The great James Bidgood has five days left to turn his life around. At midnight, on Friday, Bidgood’s first Indiegogo campaign ends, and his attempt to raise $35,000 dollars to fund a new era of erotic artwork will either succeed or it won’t. He’s not worried though. He’s resigned to whatever happens. So much in his life hasn’t gone the way he planned it from the musical comedy career that never materialized to the disastrous fate of his pioneering early gay erotic film Pink Narcissus (1971), which was taken away from him by producers and recut to his dismay that he’s used to things not turning out the way he hoped.
Bidgood famously took his name off Pink Narcissus, an outrageously sexy early piece of art-porn featuring gorgeous young boys in erotic reverie while milling about a series of lavish homespun sets. Even though the film was rediscovered and elevated to cult status amongst gays and underground film fans many years later, Bidgood still finds it unwatchable, and never quite felt comfortable with the reverence the film’s rabid fans (including myself) began to pay him. Yet it’s these same fans who now have the ability to make or break his campaign and help him buy a new camera, materials to build his legendarily homespun sets, and give him the chance to make something new he’s truly proud of. I sat down with Bidgood at his home in Manhattan to discuss his campaign, his rocky career, how he transitioned from photography to filmmaking, and how he reconciles the way others see him with how he sees himself.
Adam: So you’ve got your hand out begging, huh?
James: Yeah, I guess so. Actually I always thought I would be begging because so many things have gone wrong in my life. The landlord has been about to put me out so many times, and I’ve had to go to court so many times to stop it. I always expected one day to be on the corner with the other homeless people drinking a wine bottle and pooping myself. [laughs] Their wardrobe is actually similar to what I’m wearing. I wouldn’t have to get a costume. [laughs] Next question.Tell me about this Indiegogo campaign. What do you want to do with the money?
It’s actually for a lot of things. All I have so far to do photography with is lighting equipment and the stuff to hang the sets from. I don’t have a camera right now. I’m building everything in layers the way Hollywood does, life-size stuff in the foreground, but the mountains in the background don’t have to be that big. I’m going to do a lot of scale-model stuff, and after I’ve photographed all the layers I’m going to put them together in Photoshop. That’s my new project, my new process.
So it’s mainly for materials for the sets and camera stuff?
Mostly for the camera, but also there’s a lot of other stuff I have to get. I don’t photograph trees outdoors, I have to make the trees. I need all the stuff to make the trees with. That kind of stuff. I only asked for what I really needed. In fact I could use a lot more and I’m very grateful for what we’ve gotten. I think I wrote this on Facebook, but I have had so much nice correspondence since I started this campaign. I just cannot tell you how overwhelming it’s been to me emotionally. I don’t want to start crying, but I had no idea, all my life I never had any idea that I had any kind of effect like that. It doesn’t matter what happened before this, the things people write me now, they really knock me off my chair. If I went to my grave I have helped somebody in some way. It’s really done a great deal for my spirit and heart.
Okay let’s get funny again.
Let’s talk a little bit about your previous incarnations prior to being one of the world’s great erotic artists. You started out as a dancing girl at the Club 82.
Yes. I came to New York to be a musical comedy star, and ended up in a dress at the 82 Club.
And that was really one of the premiere drag night clubs of it’s time.
Oh it was. There was only one other that was as glamorous, and that was The Jewel Box, because they had a revolving stage and stuff. It was just a bigger space so they were able to do bigger production numbers and stuff. But the 82 Club spent every bit as much money. We had hundreds of costumes for every show. There was a cast of thirty, and so there were thirty or forty costumes for three different production numbers. That’s a lot of costumes and they were very elaborate.
It sounds like it was the Ziegfeld Follies of drag.
Well, I would say the Jewel Box was more the Follies, because they had a revolving stage and higher ceilings. We were in the basement, my hats could only go so high. [laughs] They scraped the ceiling.
Is it from the stage and that drag world, where you learned the techniques of set building that ended up being intricate to your photography and Pink Narcissus?
