Among the oddballs and exhibitionists who
clustered around Andy Warhol in the 1960’s and
70’s perhaps the scariest was Brigid Berlin, a
chubby, motormouthed rebel from an upper-crust New
York City family who relished the way her underground
celebrity embarrassed her proper conservative parents. Her
father, Richard Berlin, a friend of Richard M. Nixon and
an admirer of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, ran the Hearst
Corporation, which he had helped save from bankruptcy in
the 40’s. Her mother, Honey, was an elegant,
ladies-who-lunch-style socialite of the old school.
Ms. Berlin was one of Warhol’s favorite telephone
companions, and she taped hundreds of hours of their
conversations, some of which were adapted into a play
called Pork that flaunted the Berlin family strife. Like
many of Warhol’s acolytes, she fancied herself an artist
and was one of the first art world personages to work with
a portable tape recorder and Polaroid snapshots (she
specialized in double exposures).
Her more notorious antics included a theatrical
performance in which she telephoned her parents from the
stage without their knowledge and broadcast live her mother’s furious tirade about her lifestyle and choice
of friends. That lifestyle included an addiction to speed (in the 1966 Warhol movie, The Chelsea Girls,
she played a pill-pushing lesbian who shoots up in front of the camera) as well as an eating disorder that
pushed her weight to 260 pounds. Despite her obesity, Ms. Berlin often appeared nude in Warhol’s movies,
displaying not a trace of self-consciousness.
Excerpts from her taped conversations with Warhol and with her mother run through Pie in the Sky: The
Brigid Berlin Story, Shelly Dunn Fremont and Vincent Fremont’s unsettling close-up portrait of Ms.
Berlin, which opens today at the Film Forum. This fascinating but somewhat repellent documentary
repeatedly contrasts interviews with Ms. Berlin filmed two years ago when she turned 60 with excerpts
from the mostly black-and-white Warhol films in which she radiated the aggressive ferocity of a B-movie
Much slimmer today than in the Warhol years, Ms. Berlin, who lives on the East Side of Manhattan with
two dogs, looks sleek and matronly at 60. But when she reminisces, it becomes clear that she retains a lust
for the spotlight along with a continuing inability to edit what comes out of her mouth. As she chattily
recounts a life of squandered privilege and wasted opportunity, the movie casts a bitter chill. After all her
walks on the wild side, you wonder if she has learned anything at all. Not a smidgen of wisdom or
enlightenment passes from the lips of a woman whose main goals in life today seem to be keeping a neat
apartment and fighting an obsession with Key lime pies (one scene shows her berating herself for having
given in to that weakness and gobbling three at one sitting).
Ms. Berlin emerges as someone whose life and art were determined by her own obsessive-compulsive
behavior, be it consuming sweets or collecting celebrity drawings of sexual organs in a notorious
scrapbook. Besides her weight, the guiding motif of her life appears to have been her controlling mother,
who comes across as cold, judgmental and image-obsessed.
Ms. Berlin has her fans, one of the most articulate being the director John Waters, who modeled his own
informal repertory company on the Warhol crew. In his view her work with tape and snapshots led Warhol
to adapt them into his repertory of techniques. He also admires her bravery for appearing nude.
Because she no longer takes speed, Ms. Berlin seems less scary than distracted. Although her memory
appears intact, she conveys the disengagement of someone who is either too traumatized or too self-centered
to have much psychological perspective on the past. In the most revealing scene, she revisits the Chelsea
Hotel, the site of some of her more outrageous antics. Growing visibly anxious, Ms. Berlin says she feels
uncomfortable there and wants to leave, but she is at a loss as to why.
PIE IN THE SKY: THE BRIGID BERLIN STORY
Produced and directed by Vincent Fremont and Shelly Dunn Fremont; director of photography, Vic Losick;
edited by Michael Levine; music by Chris Stein. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of
Sixth Avenue, South Village. Running time: 75 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Brigid Berlin, Richard Bernstein, John Waters, Taylor Mead, Bob Colacello, Larry Rivers and