Flicks - Togar party

Mary Woronov’s 15 minutes are still ticking

Mary Woronov’s hauntingly equine beauty so enchanted artist/filmmaker Andy Warhol in 1966 that he pointed his movie camera straight into her heavy- lidded eyes for 15 glorious, uninterrupted, proverbial minutes.

More than a decade later, with Warhol’s Screen Tests far behind her, Woronov donned a gray power suit and fitted herself into a role that would make her immortal amid the cartoonishly colorful universe of punk rock and drive-in cult movies. As wicked principal Evelyn Togar, Woronov dominated Rock ‘n’ Roll High School like a Hitler in heels.

While kids riot to the beat of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” during the opening credits, Togar patrols the halls with comically militaristic precision, never breaking her purposeful stride. Her subsequent reassurance to the students that, “I’m not interested in punishing anyone,” is calmly rendered, but glistens with delicious undercurrents of impending sadism.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is one of three Woronov movies featured this Sunday at the Starlight Drive-In, where the actress herself — now 59 years old — makes a personal appearance during the annual Drive-Invasion film and music festival. The event begins early, with live bands performing just the sort of wild, rebellious music that sent Principal Togar’s blood pressure soaring.

It’s one of pop culture’s twisted ironies that an actress of Russian descent is best known for setting fire to the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia LP and deriding its contents as “godforsaken noise” when, in reality, she was a key player in the seminal New York scene from which punk rock first erupted. “I enjoyed the Ramones immensely,” says Woronov, who describes the band’s presence on the movie set as “like having pet animals around.”

Born in 1943, Woronov attended art school at Cornell, but dropped out after visiting Warhol’s Factory on a class field trip. Already a visual artist (her best work evokes Van Gogh), she reinvented herself as a go-go dancer for the Velvet Underground, the legendary rock band featured in Warhol’s multi-media Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Often photographed prominently between drummer Moe Tucker and guitarist/vocalist Lou Reed in the band’s promo shots, Woronov’s strong, distinct features provided remarkable counterpoint to the sullen countenance of violinist John Cale. Other images from that era capture her with Salvador Dali and a young scenester named Danny Fields who, nearly 10 years later, would serve as manager for the Ramones and as inspiration for their Phil Spector-produced classic “Danny Says.”

With wild Warhol experiences and memorable roles in small films (including 1974’s Seizure, the directorial debut of Oliver Stone) behind her, Woronov went west. “I moved here for what seemed like sound professional reasons,” she says of Hollywood. “I figured all I was good for was acting.”

Woronov initially found L.A. frightening. “It was so full of blank space, and my response was to fill it up by painting colorful and increasingly nightmarish narratives.” In New York, even under Warhol’s tutelage, she never used color in her artwork. In Hollywood, she “couldn’t use enough.”

Equally colorful were the movies she made at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, including the comedic action flick Death Race 2000 (1975), which placed Woronov behind the wheel of a homicidal hot rod. The project appealed to her because she found it “just like Warhol,” with offbeat subject matter and “brilliant people working for nothing.”

The role she enjoyed most was as a B-movie actress in the satirical art-imitates-life feature Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which she describes as “a take-off of the making of a Roger Corman film.” The next year she appeared in the Andy Kaufman vehicle Heartbeeps, one of more than a dozen films in which she co-starred with actor Paul Bartel. Bartel later directed her in the superlative dark comedies Eating Raoul (1982) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989).

With satisfying roles increasingly harder to find, Woronov descended into dependency during the 1990s and, at age 50, she hit bottom. “After getting very sick, I had to stop drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, fats, even meat,” she recalls. But the positive effect was immediate. “My mind went into overdrive.”

She began writing, “trying to explain, re-examine, and recover what was left of my life, and understand how other people managed with their sanity intact.” Her literary output now includes Wake for the Angels: Paintings and Stories (1994), the autobiography Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory (2000), Snake (2000), Niagara (2002), and the forthcoming Blind Love (2004).

“It has been good for my ego,” she says of writing, “because just when I think I’m a failure in one career, I scurry over to the other career, avoiding gigantic depression bombs and suicidal tailspins.”

This then is the triumph of Mary Woronov, a survivor who outlasted and outlived many of her better-known contemporaries, from Andy Warhol to Andy Kaufman. Now sober and unexpectedly successful, she is proud and confident, an artist remembered long after her Warholian quarter-hour expired.

Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs and Trader Hornee screen Sat., Aug. 30. Hollywood Boulevard, Rock and Roll High School and Death Race 2000 screen Sun., Aug. 31. Mary Woronov will make an appearance Aug. 31 at 4 p.m. For details on the bands playing Drive-Invasion, see Vibes.