One evening in February of 1965, poet/playwright Ronald Tavel was invited by his friend Andy Warhol to a dinner party. The meal was at the Manhattan townhouse of Waldo Diaz-Balart, the former brother-in-law of Fidel Castro who was now living in exile. Tavel had previously visited Cuba before the U.S. travel ban, and witnessed Castro give a public speech in Havana.
This dinner party, along with a recent Life magazine article about the dictator in which he was denounced by his sister Juana, would inspire one of Warhol and Tavel’s most famous cinema experiments, The Life of Juanita Castro.
Easily the most famous and talked about underground New York filmmaker of the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s work was often denigrated by critics who hadn’t actually seen much or any of his prolific output. The Life of Juanita Castro was one of Warhol’s first sound film experiments after his silent, 485-minute epic Empire (1964), and he found an ideal collaborator in Tavel.
“Warhol needed stuff in bulk,” Ditzler explains. “And he needed someone who could write very fast. Tavel was that person. He was writing plays and poetry and working on a novel, and he was hooked into the underground scene. So Tavel starts writing scripts for him and he can understand Warhol’s abstract instructions. And he can deal with the fact that Warhol will throw curveballs to him and everybody else — before and during the filming.”
Juanita Castro was one of several Warhol-Tavel films — including Horse and Vinyl (a very loose interpretation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange) — that were created during a frenzy of creative activity between the two artists in 1965 before ending abruptly in 1966.
Originally Mario Montez, a drag performer with a diva complex and one of Warhol’s superstars, was asked to play Juanita Castro but refused saying, “I don’t do things with politics or religion.” The role was finally filled by avant-garde filmmaker Marie Menken, who was coerced (with promises of free booze) into accepting the part.
Menken was known to be a rather tempestuous personality. In fact, Menken and her husband Willard Maas were said to have been the real life wife-husband models for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by their friend, Edward Albee.
The Life of Juanita Castro is not a faux biopic, but a theater piece that Tavel whipped up in three hours and filmed as a rather unorthodox play rehearsal. Despite a static camera setup in which the actors are seated in rows on a stage staring at some fixed point off-screen as Tavel (the director) prods and bullies them to deliver their lines, Juanita Castro is a compelling exploration of the medium that generates both drama and hilarity.
“This work is not so much an example of making the most of one’s limitations, as making an asset of one’s liabilities,” Tavel once explained. The film’s low-budget aesthetic enhances the voyeuristic nature of the piece, the “sense of watching people watching.”
One reason Ditzler finds the film so unique is because the artists were commenting on Castro’s persona “at a time when the Cuban Revolution was a real engine for the counterculture worldwide. It was the most successful example of revolution in the West. At the same time it was the most photogenic revolution imaginable. There was such mystique and they [the revolutionaries] used the press and photographers so masterfully. So Warhol and Tavel were aware of that, and to tweak it and make fun of it was really subversive.”
The fact that Castro’s ex-brother-in-law was among the cast members was strange enough, but other unconventional narrative devices come into play, such as casting women in the roles of Fidel and Che Guevara, the bizarre mash-up of Spanish and English, and a playful employment of clichés and stereotypes.
Another point of fascination, Ditzler observes, is the simple expedient of having everyone on stage, Thornton Wilder-Our Town style, sitting in chairs, facing a fixed point and having it be a filmed play. “It makes the audience perk up [because] they’re being watched in some weird way,” he says. “And the other thing is it causes on-screen tension because we know that Menken was quite volatile. So when you start mucking with film conventions in a political context, things can get pretty interesting.”
After filming The Life of Juanita Castro, Tavel adapted it for the stage for the newly formed Play-House of the Ridiculous but the film version remains one of the best received efforts of the Warhol-Tavel collaboration.
Even Andrew Sarris, who was not usually positive or supportive about Warhol films, praised the film in The Village Voice. “The whole thing is outrageous but it never falters in its inept insistence on making a comment on a revolution that has long since been consigned to camp,” Sarris wrote. “The whole show was given away when word got out that Fidel Castro wanted to be played on the screen by Marlon Brando and Raoul by Frank Sinatra. From that point on, Cuba became the property of Andy Warhol and Ronnie Tavel, and they have made the only valid statement I have seen on the subject in the past several years.”