One of the 10 most beautiful men Scavullo said he ever photographed. The "Little Joe" of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." The Valentino of the Underground. The crotch on the Sticky Fingers album cover. The only guy at the party willing to return a punch from Norman Mailer. The actor whose performance made George Cukor understand what it meant to be a drug addict. The beauty wily enough to catch a fainting Tennessee Williams and then get out of the hotel bedroom while the going was good.
The naked guy in those Andy Warhol movies.
Okay, so they weren't really Andy Warhol movies. They were Paul Morrissey movies. Andy had all but stopped shooting films after he was himself shot by a crazed feminist in June of 1968. So, the naked guy in those Paul Morrissey movies, the gorgeous young man whose body spoke volumes; spoke so loudly, in fact, that lots of folks didn't realize the kid could act until they watched the films a second or third time.
These are distinctions that don't necessarily make Joe Dallesandro proud. Nor do they cause him to hide his head in shame. At 18, he was an unlikely pioneer, the first film actor to be overtly worshipped as a nude sex symbol. As to the young man himself, he couldn't have cared less. He was just doing his job. Clothed or unclothed didn't seem to bother him. Besides, who the hell would see these movies anyway?
Joe Dallesandro was born in Pensacola, FL in 1948 to teenaged parents, a father who was stationed at the Naval base and a mother who would serve time for grand larceny when Joe was just five. By then, his dad didn’t think he could handle raising Joe and Joe’s little brother Robert on his own. Both of the boys were placed into an adoption facility in New York and then brought up in a series of foster homes. Joe was a troublemaker at school, his difficulties compounded by his short stature and even shorter temper. It also didn’t help that one of the families ran their home like Fagin’s in Oliver Twist, entreating the kids in their care to ransack neighborhood buildings.
A frequent runaway, largely to get his absent father’s attention, Joe found his allegiances and surrogate family among gangs of his peers on the streets. His father eventually planted both Joe and his brother at their grandparents’ house in Queens, but even there, outside their purview, he enjoyed a life of petty thieving and vandalism, then moved on to stealing cars for kicks.
Fairly good at his trade, he had the misfortune to be driving a stolen vehicle while approaching the Holland Tunnel and decided to crash the tollgate. A police chase ensued, resulting in the 15-year old getting a slug in the right leg, just above the kneecap. Sentenced to Camp Cass, a juvenile rehabilitation facility in the Catskills, he earned fifty cents a day cutting down trees. It was here that a ritual among disenfranchised boys begat his famous “Little Joe” tattoo, a trademark looked for by fans in all of his films, and assured longevity by Joe’s persistence in going over the lines again and again and again with his little needle dipped in India ink.
He escaped from Camp Cass after three months and hitchhiked with a friend across country, first down to Juarez, Mexico, where they lived for a spell in a cave, then back up to Los Angeles, where Joe was to find himself the object of particular attention…from other men. He was offered money to pose nude for a little magazine called Physique Pictorial, ostensibly a physical culture and bodybuilding publication, but surely intended for consumption by a gay clientele and run by Bob Mizer, who photographed thousands of young men in tiny posing straps or in the altogether at his compound in LA from 1945-1993. Joe was to become one of Mizer’s most famous models after the fact.
As a teen, Joe realized that he could use his good looks to his advantage, though he maintains he never saw himself as particularly attractive, only allowed others to see him as they wanted to see him. He did nude photos for several photographers in the mid-sixties, but was back in New York, unhappily married, and all of 18 when he literally walked into his completely unanticipated career. While visiting a friend in the Village, he heard that the “Campbell’s Soup” guy was making a movie in one of the apartments and so he and the fellas went to watch.
The door was open. The boys poked their heads in and the camera was running…and pointed in their direction. Joe Dallesandro’s first entrance was quite literally that. Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey were shooting footage for one of their marathon films and weren’t having much luck getting anything they liked. It was Morrissey who then suggested that Joe, the most picturesque of the bunch, step into the scene. Warhol agreed. Joe was approached and decided to get involved. “It looked like a home movie,” he recalled. Already aware that men liked to photograph him, he was perfectly willing to have a go, even when they asked him to strip down to his underwear and wrestle the male lead.
A year later, his footage was included in the 86-minute extract now titled Loves of Ondine (1968), and there was Joe Dallesandro in his jockey shorts smack dab in the middle of the film’s ad in The Village Voice. His 23-minute improvised scene prompted Variety to note: “This Joe Dallesandro is good-looking enough and natural acting enough to have a showbiz career beyond Warhol.”
Beyond Warhol at the time meant Paul Morrissey, because it was Morrissey who tapped into the qualities of this young street kid and became his mentor. Joe wasn’t a talker by nature. Andy liked talkers. Though Joe would play key roles in both Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1969), which was investigated by the FBI for rumors of an on-screen rape and obscenity, and San Diego Surf (1968), the only Warhol feature never released, it’s unlikely he would have come to fruition had it not been for Morrissey’s keen eye for faces.
