Friday, December 31, 2021

The Sexual Revolution Is Joe Dallesandro

 

"A wonderful actor who forever changed male sexuality in cinema." 

 John Waters

  

   The man doesn't lie. Mr Waters is merely stating what's factual and obvious. And in the half-century that's ensued, the males who've stripped full-frontal naked in the sex symbol's modern breeding ground have, to a man, failed to emulate the male sex symbol that Joe Dallesandro was, an is. The camera probably reads subliminal full-frontal shame for what it is: for all the filmed frou-frou and prosthetic dicks there's been remarkably little male sexuality to see and experience when the movie house lights go dim. And Western civilization has form when it comes to purposing male nudity for political and ideological ends, via all forms of artistic expression. 

 

This Male Sex Symbol Thing

   He's had a checkered history. From the amulets of antiquity with huge erections to whatever any society purposes him for...be it breeding superiority, war, rape or psychological war on other males. That's a created sex symbol, and be it baked clay or the polished plastic of Chippendale's burlesque, it's existence is medium-dependent. Somebody, somewhere always seeks to manipulate the public imagination via medium messaging, and cinema may very well be the worst offender inasmuch as it thinks a "stud" is a male sex symbol. Despite that turd of an idea flying in the face of the facts, it's a turd which Hollywood especially, on behalf of heterosexuality, won't stop polishing.

Valentino vs Puritanism,1921
And then there's the male sex symbol which just happens, and he's sensational. Valentino towers over the rest because he's a collection of ideas and qualities which found form as filmed mass entertainment. He's bigger than his pictures because his sex appeal is experienced at head-meets-groin level by men and women, en masse.

 That's problematic for a society which opposes men finding other men sexually attractive, symbolically or otherwise. Problematically also is the fact that the male sex symbol in cinema had never been what's expected of a female sex symbol: an alluring easy-going piece of non-aggresive pulchritude for gratifying exploitation in the mind of his consumer, or customer.

And it's into that void that Joe Dallesandro strode as a one-man sexual revolution: naked as a jaybird, and looking just as good from the front as the rear.



Evolution: Where Does A Sex Symbol Come From?

   Dallesandro himself offers a tantalizing clue: "I guess I was looking for some kind of father figure". It's quite revelatory inasmuch as it refers to his teenage location as a runaway in California, notably documented by homoerotic images, across quite a few years. His biographer Michael Ferguson doesn't dwell on the demi monde details of this time but Dallesandro clarifies that something transformative happened for him when being exposed to gay men, as his desirability came with their acceptance of who he was. While Lou Reed states that "Little Joe never once gave it away...everybody had to pay and pay", we can never be certain that the transactions men make amongst themselves are as shallow or as deep as we imagine. Or, as Oliver Stone once said about his sexuality: "Do you want to know about every sailor and every port?"

The homosexual male gaze can't legitimately be presumed as offensive or damaging to a young man. For many it's expected, welcomed or met with hostility in varying degrees - especially if he's good-looking. (see note 1) For Joe Dallesandro it was a healthy affirmation of his bisexual manhood and it didn't arouse residual homophobia. A homecoming of sorts, it was the end of a road plagued by acting out, and a road once seemingly headed to a lesser life of crime and violence. Lacking in stability and social stature and standing at a belligerent 5'6", Joe wasn't the kind of guy you'd put money on to win at The American Dream, circa 1964. In fact, his working-class response was to look back at it: his action plan involved building a 1950's body around his 1940's sensibility tattoo which had proclaimed "Little Joe" from age 15. 

Too young to have developed the hard mass musculature of the many other Italian American bodybuilder guys who peopled California's "modeling" world, the camera disclosed something else quite remarkable: another male with the harmonious proportions of antiquity's statuary. As photographed by greats like Bob Mizer and Bruce of Los Angeles, Joe Dallesandro usually went by his own name when many didn't. Only time would tell whether he was a young naif or a man with enough agency to gladly let others write their own stories on the image of his body. While he's often quoted as retrospectively not being comfortable with being filmed nude he's rarely given his last word: self-approving braggadocio it seems went a long way to ameliorating discomfort. 


A Hustle Here And A Hustle There...

