Mario Montez (1935-2013)

Flaming Creatures Directed by Jack Smith 1962-63
Chumlum Directed by Ron Rice (1964)

Mario Montez, a Warhol Glamour Avatar, Dies at 78
New York Times
October 4, 2013

Mario Montez, whose glamour and poise as a drag performer elevated him to the heights of avant-garde theater and cinema in the 1960s and made him a fixture in films by Andy Warhol, died on Sept. 26 in Key West, Fla.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said Claire K. Henry, senior curatorial assistant of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was 78.

Mr. Montez has been the subject of seminars and screenings at Columbia University, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

The filmmaker John Waters, who has drawn heavily from the cinematic experimentation of the 1960s, once said that Mr. Montez “forever holds the highest position of royalty in the world of underground cinema.”

In 2012, the Berlin International Film Festival presented him with a lifetime achievement award in “queer film,” calling him “the great drag superstar.”

“Whether he is playing The Wife, The Mother, The Whore or The Virgin, Montez captures the ineffable essence of femininity,” Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, wrote in the book “Ridiculous Theater: Scourge of Human Folly.” Mr. Montez, he wrote, “has dignity.”

Mr. Montez was a regular with the Ridiculous troupe, which strove to shock with surreal settings, cross-gender casting and wild improvisation. Mr. Montez managed to stand out, even in this exuberant theatrical world. Sometimes the troupe rehearsed in Mr. Montez’s SoHo loft.

“I never thought I would see a show in which Montez is the best actor — but here it is,” Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times in 1971 in his review of “Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned c. 1971.” He added, “He is, at least, the most convincing woman on stage.”

Mr. Montez was considered Warhol’s first drag “superstar.” In a famous scene in “Harlot” (1965), Warhol’s first film with sound, Mr. Montez slowly, silently and seductively devoured banana after banana. In another Warhol role, playing Hedy Lamarr, the MGM “golden age” starlet celebrated for her darkly exotic beauty, he would burst into songs like “I Feel Pretty.”

Still another performance was in Warhol’s “Screen Test #2” (1965) in which a director played by Ronald Tavel, a proud absurdist, gives the Montez character humiliating instructions, to recite the word “diarrhea” 20 times, for example, and to play a chicken-eating freak in a circus sideshow. With only slight hesitation, Mr. Montez does it all in the hope of being a star.

Mr. Montez also appeared in Warhol’s “Camp” (1965); “More Milk, Yvette” (1965); and “The Chelsea Girls” (1966).

In his book “Popism: The Warhol Sixties,” written with Pat Hackett and published in 1980, Warhol said: “Mario had that classic comedy combination of seeming dumb but being able to say the right things with perfect timing; just when you thought you were laughing at him, he’d turn it all around.”

Mr. Montez was sought out by other avant-garde directors as well, including Avery Willard and Jack Smith.

Mr. Montez was discovered by Mr. Smith — the circumstances are unclear — who had decided that a transvestite could best fulfill his dream of finding a “new” Maria Montez, according to “Ridiculous: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam,” a 2005 biography by David Kaufman.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Montez found they shared a devotion to Hollywood glitz. Mr. Smith adored in particular the actress Maria Montez, who played the temptress in films like “Cobra Woman ” (1944) and was known as the “Queen of Technicolor.” Indeed, it was Mr. Smith who persuaded Mr. Montez to change his name from Rene Rivera in honor of the actress.

Mr. Montez soon appeared in Mr. Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” (1963), a thrashing orgy of a movie that was widely banned, playing a seemingly female Spanish dancer with a rose between his teeth. That year, he also acted in Mr. Smith’s unfinished “Normal Love” as a mermaid paying homage to Maria Montez at a candlelit shrine.

Rene Rivera was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on July 20, 1935. When he was 8 or 9 his family moved to New York and settled in East Harlem. He said he learned about acting by watching movies on television.

Mr. Montez said that during film production he often designed and made costumes for himself and other cast members, typically refashioning clothing he found in trash piles and at thrift shops. When not acting he supported himself with office jobs.

Mr. Montez was uncomfortable with his family knowing that he performed in drag, which he called “going into costume.” He otherwise dressed conventionally. He was also a churchgoing Roman Catholic.

Warhol wrote, “The only spiritual comfort he allowed himself was the logic that even though God surely didn’t like him for going into drag, that still, if he really hated him, he would have struck him dead.”

In January 1977, while recovering from a bad cold, Mr. Montez moved to Florida, then largely lost touch with his old artistic crowd. He resurfaced in 2006, appearing in a documentary, “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” by Mary Jordan. Soon he was making public appearances in New York and European cities.

Mr. Montez is survived by his partner, David Kratzner.

In later years Conrad Ventur, a filmmaker, went on to work with Mr. Montez in recreating performances from some of his Warhol movies.

“What Mario teaches is that you can build a creative life on a nothing budget from what inspires you,” Mr. Ventur wrote in an e-mail. “You can build a persona from what the larger culture has discarded, misrepresented or ignored.”

Mario Montez in Jack Smith's audio works in UbuWeb Sound