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The Teddy -- The Tribute Text:

From the 23.Teddy Award Programme Guide

    I was honored to be asked to write an essay on Joe for the Teddy Award Programme Guide. Tailored towards his significance to gay cinema and culture, the piece is reproduced in full over the next three pages. --Michael Ferguson

Joe Dallesandro has never understood all the excitement. On a makeshift stage at a club in Chicago in 1998, where Flesh had just been screened, he took questions from the attendees, one of whom wondered why the actor thinks the films continue to interest audiences.

“I never understood why someone would sit through them once, let alone come back for more.” The crowd laughed, perhaps in part because they appreciated his honesty, or maybe it was refreshing to see an actor uneasy with his work, even mystified by it, rather than the egocentric or self-effacing replies typical at festivals, conventions, and tributes. I couldn’t disagree with him more, and he knows it. I discover nuances in the Warhol and Morrissey films each time I see them.

Joe doesn’t fully appreciate his enormous potency as an image, either. That probably has a lot to do with personal overkill and a contempt that derives from familiarity, but it also stems from an understandable lack of objectivity. To Joe, the films “were what they were.” And now they’re over and done with.

His cult status as an iconic figure of the so-called underground film, even as the first nude male film star, is deserved and reason enough to pay homage, but how comfortable can it be for this man to know that his unclad form is the key to his adulation, to say nothing of a now middle-aged man forced to confront his naked youth time and time again?

His avant-garde display as male sex symbol, offered up for objectification in a fashion historically reserved for women in the cinema, has left him disconnected from a sense of real accomplishment.

This isn’t to say that his beauty doesn’t merit attention or is without reason for celebration. We weren’t accustomed to looking at our handsome leading men casually naked on screen and the effect was powerful; seen variously as liberation and exploitation by women, pander and provocation by straight men, acknowledgment and wish-fulfillment by gay men. In the United States, where prudishness and guilt intensifies the erotic power of the nude, no matter how perfunctory its exhibition, Joe Dallesandro was a revelation.

He has often said that when he was asked to strip down to his underwear and wrestle Ondine in The Loves of Ondine, his first Warhol and Morrissey film, he agreed to do so without thinking much of it. He had by 18, and surely long before, learned that he held certain attractions to both men and women and that he might be asked to put them to use. Morrissey saw a good-looking kid who had wandered in off the streets to watch a film in progress, and simply wanted to see how he would work in front of the camera, but young Joe had no inkling that this was anything other than amateur moviemaking let alone the beginning of an international film career. He scoffed when asked to sign a release.

Perhaps the situation didn’t seem far removed from the men who had asked him to model nude while he was a teenage runaway, not long after living in foster homes, getting into fights at school, engaging in petty crimes, then stealing cars, or serving time at a juvenile detention camp where he gave himself his famous tattoo. The nude photos he did for various photographers (the Athletic Model Guild’s Bob Mizer, among them) illustrate a streetwise awareness of his powers of attraction, a kid taking advantage of a situation while in turn being taken advantage of. On their own, these photos fail to stand out from those of thousands of other young men who submitted to this treatment to make a little money and cover their next meal or pay the rent. Joe would be lost among a sea of such images if it hadn’t been that he eventually made a name for himself. These early physique studies are highly collectible to his fans, but remain historical artifacts without suggestion of potential. They’re a photographic record of his youthful body, something which even he has come to appreciate, if pressed to do so, and a unique tie in his serendipitous connection to queer culture, yet his participation was purely practical.


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©2009, Michael Ferguson | webmaster@joedallesandro.com