I’ll tell you something when I was back living with my parents who were the janitors for the Masonic Temple of Madison, and we had a little apartment, even then, when I was five or six, I would get cardboard boxes and cut out a stage and put Christmas lights and I would take my Ziegfeld paper girl dolls and parade them around the stage. I pinned a little staircase on the walls and had the paper dolls parading down the walls. I think because I was so into the movies, I started playing with sets. Then when I got older I started building really elaborate ones. Big boxes with big curtains and sets for different operettas. I would play the operettas and had people on tracks and push them in and out. When I came to the 82 Club I was bringing a lot of knowledge that nobody else there had. I knew about lighting because I always did stuff when I was a teenager. After a year of doing drag I was costume designer and set designer and featured in a couple of numbers.
At what point do you start looking at what was basically at that point called pornography, although it looked very different from what we call pornography today?
There wasn’t much porno then. In the early sixties I would go all the way up town and there was a guy who sold porno movies, black and white, but they were like prostitutes with guys with guys who were wearing masks, and were fat and old and all hairy. It was straight and it was awful. There were no gay ones. The first gay one I ever saw, which I don’t really remember now, it must have been French. It was really exciting. Then suddenly it was everywhere. It started with the little peekaboo things and then there was the Park-Miller Theater. There was also a place on 42nd Street that showed straight stuff. That was a little earlier, where Warhol stuff eventually showed. The underground ground films were eventually showed there. But before Warhol it was a straight porno thing and girls could blow a guy but they would put a silk scarf over the hard penis, and I gotta tell you that was sexier than the later stuff. That was very hot.
Did you have any early photography influences in terms of gay erotica?
You mean, who influenced me? There was a painter called Quaintance, and I looked at his work and thought, “Too bad those aren’t photographs.” That’s about it, because what I was influenced by was how bad things were. I just didn’t understand it. I’ve said this in a lot of interviews, but Playboy was doing these huge productions to show a girl’s twat, with lighting and styling and costumes and all that. When they would photograph a glamorous star they didn’t take such pains. But the gay people who you would think would be the first to do something grand like that, were just showing tacky boys in those little satin or silk posing straps leaning against the same fucking mantle somewhere or by a swimming pool in California. I just thought somebody should be taking boy pictures and demonstrating how much you thought how beautiful the male body and men were. I thought the photographs should be as beautiful as the boys were, and they weren’t.
One of the major things that is always fascinating to me is that you were doing this all on your own with not much help, and sometimes it would take you a very, very long time to build your sets.
It certainly did and I was basically alone. One of the huge problems when you have so many actions – I used a phonograph and put a spool on it so I could wrap string around and turn the phonograph so it would pull the string and that was pulling something that would make movement in the photos. I was desperate for motors or somebody to come in for a couple of hours and pull a string when I told them to. Sometimes I would turn the camera on and have to run and do things myself. My hand is in Pink Narcissus because I couldn’t get anyone to be a hand even. People would be interested for a few days and they would disappear. Then they wanted it to be done because they wanted to see what they had done. I can’t blame them because they wanted it done. I think If they knew what it was going to become maybe they would have been more interested.
How did you meet your subjects?
I could have found people on 42nd Street but every time I went down there I was too shy or timid to ask them to be a model. I would sit for hours at the cafeteria and look at these boys who I knew I could get, and who would have loved to do it, and wouldn’t have wanted much money – although nobody got much money in those days even for tricking but I couldn’t get the nerve to ask them. My subjects came through friends usually. Somebody would say, “I know a boy.” Jay Garvin was a male dancer at the 82 Club. Bobby Kendall a friend of mine introduced me too. Mostly they came through friends and then as I did more stuff it wasn’t quite as hard. They were just catch as catch can.
What leads you to move from doing the photography to doing a film?
In the back of those gay magazines, they were selling little movies of a guy getting dressed in the morning. They weren’t really porno, just a guy taking his clothes off or putting them on. I had these huge elaborate sets and I thought I ought to be making some of those movies. I started out to make one of those 8mm reels for the boys, and it just grew and grew and grew. If I do something and I think of something else I can do, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m trying to curb that because you never get anything done. Like when I started out photographing Bobby. In the film, he comes in and takes his clothes off, and then I thought well this could be something better. Pink Narcissus was always intended to be shown at this theater near me that was showing this Warhol movie about Ondine. I saw that they were showing stuff like this, and I thought, it could get shown there. I never intended New York critics to review Pink Narcissus, and not even my version, but some aborted piece of it. I didn’t think I was writing a great novel. I never thought it was something that was going to cross over to the big time.
