Girl on fire: Edie Sedgwick in ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ (1972)

❉ Speed, Madness, Flying Saucers and a Drunken Beauty in a Drained Swimming Pool.

‘Ciao! Manhattan’ still stands up. Or perhaps more accurately, it leans, stumbles, shakes and lurches as if drunk.

It is a fascinating cinematic error. Uncomfortably wedged between dark comic tragedy and documentary, there is magic flowing throughout ‘Ciao! Manhattan’. An admittedly fragmented bit of 1972 avant-garde cinema, this strange movie has a considerable following. Starring Andy Warhol’s original Superstar, Edie Sedgwick as a barely hidden version of herself, her character is named “Susan Superstar.” This odd movie offers insider observations about Warhol’s Factory and the 1960’s NYC Art Scene it inspired that is impossible to dismiss. While it would be a mistake to absorb the information as “truth,” it would be wrong to label it as “false.”

Edie Sedgwick played a key role in the creation of Andy Warhol and his infamous Factory. She was the “It” girl for the 1960’s NYC Art Underground.

Ethereally beautiful, effortlessly cool, rebellious, troubled and always on the verge of just about to break big in the mainstream — she captured the energy and conflict of her day. Even decades on the viewer has no choice but to look or watch when her image presents itself. Even when years of substance abuse and eating disorders began to take their toll, she was still a sight and a personality with which to be dealt.

Edie had either burned all of her bridges to Andy Warhol or he had decided to lock her out of his kingdom. There are many opinions out there regarding why these two artists ended their relationship. Even Warhol’s own diaries fail to fully explain the break. At any rate, Edie Sedgwick was adrift without Warhol and The Factory as a sort of anchor. Though to be honest, she was most likely always adrift in the world of Counterculture Glam & Cool. But she had become a somewhat valid if not notorious Superstar in her own right. A hard-hitting Party Girl who enjoyed drugs as much as fame, dancing, love and ultimately life. After the split with Warhol, Edie was lost.

Despite coming from one of the wealthiest families in America, Edie preferred to live on the edge. She loved having the money to live life on the range of The Fabulous, but she had no problem with slumming it if that is what it took. And most often, it did. John Palmer and David Weisman, long time members of Andy’s Factory and the NYC Underground, wanted to make an “above-ground /underground” film staring Ms. Sedgwick. The timing could have not been more perfect. The troubled and abandoned Warhol Superstar needed a job.

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The film began a very troubled production in 1967. One very lucky choice was to sit with Edie and let her chat into a microphone. Thus began a series of audio interviews in which a drunken/stoned Edie Sedgwick recounted some of her early life and detailed ramblings of her frantic partying life at the epicenter of Warhol’s World. It should be noted that at this time she was always drunk or stoned. That was not a choice for these two filmmakers. It was simply what Edie was doing.

The two eager film artists began sorting through Edie’s slurred accounts to create a vaguely “fictional” film about Edie’s life up to that point. To avoid lawsuits and other complications, the idea of creating a film that featured Sedgwick as an “alter-ego” of herself in connection with her prestigious family, Warhol, The Factory and all the players involved seemed a safe bet.

They would not call her by her name. Her “character” name was to be “Susan Superstar.” Palmer and Weisman began to film Edie all over New York City. Even drugged, Edie radiated an energy and “light” that attracted people. Capturing images of her chatting with those of Warhol’s Factory still willing to be filmed with her was in of itself not difficult. Some of the most magic screen moments happen as Palmer & Weisman copy the style of Warhol’s camera in filming she and Paul America dash about the city. One scene of Edie walking atop a brick wall holds a great deal of cinematic charm.

The two directors were able to stage a big party in an old house, but the drug-induced group of assembled people failed to generate much usable footage. Or at least this is what they thought. At any rate, despite both directors’ hope, Edie did the expected. She grabbed Mr. America and both went missing. The directors lost all funding. The footage would be put away until they could catch up with Edie.

It would not be until 1970 that Edie Sedgwick resurfaced. Once again, accounts vary. However it seems most likely an affair with Roger Vadim that enabled the production of the movie to resume. Vadim contacted David Weisman in desperation to get Ms. Sedgwick out of his life and home as quick as possible. At last their leading lady seemed ready for her close-up.

This crumbling estate and the make-shift cool “pool home” almost seems to represent living decay and decadence.

Three years of even heavier drugging, drinking and breast enhancement surgery had literally changed her appearance almost beyond recognition. The pencil thin sprite they had filmed in 1967 no longer existed. Edie Sedgwick 1970 was still glamorous and beautiful, but she had become fuller in figure and was no longer the burst of energy they had known. Proud of her newly implanted breasts, she voiced her one and only demand to the directors: her boobs were to be fully shown. The two determined directors quickly understood an unstated requirement. Edie no longer had any control when it came to drug or alcohol use. If Edie was to work they would need to bring her meds to the set.