 

  

   By 1967, the "there" was back in New York City, and at nineteen Joe Dallesandro had three Underground films under his belt. (see Note 2). He'd abandoned his father-identified image and now presented as youngish and contemporary, with a body less cut and looking more fashionably natural. The greasy pompadour of his feigned adulthood was gone. While Dallesandro is undeniably the greatest of Andy Warhol's underground Superstars because of his artistic output, cultural influence and commercial value, we're reminded that he was of the Counterculture as well, and that he was most importantly of the Sexual Revolution and squarely in the Queer category.

With Lonesome Cowboys, director Warhol was canny enough and underground enough to homosexualize that bastion of red-blooded male propaganda - the Western. And he really homosexualized it in not exhibiting cowboy pansies for laughs or pity in the cheap seats - he threw Gay Lib a bone of no small significance while rattling the floorboards of American mythology. Lonesome Cowboys riffs on themes of family and brotherhood as community, whereas the mainstream would be served up freak shows and self-loathing epics like The Boys In The Band as sorta-documentary entertainments for a very long time. 

 

The shy one gets to strut his tight pants stuff...as he feels it


As one of the five homo cowboys, Little Joe managed to defy the Warhol Superstar imperative and convey a sense of interior self. Rumor at the time had it that Warhol was none to happy with the fact that Dallesandro was a talented screen presence, as is demonstrated in the convoluted spoof. Originally sixth-billed and with just a few scenes, Joe Dallesandro is more recently sold as the leading man. Whatever dislike Andy Warhol had for Joe didn't get in the way of making a buck off his back and it didn't matter anyhow: Warhol got shot, Paul Morrissey took over directing Warhol's movies and Morrissey loved Joe Dallesandro.

  

Joe joins the 60s...near the end of the 60's


   Flesh has its apparent genesis in  Midnight Cowboy's Joe Buck: the Warhol Superstars filmed cameos for that movie and Warhol got the jump on its most sensational aspect by getting Little Joe The Hustler into theaters well before his inspiration hit screens. But is he entirely informed by Mr. Buck? Joe Dallesandro probably should at least share writer's credit for Flesh - the lines he delivers with knowledge and conviction didn't jump off any page written by somebody else. 

Where Buck ends and Little Joe begins is of great consequence, since Joe Buck is a homophobe and Little Joe isn't. By the ripe old age of twenty Dallesandro plus alter-ego personified the hustler as male sex symbol, and it transpired to be not the niche and cheap personage which sexual repression still seeks to dismiss. For gender parity we need to look no further than an all-of-seventeen Alex Chilton fronting the Box Tops and urging "sweet cream ladies" to forward march, for all the right reasons. With genuine goodwill shared around, Little Joe may as well forward march as a sweet cream gent. 

 

Aspects of a well-rounded sex symbol

   The sweet cream of Joe Dallesandro isn't the topping on the bittersweet honesty that is 1968's Flesh - it's fundamental to its constitution and values. As an assembly of intelligent ideas fleshed out by Dallesandro's adroit performance, it significantly improves when set against its dirty and dishonest Hollywood nemesis: 1980's American Gigolo. The former challenges all men to look at the value of their body, as it challenges all men to look at the true value of heterosexuality, gendered roles and marriage as well. 

With male prostitution as the common motif, the latter merely seeks to wallpaper over presumed immorality, in the name of morality rammed home via "high class" hooking. While Flesh dwells on Dallesandro's body beyond prurient interests like those aroused by art and pornography, American Gigolo seeks to make a male sex symbol of Richard Gere via Armani-wear and an affirmation of heterosexuality...dubious scents of Italy having again wafted in to L.A. from 1961's dubious The Roman Spring Of Mrs. Stone. The amusing upshot of it all may very well be that Gere as an undressed store dummy has no sexuality whatsoever, and that's exactly what's being symbolized.

 

The hustle..."You gonna be home for a while David?"

