1954 graduate of the New York School of Printing who held clerical day jobs (including at a wholesale distributor of women’s accessories in the Garment District) during his entire 15-year career as a performer, was something of an outsider among the speed freaks and heiresses at the Factory. “I did try [drugs] once,” Montez remembers. “It was just a quick pot thing; it made me cough and lose time. I couldn’t lose time—I always had to get home by midnight, so I could go to sleep because I had to be at work the next day.”
In addition to his recent international appearances, Montez, who preferred the expression “going into costume” to “drag” in the 1960s (though he’s OK with the term now: “Lately it seems that drag is a more ‘in’ thing”), has been busy putting on wigs and dresses for a series of collaborations with young artist Conrad Ventur, 34—whom he met at the Columbia conference and who accompanied him to the interview—some of which restage the actor’s films with Warhol. Unlike later Warhol eminences such as Candy Darling, who lived 24 hours a day as Kim Novak, Montez has only ever donned drag for performances and public events. When we meet, he’s a dapper vision in blue: blue flannel shirt, blue-buttoned sweater vest, blue jeans. His head wear gives pause. “Is that a Knicks cap?” I ask him. “Yes,” he says, laughing. “But I crossed out the logo. I just love royal blue.”
Montez will appear twice in New York on Sunday, November 13, first at 3 p.m. at MOMA and then at 6:30 p.m. at MOMI.