How did you visualize your work did you draw things out, were there storyboards?
Oh yeah I always did a storyboard. Nobody else could figure out what they were because I did them very rough and with scratches. But I knew what they were telling me. For every shot there was a little drawing, it was very rough, not like Hollywood does. But now when I take a photograph, I do do a drawing ahead of time so I know exactly where it’s going. Now that I’m doing things in layered, I have to do an elaborate drawing. You have to do it because you cannot take a photograph in layers unless you know what every layer is going to be and how they have to end up fitting into the photograph.
How much did substances play a part in the conception of Pink Narcissus?
Substances? You mean drugs?
Oh, I didn’t drink. But I took a lot of amphetamines. At the 82 Club I was introduced to amphetamines. Every queen there took ups. In fact, everyone took ups in those days. Every housewife was taking ups. She’d get her goddamn house cleaned and still fuck her husband at night. The demands life made on most people you could realize if you took those diet pills. They were very big and then somebody decided we shouldn’t have this. Now, I loved acid. It was so good for me. I resented that I didn’t find out about acid until many years later. Can you imagine what Narcissus would have been if I’d known about acid? There was acid at the time and I thought people were on other kinds of drugs on my sets, extras and stuff, but they were on acid. Can you imagine tripping in one of those sets? But I never had any problems on acid like other people did. I’d take acid on a Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday night. I’d go back to work on Monday morning like I’d been to Hawaii. I was totally refreshed and wonderful. Other people were completely wrecked by it. But I think that’s why drug laws are bullshit. Everybody’s pornography is different and everybody’s body chemistry is different. We all respond to grass or pot or anything differently.
The part of the film that I find so striking that a lot of people don’t talk about is the Times Square sequence that’s like erotomania times 1000, with all the crazy characters in 42nd Street cruising with their cocks out in these amazingly exaggerated ways. Where did that sequence come from in your head?
Pornography was all around us in advertisements and on television. I even think “In the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant” is a dirty reference. I think there are mountains in the background that look like buns. It was just everywhere. Sex was in every advertisement, in all the signs flashing, and so I put a lot of those signs in, and it was like if you took 42nd Street the way it was and carried it a little further it might have looked like that.
It’s very well known about how the film got taken away from you, and you took your name on it, but when you started to realize that it was a cult item
Well I didn’t know. Whatever they say happened back then didn’t. Nobody cared. It was a big nothing. Many years later it became something but not then. I didn’t even know that Michael Lumpkin had found it and thought I was dead and bought a copy of it or the negative or whatever. He started showing it, but I was totally unaware that all of this was going on. Then one day I saw it was on television. I woke up in a daze and there was Jay Garvin dancing towards me on some channel. I thought I was hallucinating because I tripped a lot then. I thought, “My god, what’s going on?” I had no idea that anybody had any of that. I kept thinking about re-doing it, that one day I was going to get all the original material and put it back together and make it the way it should have been, but it kept me up at night, and I was getting eaten away by it, and I thought if there is no material, I’ll stop doing this because it’s never going to happen, so I destroyed all the extra material that there was. If it hadn’t been for the fact that a box of the negatives was in a place that I couldn’t get to, they’d be gone too. It’s very sad, really. I made other movies, too.
So you never actually sold any other short movies in the backs of magazines? Nobody out there could have copies of those?
No. I only sold the stills. Slides and prints. They sell now for more than I earn in two years. The older and more ruined something is, they might as well put me on the market. I totally don’t understand. I understand the romance of it, but still. I would rather have a little print with the colors the way they were, not faded. I’m lucky in that all the stuff I did on Kodak film was done before they changed their formula. Anything filmed a few years after I was done filming would have turned red by now.
I know you don’t have nice things to say about the way the final film turned out, but when you hear from so many people who say it’s genius, and they give you retrospectives, how do you reconcile that?