If one's "basically straight" like Joe, then turning male tricks to make a living requires some earthy aptitude for the job...like being a man who enjoys sex. And if one's basically honest and not carrying a lot of homophobic baggage and contempt for other men, then his sexual identity becomes naturally more fluid and rewarding by virtue of familiarity and connection with what he's doing. What's revolutionary to one may just be common sense to another. And it's a step backwards to carve up Little Joe The Hustler into two conflicting identities, as Gus van Sant did with 1991's My Own Private Idaho - as worthwhile as that movie is.

 

Substance rebirthed as fetish (see Note 3)
   As in "real life", love's lines, angles and rhymes often intrude when men's sexual transactions are financial. A john usually concludes with "I like you and I'd like to see you again" and rarely follows through. Hustlers often develop affection for men who do, and the moral dilemma of Flesh becomes crystal clear when David invites Joe to move in with him. Joe declines, but not for the reason of independence which another hustler might crave...Joe just says it wouldn't be right to abandon his marriage. 

No such thoughts are shared by his wife however, and on arriving home he finds out exactly how little weight his loyalty, his manhood and his heterosexuality carry around the place. Flesh is sometimes dismissed as "probably of more interest to the homosexual", but that probably says more about the sexual shortcomings of those who'd say it. If a kid answers "Little Joe The Hustler" when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he's probably more grown up than he's being given credit for.


Suppose They Had A Revolution And Nobody Could Get It Up?

 

 What's built up can be torn down, and iconoclasts will do their civic duty. Paul Morrissey, on behalf of Andy Warhol, decided his civic duty was to cinematically expand on his belief that junkies were human garbage...life's real trash. Whatever room they were reading it was a highly moralizing one, and not one remotely sympathetic to the Summer of Love. 

The opening shot of Little Joe's blotchy ass getting head isn't pornography unless a flaccid dick gets you going. Fellatio fails, as does some exhibitionism from the lady. The theme of Trash runs to little more than Joe not being able to get it up because he shoots heroin. It's not for a lack of ladies (trans, or otherwise) who only want a hard dick from him either: Joe's degradation as both man and sex symbol is repeated across the assembly of longish vignettes which comprise the movie.

Little is required of the viewer apart from having the ability to look down their nose at a sub-species of reviled humanity, while acquiring "insights" about dirty hippies. Joe Dallesandro's acting performance - improvising on ideas thrown to him - is as inspired as it gets. His deadpan spoilage is real, from dirty fingernails to filthy feet. His ritual cleansing (for a MMF three-way) is but a precursor to an overdose. Shot from above, his Christ-like helpless nakedness presages no redemption but instead disposal as garbage who won't get it up any time soon. 

Filmed over a few weekends, Trash has made gazillions and delights critics and audiences to this day, who insist it's a "black comedy".

 

Taking out the trash

 




Renamed Hollywood for Germany

   TIME called it "a faggot rehash of Sunset Boulevard", and few of the millions who've found joy in the seedy camp of Heat would passionately disagree. Norma Desmond was ripe for the picking since a desperate old drag queen sensibility permeates the original. Joe Dallesandro as Joe Davis subbing for Joe Gillis was a no-brainer: eye-popping buff, and with no visible means of support other than what he packs into a brief swimsuit there's little chance of him being mistaken for a struggling screenwriter.

Dallesandro's West Coast take on being a male sex symbol is one-part not initiating sex, and one-part delivering semi-satisfaction if opportunity presents itself...that is, leave 'em wanting more if they probably will. Again the dialog is improvised, and despite a battery of extreme close-ups which would betray insincerity in the best of trained actors, Joe's cards stay played mighty close to his chest. 

 A passive and essentially decorative man-boy apparently at the mercy of all manner of perversion plus sexual hysterics presented as female is a good jumping-off point for a campish Sunset Boulevard. But Heat is pure pharmacy-grade camp, and if one's familiar with a pool, a staircase and the spirit of Norma Desmond then Joey-three-times as male sex symbol is ready for his closeup. 


The alternative Joe Gillis: arriving from the pool and departing for the pool...with the clothes


Joe Dallesandro Is The Sexual Revolution

  Dallesandro's films with Warhol and Morrissey weren't the beginning and end of his career or his life, or indeed his contributions to revolutionary approaches to sex. (See note 4) He's had a long life as a working actor, and as an unusual man who's had a good life by his own account. It just so happened that a not-too-ordinary Joe being himself found himself as an extraordinary male embodiment of The Sexual Revolution, when few other males were able to connect with it or trust themselves with sex. Maybe all it takes is just keeping it simple and not defining it by an actor's pretentious self-absorption. Joe claims he "just showed up", but any East Coast boy knows that old one which goes "Eighty-percent of doing a good job is just showing up".