They made a cinematically interesting decision to film her in a drained swimming pool. The pool was decorated to look like an apartment adorned with iconic images from Sedgwick’s life as well as things they knew would appeal to her. A couple of Rolling Stones albums, some comic book pillows, stuffed animals and a great pair of radio headphones.

Paul America looks out as Susan Superstar re-applies her make-up Edie Sedgwick.
Paul America looks on as Susan Superstar re-applies her make-up.

The pool was located in the back grounds of The Lucky Baldwin Estate in Arcadia, California which had temporarily fallen into a state of ruin. For what Palmer and Weisman would end up creating, this turned out to be a brilliant idea. Aside from the arresting visual, this crumbling estate and the make-shift cool “pool home” almost seems to represent living decay and decadence.

John Palmer, David Weisman and their cinematographer, Kjell Rostad, had one month to film. Only a few days took them out of the pool. Wesley Hayes was cast as “Butch” who would serve as the dim-witted dude who would end up being hired by “Mummy” and “Geoffrey” to care for Susan. Played by Isabel Jewell, Mummy is presented as an eccentric wealthy woman who makes pies for The House of Pies which was located on Sunset Blvd. Mummy has no patience for her daughter and has given up after a series of ECT treatments had failed to “cure” Susan of her “ridiculous” tendencies and delusions.

Discussing her brother’s suicide, her family’s cruelty and even claims of incest — the film’s tone quickly shifts from comedy to tragedy.

Butch meets Susan when she hitches a ride. Half-dressed, intoxicated and barely conscious — the only information he can be sure of is listed on military dog tag worn as a necklace. Having discovered her home address engraved on the dog tag, he delivers Susan home. Mummy and her hired hand do not spend much time with Butch or Susan. Geoffrey, Mummy’s assistant and sometimes nurse to Susan, directs Butch to drop Susan off in her home. Susan’s actual home turns out to be the drained backyard swimming pool. It is here that a bored and slightly aroused Butch listens to Susan as she rambles out the story of her life and current situation.

Despite the fact that Edie Sedgwick was in a constant state of intoxication, she was able to follow some of the scripted ideas. But more often than not she simply rambles on about herself, her life and the horrors of dysfunctional family, fame, and drugs. It is to the film’s advantage that it is almost impossible to know when Sedgwick is attempting to stick to script ideas or simply gets lost in her own drunken logic thoughts.

When the ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ takes place in Susan’s ‘home’ the movie works.

It is disquieting when it appears Edie has gone off the rails. Discussing her brother’s suicide, her family’s cruelty and even claims of incest — the film’s tone quickly shifts from comedy to tragedy. However, just as soon as it feels like we have slipped into Edie’s personal Hell something comes up that shifts the movie back into Susan’s world of clunky humor.

In one scene Susan decides she needs to make a phone call. She is overly entitled and rude to the operator. This is clearly a part of a script as a dubbed voice can be heard responding to Susan’s rudeness.  The phone company operator defends herself by claiming she has a high school degree. While this brief scene feels scripted, it is unclear if it is Susan or Edie who ends up having a conversation. Once again dubbing comes into play. Were these dubs planned or devised in post-production? It isn’t fully clear.

While it feels as if Susan is actually speaking to Viva as the editor of ‘Vogue’ magazine, the conversation is one-sided. Viva’s voice has been dubbed into the film in post production. Susan seems to temporarily turn into Edie and we are led into what feels like the ramblings of a confused addict.  A dubbed phone operator voice interrupts her. Suddenly, Edie seems to rally back into Susan. Was this one of the director’s trying to get her back “on page” or some brief moment of clarity?

Susan/ Edie: “I was just speaking to my party before you so rudely interrupted me… for God’s sake!”

Dubbed Operator: “You cannot speak to me in that tone of voice! I am a high school graduate!”

Susan / Edie slams the phone down.

“Oh, operators are so damn stupid.”

That last line doesn’t feel acted. It’s is painfully obvious when Edie Sedgwick is really attempting to act. Her line is delivered with the sort of weariness that only a hard-lived life can muster. There is no anger. There is only exhaustion.

In another apparently scripted scene, Susan Superstar gets up to groove with music and strip. This was most certainly an attempt to please Ms. Sedgwick who wanted to show off her body and newly “improved” breasts. Both filmmakers have stated that the material used to enhance her breasts were most certainly toxic and would have most likely killed Sedgwick. This form of plastic surgery was still new and Edie had it done “on-the-cheap.” Apparently the manner in which she obtained the boob enhancement was more than a little worrying.