I think I could have made a great a film. Pink Narcissus would have really been a very interesting film if I had been able to finish it the way it was intended to be. Beyond that I just think I demonstrated a talent and I never understood it but now I realize it, but the reason I could never have been picked up by Hollywood, no matter how big my talent was, was that I was gay. And I made gaaaaaayyyyyy movies. About as gay as you could get. It was one big limp wrist. It wasn’t John Wayne. It was just not going to happen, but I didn’t realize that. I really had this naive head about being gay for so long. Ever since I was a kid. I didn’t think it was any kind of problem.
I understand, but I don’t think you answered my question. How do you reconcile your view of the film with that of others?
I don’t reconcile it. The fact that you’re talking to me on this machine right now, it’s hard for me to put it all together. When I go to gallery things or screenings, people treat me amazingly. It’s like they just want to touch me, and to go from that adulation to go home to what I go home to, it’s very sad. That’s why I won’t let them send a limo. I say please don’t. It’s like if I were living homeless on the corner and the limo drives up, and I go to a gallery or a screening and then I go back to being on the street corner. It’s very hard for me to deal with it.
Is there any piece of what exists as Pink Narcissus now that you think is true to what you wanted it to be?
There’s a dolly shot that I really like, where I’m high up and I go down as if I’m on a dolly. He’s sitting on a chair and gets up. It’s one of my favorites. My favorite shot is where he’s looking over the grass and the wind is blowing and the clouds are moving in the background. What I like in it are shots. I love the storm scene, with the down angles of his body that looks all iridescent. It’s very pretty stuff. Mostly that’s what I like. The funny thing is, I would have cut a great deal more out of the movie. I would have put in a lot more stuff they left out. I think it’s very difficult to sit there and look at because it just goes on and on. A lot of stuff that seems to go on and on, may have been intended to but there were seven other layers that were supposed to, so it wouldn’t be quite so boring. If you only could show one layer it wouldn’t be interesting. You need all the other layers to make it make sense. That’s what they left out. All the other layers. There were layers and layers. The Times Square scene was supposed to have hustlers from the past, were all filmed in slow motion and the hustlers of today were filmed overlaid. It was supposed to be 42nd street of all time with ghost figures of the future and the past floating through. it was very hard to do timing wise, because it was a dolly shot.
Let’s say I gave you 100 million dollars to make a new version of Pink Narcissus. You can cast anyone you want. Who would you cast?
Oh god, there’s so many pretty ones out there. I don’t know. I can’t tell you because I’m not current with names, but every day I see another one. Whether they’re a model or a movie star. There aren’t a lot of Bieber age ones. They’re mostly 29-30, the great beauties of today. Bieber is a very pretty boy but not the kind of face that would have done it for me. There aren’t a lot of teenage types. Zac Efron, he’s very pretty, but he never really looked young. Baby fat young. Even as a teenager, he looked like a young adult. Bobby Kendall didn’t look that young but he had something that was very beautiful, a certain innocence about his face. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t gay. It’s just something there that I still – when I look at Narcissus, or the photographs, for a boy that thought he looked like a monkey, he was very beautiful. There is a boy on Facebook who I hope to photograph, named Taylor Nelson, and the thing that I like is that he isn’t perfect. It’s like with Travolta, it’s the flaws that make them so beautiful.
To back James Bidgood’s Indiegogo campaign (and score yourself original Bidgood artwork and Pink Narcissus t-shirts), click here.
Adam Baran is a filmmaker, blogger, former online editor of Butt Magazine and co-curator of Queer/Art/Film. His short film JACKPOT, about a porn-hunting gay teen, won Best Short Film at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and was recently featured on The Huffington Post, Queerty, and Towleroad, among others. He is a features programmer at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival and NewFest in New York. In his spare time, he complains about things to his friends. “Fisting for Compliments”, his weekly musings about the intersection of sex, art, porn, and history, will appear every Monday on TheSword. You can contact him at Adam@TheSword.com and follow him on Twitter at @ABaran999. Check out his previous columns in the Fisting For Compliments Archive.