 

Kenn Duncan portrait 1968 (New York Public Library)


   The "when" of it all is critical: Joe's Warhol films arc from pre-Stonewall to a downturn of gay activism. For homos it was a counterculture men's movement opposing homophobia, and when the socialist left wanted nothing to do with Gay Lib, the movement wisely allied with feminists since it was always all about sex anyhow. The "when" can't be history's prisoner when the times still haven't caught up with Dallesandro - regardless of latter-day fashion editorial efforts.

While gay and bisexual men may have veered far from what the Sexual Revolution still embodies (and still falls short of achieving), Little Joe Dallesandro stands as a potent reminder that liberated men can happily swing whatever way they like and be unstudied cool while they're doing it. And he documented it all before the age of twenty-three - hardly a sexless artifact of Pop Art created by Andy Goddam Warhol.

Grainy old film of an adventurously non-threatening fine piece of ass who showed up and couldn't be bothered being homophobic? Yep, but isn't that enough to make a man a revolutionary and enduring sex symbol?

 

Notes:

1. "Hostility" is a relatively modern homophobic reaction which defies long-standing social norms i.e. society advantages good-looking young males, albeit in scattershot ways. Depending on his audacity and circumstances, an attractive male in his youth may be the first to intuit that homophobia is a superfluous luxury he can't afford, for both personal and professional reasons.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

2. The gay / trans-ploitation 'The Loves of Ondine' features 23 mins of dropped-in footage of Dallesandro wrestling Ondine in his underwear. He also appeared in the barely-released 'San Diego Surf ' - intended as a sequel to 'Lonesome Cowboys'.


3. In April 1971 'Rolling Stone' featured Dallesandro and son as its first non-musician cover boy. Superficially Contercultural, the lifestyle rag  for straight white boys was heavily influenced by the business of selling them straight white rock-and-roll. 

For three decades the industry cherry-picked homoerotic aspects of the Little Joe image and repurposed them for commercial gain and edgy but non-gay cred. The closest rock ever got was The Ramones' 1976  punk aka anti-rock celebration of turning male tricks, with "53rd & 3rd" being the New York spot where Joe wore down his shoe leather in 'Flesh'.

4. Banned and buried (and highly misrepresented) for decades, Serge Gainsbourg's wickedly subversive masterpiece 'Je t'aime moi non plus' (1976) hasn't been bettered in terms of outrages served while dispensing rough justice to the heart and soul of homophobia. Joe Dallesandro's Kras is one of those all-too-rare men in film - the inverted antihero, of the most superbly represented kind.

 

Thanks to:


  • Michael Ferguson's terrific biography - preview  HERE

 

 




2 comments:

  1. As a fan of Joe Dallesnadro who has never quite been able to put into words just what it is about him and his persona that felt so revolutionary on the sex symbol scale, I marvel at what a beautiful job you've done. Placing him in contexts both hetero & Queer, you clarified for me the fallacy of the "Stud" concept of the male sex symbol (Love the descriptive "the polished plastic of Chippendale's burlesque") and why Joe's pansexual passivity defined the real deal for me. Really liked this essay a lot. Along with your piece on Visconti's Ossessione, I think it's one of your best. Thanks!

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  2. Many many thanks Ken!

    On a whim I watched those movies recently - for the first time since seeing them as a kid. And Dallesandro just jumped out and demanded a disciplined constructionist examination...which nobody seems to have done thus far. I'd certainly argue that a sex symbol isn't a sex symbol if his appeal doesn't transcend the predictable and pedestrian...many aspire to it but can't do it.

    What amazes me about Joe is that he did while so very young, and that his appeal is still fresh and original and relevant to revolutionary yet ethical approaches re how sexuality is best experienced. For my part at least, rediscovering him was as much a delight as writing about him.

    Again, thanks for the kind and encouraging words!

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