Chelsea Girls 1966
The Chelsea Girls is an experimental underground film that became a major force in commercial cinema. Warhol provides an insight into the life of vice and delights led by socialites, models and artists living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York during the sixties.
Shot over the course of 4 months with a loosely scripted but mostly improvised storyline Warhol filmed footage in various rooms throughout the hotel. The entire was estimated to have cost just $1500 – $3000 and during the first 19 weeks of screening in New York alone, The Chelsea Girls made $130000.
The movie was shown in split screen and it is suggested that this was because Warhol had originally shot 7.5 hours of footage. By splitting the film into two separate film reels that are shown using two separate projectors Warhol could use all his footage. The revelation in filming techniques also gave the audience a sense of the nonstop action taking place in different rooms of the hotel.
Controversy already surrounded Andy Warhol. He was renowned as a man who brought commercialism into focus by mixing art, advertising and celebrity together. It’s little wonder that a certain amount of hullabaloo surrounded the release of any Warhol movie let alone a film that was depicting the lifestyle of the rich and famous in a prominent New York City hotel.
When The Chelsea Girls was aired in Boston June 1967 the cinema was raided by the vice squad and the manager was found guilty and charged with four counts of obscenity. For each count, he was fined $500 and the movie was subsequently banned in Boston cinemas, which Warhol relished. Back then a banned screening was a publicist’s dream.
Warhol and his entourage were invited to Cannes where The Chelsea Girls was due to be shown to attendees of the 20th Cannes Film Festival. Technicians first struggled to understand the split screen projection and after technical difficulties were overcome the festival organisers still had reservations about a brief male nudity scene in the movie. In the end, The Chelsea Girls was never shown at Cannes becoming the first ever invited film not to be shown.
It wasn’t just the delicate subject matter that gave The Chelsea Girls its fame but the outrage of some of the cast members mothers as well. Mary Wornov’s mother sued Warhol for showing the film without signed release from her daughter, although the matter was settled out of court. Another shocked parent was Honey Berlin the high-profile socialite mother of Brigid Berlin who was said to be horrified after watching her daughters antics in The Chelsea Girls.
Screened across the world
The Chelsea Girls became known as the talk of the underground and was screened in New York cinemas for two years.
In between visiting Cannes and returning to the US the Warhol gang stopped off in London. As they had carted the print of The Chelsea Girls all the way to Cannes without it being shown they decided to screen the movie in a London flat of an art dealer.
This private screening was rumoured to have an audience of around 50 guests, most of whom were known acquaintances of Andy Warhol. The movie was played on two projectors, one of which was borrowed from Paul McCartney.
The official first premier of The Chelsea Girls didn’t take place until 1968 and even then, it was a heavily edited truncated version of the movie shown on one screen. It wasn’t until later that same year that the London Arts Club showed the full “uncut” version.
A cinema in Berlin that screened The Chelsea Girls for just 3 nights was fully sold out for all three showings.
The profile of The Chelsea Girls had travelled across oceans, due to the controversy of the subject matter and the storm that anything by Andy Warhol caused upon the artistic world.
The Chelsea Girls came out to mixed critic reviews in New York. Some saw the film and its content as ground-breaking genius whilst others only saw a display of vulgarity and vice.
On occasion The Chelsea Girls was even referred to as boring with one critic, William Rotsler, writing the following;
“In one film alone – The Chelsea Girls – he [Andy Warhol] has sadism, masochism, whipping, transvestites, prostitutes, a homosexual Pope, boredom, stunningly beautiful girls, depravity, humour, ‘psychedelics,’ boredom, truth, honesty, liars, poseurs, colour, black and white, split screens, boredom, and it’s four hours long!”
Some, however, find the scenes of boredom to be the message hidden in The Chelsea Girls with Warhol trying to show that even superstars, when not acting like superstars are just human.
Warhol was relentless when it came to producing his art. His intention to focus on societies fascination with materialism and celebrity was always at the forefront of his creations. With The Chelsea Girls Warhol utilised societies interest in the lives of the rich and famous by making a movie of just that. He gave the public what they wanted and more.
As with any Warhol work, The Chelsea Girls was decades before it’s time. Today reality TV has taken the world by storm and in a sense, Warhol produced the first reality TV movie.