`Berlin' an unfinished portrait of Warhol star

August 3, 2001

MOVIES By Jim DeRogatis

Given the surreal, circuslike atmosphere and the ever-changing cast of drug addicts, drag queens, dominatrices and other flamboyant weirdos revolving around pop artist Andy Warhol at his fabled Factory in the '60s, it really took some initiative to stand out.

Brigid Berlin did--in part because of her size (250 pounds-plus), in part because of her family connections (her father, Richard, ran the Hearst Corp.) but mostly because of the sheer force of her slashing wit and obsessive/compulsive personality.

For a considerable period of time, Berlin served as Warhol's confidante, sometime secretary, occasional artistic inspiration--she was taping all of her conversations and shooting Polaroids of everything long before he picked up the habits--and, under the name Brigid Polk, as an actress in his underground films, including the notorious "Chelsea Girls."

No less an aficionado of the oddball than director John Waters pronounces Berlin his all-time favorite Superstar. But even if you don't share the admiration that Waters expresses as one of a handful of talking heads in "Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story," its subject is likely to make an impact on you.

Like many in Warhol's coterie, Berlin was a fundamentally unhappy individual. "I've come to hate my body," the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed sang of transsexual Superstar Candy Darling, but Berlin was singing a very similar tune.

Berlin, an obese child, was constantly berated by her socialite mother, Honey, who sent her away to crackpot fat farms for regimens of fasting and diet pill-popping. As the wife of a successful conservative publisher and a family friend of Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, Honey wanted her daughter to be perfect.

Brigid rebelled with a vengeance, winding up a binge eater, a voracious amphetamine user, and a promiscuous exhibitionist. This is a common story through the '60s. The difference is that Berlin did her rebelling before Warhol's unblinking lens.

Co-directors Vincent Fremont and Shelly Dunn Fremont spend much of their well-crafted film intercutting between vintage footage and interviews with Berlin today. Today at 60, she is much slimmer but no less obsessive; her apartment is methodically organized and crammed with strange collectibles, and she prepares her precisely measured health-food diet with the same care that a drug addict takes in readying his fix.

Berlin has clearly never recovered from the damage her mother inflicted on her. In addition to the scenes in which she falls off the wagon and binges on key lime pies, the most frightening part of the Fremonts' film is when she gives an extended, vicious monologue in the voice of her mother, then realizes that the reason her brother and sisters are estranged is that she has wound up exactly like the Honey they all hated.

Because Berlin is a fascinating character who commands attention, the flaws in "Pie in the Sky" become apparent only after the film is over and the viewer is left wrestling with countless nagging questions. The Fremonts didn't interview nearly enough other people to construct a three-dimensional profile. The elliptical Warhol isn't around to talk anymore, but enough of his other confidantes are; surely the filmmakers could have found somebody more illuminating than obsequious Vanity Fair contributor Bob Colacello, who never even got to the party until well after the '60s heyday. (Access couldn't have been a problem, since Vincent Fremont is a former executive of Andy Warhol Enterprises, and there are plenty of treasures from the archives running through the movie.)

The filmmakers never make it clear that Berlin is now ashamed of the films she made with Warhol. "My parents were right to disapprove," she told the New York Times last April, and this about-face would seem to have been relevant information to include.

Finally, there is no mention of Darling or Edie Sedgwick, other Superstars who met tragic ends, or of Berlin's role in recording one of the greatest live albums ever, the Velvets' "Live at Max's Kansas City" (though Blondie's Chris Stein does pay homage to the group via his original soundtrack music).

In the end, we are left with an interesting but incomplete and unfulfilling portrait of a woman who may or may not have deserved better than her initial 15 minutes of fame. It's hard to tell from the evidence presented here, and the only impression that lingers is one of sadness and pity for yet another casualty of an overly romanticized era.




* * With Brigid Berlin, John Waters, Patty Hearst, Paul Morrissey, Taylor Mead, Larry Rivers, Richard Bernstein and Bob Colacello.

Vincent Fremont Enterprises presents a documentary directed by Vincent Fremont and Shelly Dunn Fremont. Running time: 75 minutes. No MPAA rating (strong language and nudity). Opening today at Facets Multimedia.