Three films, Morrissey’s critically-acclaimed Trilogy, managed to bring the underground to the cultural surface. Flesh (1968) tells the story of a day in the life of a male hustler. (Midnight Cowboy was in production and Warhol and Morrissey beat it to the punch.) The flesh of the title belongs to Joe and we’ll see plenty of it before this day is out. It’s somehow appropriate that the first extensive full-frontal nudity by a male in the movies should come from a man whose beauty is objectified and desired by all who see it. It’s also instructive that it can be yours for a price. For both female and gay audiences, the first gorgeous naked man they could lay eyes on at the cinema was also a liberating icon. With Joe there was a slight androgyny, but a distinct ambiguity about his sexuality.
He’s more than just a body, though. If that were his only appeal, his legacy would be a footnote. Dallesandro was an innately charismatic and sincere presence on screen. Audiences could project their fantasies onto him. They not only wanted him physically, they wanted to take care of him. Fans wrote letters offering to help him out, naturally assuming that the young man named Joe who played young men named Joe in all his movies—movies that were improvised, no less—had to really be the person they saw up there on the screen.
Trash (1970) was next, hailed by Rolling Stone as “a masterpiece” and “the best film of the year,” telling the tragicomic story of heroin junkie Joe living in squalor with his girlfriend (transvestite Holly Woodlawn) on the Lower East Side. Heat (1972) is Morrissey’s take on Sunset Boulevard, with Joe playing a callous ex-child star with a ponytail down to his butt who’s willing to sleep with anyone, including a faded B-actress played by Sylvia Miles and her lesbian daughter, to revive his career in tawdry Tinsel Town.
Between films, Dallesandro was also juggling his time as a husband and father, working at the Factory doing any number of jobs: answering phones, checking in and out film prints, acting as projectionist, handling security, and running the elevator. The Trilogy took the abandoned boy from Queens off his crash course toward likely incarceration and set him on a celebrated tour through Europe where the films were hailed as great social comedies and Dallesandro was treated like a star.
Joe followed The Trilogy with the Morrissey-directed Italian monster movies Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula (perhaps better known as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Dracula), both X-rated gorefests rife with absurd humor and Joe’s deliberately anachronistic New Yawk accent.
Tired of the Warhol scene, and frustrated by the perception of their ownership of him, Joe stayed on in Europe where he had offers to make movies and somehow hoped that those productions would do for him what European films had done for the careers of Eastwood and Bronson.
He would make 18 feature films while in Europe throughout the rest of the 1970s. His baptism into a movie world without Warhol was having a woman squat and pee on his face in the sex-farce Donna e bello (1974). He played a sexy young man on his way up the crime ladder in L’Ambizioso (The Climber; 1975), a mute who has fathered a gaggle of children with his sister (Alexandra Stewart) in Louis Malle’s bizarre dreamscape Black Moon (1975), a family man from the country who’s corrupted by Parisian prostitute Sylvia Kristel in La Marge (The Streetwalker; 1976), a New Yorker looking for his kidnapped girlfriend and running from knights on horseback in Jacques Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round (1978/1983), a dead bisexual husband whose wife drinks a vial of his sperm and has a baby boy by him in Queen Lear (1978), and a selfish American actor in Catherine Breillat’s Tapage nocturne (1979).
The best of his European films, and his personal favorite of all his work, is Je t’aime moi non plus (1975), Serge Gainsbourg’s sexually provocative riff on his famed international hit song. Joe plays a gay garbage truck driver who falls in lust with a flat-chested café waitress, played by the beautiful Jane Birkin (Gainsbourg’s wife), because she looks like a boy from behind. The only way he can consummate their relationship is by entering the backdoor, but every time he attempts to do so her screams of pain bring unwelcome intervention. Je t’aime is a cult classic waiting to be discovered.
Joe Dallesandro is a cult classic waiting to be re-discovered, an enigmatic figure who not only survived his turbulent “Wonder Bread years,” but endured requisite battles with drug addiction and alcohol, multiple marriages and love affairs, and the devastating suicide of his younger brother. He has worked only sporadically in films since his return to the states in 1980, most notably as Lucky Luciano in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), but also, among others, as a gangster in Sunset (1988), a religious zealot in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990), a psychotic paratrooper in Private War (1990), a trailer scuzz lusting after Drew Barrymore in Guncrazy (1992), a sleazy photographer in Mika Kaurismaki’s L.A. Without A Map (1998), and a brain-damaged hit man in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999).
In 2009 he was the recipient of the Berlin International Film Festival's Teddy Award in recognition of his contribution to gay cinema and GLBT culture.Ambivalent about his fame as a Warhol Superstar, he cannot escape the power of his allure in those films, nor the power his image has wielded over each succeeding generation to discover him during the last 40 years. As the first openly eroticized male sex symbol of the movies to walk naked across the screen, he not only transcended the convention of being an actor, but he spoke to our fantasies and liberated the male nude as an object of beauty in the cinema. He likes to tell interviewers that all he ever had to do in a Warhol/Morrissey film was show up. He’s right. He’s a natural.
©2005; 2012, Michael Ferguson | firstname.lastname@example.org