At any rate, it is during her strip number that Susan quickly seems to vanish. She is replaced by a clearly too drunk to dance Edie. She stumbles, fumbles about awkwardly as she attempts to step out of her pants. Undeterred, she continues to dance. A voice-dubbed Butch tries to decide if this “chick” is hot or just sad. As if in tribute to Sedgwick, his dub mentions her “nice titties.”

We are immediately pulled back to Susan Superstar as she rather unconvincingly whines, “Owww!” She is to have stepped on broken glass. But the idea of Susan once again fades as the over-the-top drunken delivery falls to an existential passive dismissal, “Another scar…” And with this she falls boobs-first on to the bed.

Butch scurries to bandage her foot. Once again it seems as if he delivers lines designed to keep Edie “on page” but instead she seems to slip into grim commentaries regarding her life. Ciao! Manhattan is full of cringe-inducing, ethically troubling moments. We are brought to a whole different state of guilty pleasure. It feels as if Edie Sedgwick is sharing dire secrets we should not hear.

When their month at the estate came to an end, Edie set out on another adventure while her two friends began post production. While there was no shortage of footage, it was unclear how they would fit it all together to form a full movie and avoid angry lawsuits from Warhol and Edie’s family. But their film was feeling more and more like the story of Edie Sedgwick instead of a fictionalized satire of 1960’s New York City Art Underground.

However, Palmer and Weisman finally began to find a way to salvage their once thought doomed film.

The 1967 audio interviews could be dubbed over nearly all of the initial footage. Scenes designed to recreate the notorious “Doctor Robert” and the entire mess of debauchery that had been captured started to take the form a comedic art house venture. There are most certainly some pop cultural worthy moments. Brigid Berlin rants and raves, a drug-infused conversation among Factory members and a labored attempt to form and create a happening are just a few of the interesting moments captured in 1967.

Most surprising, the filmmakers had secured truly artistic shots of Sedgwick and Paul Johnson riding and strolling throughout the city. One of the best bits of footage are of our two hopeless hipsters seeking fun speeding down the West Side Highway. Fueled equally by gasoline, horsepower and large doses of amphetamine, these two young people seem as happy as they do lost. They were simply too gleeful as they soared to face consequences. Edie is also captured skipping along a brick wall. Young, beautiful and doomed  – she seems to dance for the sun or maybe even in spite of it. This captured image has become iconic over the span of time.

The film’s most ill-advised element is silly subplot of the sinister Mister Verdecchioto who seems has Susan Superstar and her cohorts under constant surveillance. One would suppose that the idea was to attach paranoias to some of the strange 1967 footage. This sinister sci-fi subplot is far less interesting than the footage it often accompanies.

Palmer and Weisman began to feel that their movie was starting to come together. They would succeed as filmmakers and help their troubled pal, Edie, achieve a respectable level of success. A success free of Warhol dependency. During their final leg of post-production Edie Sedgwick overdosed. She had died on November 16, 1971. Her cause of death was due to acute barbiturate intoxication.

Palmer and Weisman were no longer as worried about blending fact with fiction. They gave up on trying to hide Edie behind their concept of Susan Superstar. While it might seem to be in poor taste, the final edit of this strange movie pays tribute to Edie Sedgwick. And despite all the film’s absurdities — Sedgwick emerges as self-destructive and even foolish. But she also emerges as someone trying to survive. ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ manages to leave a sting. What might have started off as a pro-drug film quickly turns in on itself.

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The directors managed to find a way to manipulate the Mister Verdecchio spy subplot to document the death of his former target. A death that seems to leave the sinister character not only disappointed but defeated. Without Susan Superstar to monitor he has lost his life purpose. A hunter without a target. An artist without art. The differences between fact and fiction no longer matter. The world goes cold. Susan Superstar has not died. She was never the subject anyway. It is Edie who has died. The film’s fiction has fully merged with the core truth.

The film would debut in mid 1972 and ultimately to acclaim. Critics deemed it entertaining but a valid document to Edie Sedgwick’s charisma, beauty, style and tragedy. ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ still stands up. Or perhaps more accurately, it leans, stumbles, shakes and lurches as if drunk. It documents a unique moment in Pop Art Culture. Even more so it remains a record of a lost soul who held one of the keys that defined it.

All it takes is a walk down any busy shopping mall to spot Edie Sedgwick’s influence. Her name may not ring as loudly as Warhol’s, but her influence was essential to his early success. She got Andy Warhol even if he never managed to fully get her. Other movies, songs and books have been made all attempting to explain and capture these moments in time. But in its own rag-tag, confusing and toxic way, ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ captures the vibe of the early Warhol Factory days better than any other.


❉  In October 2002, Plexifilm released a special edition DVD of ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ with additional 35mm outtake footage, rare pictures and interviews with the cast and crew of the film.

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