Odd Girls In

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "I Shot Andy Warhol" put misfit chicks in the spotlight

Published May 20, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

movies believe in surfaces, and Hollywood in particular has always been
skeptical of the idea that anything interesting could ever happen to a
plain woman. Except, of course, for becoming pretty, which has been the
fate of cinematic wallflowers from "Now, Voyager" to "She-Devil." The
archetypal "take off your glasses, let down your hair -- why, you're
beautiful!" routine is so ingrained that even a scruffy, bloody-minded
independent feature like Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse"
surprises when it declines that path.

A slice of 11-year-old Dawn Weiner's utterly miserable pubescent life in
suburban New Jersey, "Dollhouse" distinguishes itself by its strenuous lack
of uplift. We've had plenty of movies and TV series depicting the agonies
of adolescence, but most of them embed a nugget of hope in the hero or
heroine's dismal condition: he manages to make one true friend, she
discovers she can talk to her mom after all, or that little side-talent for
writing/painting/drama promises a future more glowing than anyone realizes.

Dawn's fate remains unrelieved. Her parents patently prefer her cute,
ballet-dancing younger sister; her schoolmates taunt her without mercy; her
teacher hates her for toadying; the high school boy she worships is a
fatuous Jim Morrison wannabe; and even in her best outfit she's a
hopelessly cross-eyed and homely mouth-breather. She has no desire beyond
the dream of belonging to the very milieu that despises her. Last, but far
from least, she isn't above passing on the abuse to her only friend, the
nerdy little boy next door.

Writer/director Solondz (who clearly identifies with his heroine --
there's a decided physical resemblance) delivers his best work in the
scenes devoted to Dawn's stumbling romance with Brandon, a surly classmate
who torments her in public. This volatile cocktail of contempt and yearning
feels like the edgiest thing in the movie, the closest it gets to revealing
something significant about adult heterosexual relationships. Otherwise
"Dollhouse," however hilariously caustic, is a bit less daring than it at
first seems. Solondz's staunch commitment to depicting Dawn's humiliation
sans sentimentality is honorable, and his eye for everyday human
nastiness apt, but his intentions are rather cautious. It's a movie that's
much more about abstaining from cliches than it is about taking chances.

Not so "I Shot Andy Warhol," Mary Harron's biopic about Valerie Solanas, the
self-described butch dyke whose psyche took a permanent walk on the wild
side, prompting her to gun down and gravely wound the Pop Art pioneer in
1968. In the title role, Lili Taylor continues her campaign to become the
female Harvey Keitel, a consistently engaging character actor with a
penchant for droll, oddball parts. She's wildly fun to watch, and the
toughest thing "I Shot Andy Warhol" asks us to do is believe that Taylor's
Valerie, however gruff and unkempt, is anything less than wicked adorable.

If Dawn Weiner struggles to shrug off her misfit status, Valerie revels
in it, whiling away her college nights drafting diatribes on male
inferiority in the biology lab and playing footsie with appalled coeds.
Relocating to Manhattan, she ekes out a semi-indigent living
dispassionately turning tricks until she drifts into the Warhol Factory
scene. Her efforts to convince Warhol to produce her misanthropic,
scatological play ("This is too disgusting even for us," says one Factory
regular) degenerate into paranoia (she thinks he's trying to steal her
brainchild, S.C.U.M., Society for Cutting Up Men) and end in the attempted
assassination. Harron intercuts color sequences depicting Valerie's picaresque
adventures with black and white footage of Taylor reading "The S.C.U.M.
Manifesto," Solanas' infamous, raving quasi-feminist screed.

At the center of the movie lies a mystery, the potent and disastrous
affinity between Warhol and Solanas. Absolute opposites -- she's an
opinionated, megalomaniacal dynamo that nobody likes and he's the vacant,
passive center of a teeming subculture -- they're somehow made for each
other; they lend each other stature. Shooting him elevates her above garden-
variety lunacy and being shot by her gives him the vulnerability and pathos
he assiduously avoided otherwise. The movie doesn't -- can't, really --
quite bare the heart of their connection, but it sketches the outlying
terrain. "I Shot Andy Warhol" doesn't seem as complete, as realized, as
"Dollhouse," but the questions it leaves floating in its wake prove, in
the long run, meatier than Solondz's scrupulous realism.

Still, both films allow that ugly ducklings who never quite make it to
swanhood -- whether that's due to ineptitude (Dawn) or disinclination
(Valerie) -- may have a story worth telling nonetheless. If one heroine
winds up trapped on a bus to Disneyworld and the other lands in an insane asylum,
audiences are nevertheless catching a whiff of fresh air.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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