Viva was born Janet Susan Mary Hoffmann in Syracuse, New York, to Mary Alice (McNicholas) and Wilfred Ernest Hoffmann, a well-to-do lawyer. She is the first child of a devout Catholic family, and is of German, Irish, English, and one eighth Italian, ancestry. Her parents had eight more children. She told her mentor, Andy Warhol, that her father was a religious fanatic and her mother worshiped the Irish-Catholic Witch-Finder General Joseph McCarthy, insisting that the children watch the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.

Janet Hoffman was educated in parochial schools and attended a Catholic college, Marymount, in Tarrytown, New York. She spent her junior year in college abroad, studying art at the Sorbonne in Paris, boarding at a convent. Hers was a life that made her ache for rebellion, and rebel the young Ms. Hoffman eventually did. She became the first non-anonymous performer to perform an act of sexual intercourse on screen, in Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969), at the end of the turbulent decade that was the 1960s.

Reportedly, she had had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized by her parents when she stayed in Paris to try to become a painter, supporting herself by modeling. She moved to New York City in the early 1960s, intent on becoming a fashion illustrator. Living with a photographer, she remained involved with the arts, and one night at a gallery opening circa 1963, she introduced herself to Warhol. They did not click then, nor did they the second time their forking paths brought Warhol into contact with his future movie queen.

It was a different story in 1965, when they met again and engaged in conversation at a party thrown by fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Not lacking in courage, Hoffman soon went over to Warhol’s loft-living/work space, “The Factory”, to solicit Warhol for money to pay her rent at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived with her sister in a room that cost $16.00 a week. Of the encounter, Warhol wrote in his memoir “Popism”. “She’d done it with all the nonchalance of somebody asking for their paycheck – except that I didn’t even know her! What she essentially said was ‘I need twenty dollars and you can afford it.'” It was an attitude that would lead to the break-up of their professional and social relationship four years later.

Warhol’s movies were always transgressive, and he had decided to move into pornographic production, “nudies” as he called him. (Hard-core porn would come later in the decade). He became entranced with Viva, as he believed he could use the striking, well-educated women in his films (which were pointedly homo-erotic and featured male “flesh” in abundance).

Andy Warhol thought Viva’s tedious voice could work to his advantage in dealing with the censors. Warhol was concerned about the “without redeeming social value” phrase in the legal definition of obscenity under the Warren Court in the 1960s. Many decisions finding a film “pornographic,” and thus not legally protected by the First Amendment, hinged on whether there was or was not redeeming social value. One of Russ Meyer’s nudies had been condemned as obscene and withdrawn from exhibition by the courts as its attempt at inserting redeeming social value had been too transparent and obvious and was felt, by the judges, to be a cynical ploy to make an otherwise objectionable film legally acceptable.

Confronted with Hoffman, Warhol the avant-garde filmmaker had a brainstorm that would make her famous for slightly more than 15 minutes: the Machiavellian Warhol became convinced that he might be able to outfox the censors if he used a woman who “could look beautiful, take off her clothes, step into a bathtub, and talk as intellectually as Viva did”.

“Redeeming social value” was the legal fiction that Warhol enlisted Viva to provide in order to make genuinely pornographic movies without getting busted for obscenity. Viva’s reflection was beautiful in Warhol’s bloodshot eyes and – ever the Catholic rebel – she was willing to go fully nude on screen and even do the nasty.

Warhol’s directorial method was to encourage improvisation among his actors while his cinematographic technique entailed aiming a camera at them and shooting continuously for the entire length of a 1,200-ft. reel of 16-mm film, approximately 33 minutes of running time. (Joe Dallesandro once saw Warhol direct a film by reading a newspaper with his back to the unmanned camera that was shooting the actors!) He believed that Viva, with her continuous stream of intellectual babble, would provide him with the legal fig leaf of “socially redeeming value” that would enable him to become a profitable pornographer.

Viva made her debut in The Nude Restaurant (1967), though another movie she had made for Warhol, Bike Boy (1967), was screened first. Playing a waitress in a restaurant patronized by only men (including a bemused Taylor Mead and real-life Army deserter Julian Burroughs), Viva wore only a G-string throughout the entire movie, as did all the male patrons. (A first version of the film, featuring an all-male cast completely in the buff, has been lost.)

But it was Blue Movie (1969) that made Viva infamous for 15 minutes – at least. It was shot in October 1968 at David Bourdon’s apartment in Greenwich Village. Although Viva and Louis Waldon actually do have sexual intercourse in the film, they spend more time involved in social intercourse to give Warhol that fig leaf of “socially redeeming value.” For 33 minutes, the length of one uninterrupted 1,200 foot 16-mm reel of film stock, Viva and Waldon made love. For the rest of the 132-minute movie (three more reels worth of film shown at the pubic premiere), they spend time talking about the war in Vietnam, cooking food and taking a shower. (The blue tint that gave the alternate title of the film its punning quality was not planned but actually was the result of an error. Warhol had correctly used tungsten film for shooting indoors, but he did not compensate with a blue filter for the sunlight streaming into Bordon’s apartment, resulting in the blue tint on the exposed negative.)

Viva was cast in a speaking part in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), as “Gretel McAlbertson”, the woman throwing the party with her “brother” who invites “Joe Buck” to her soirée. The party scenes — which featured other Warhol regulars — were filmed in late June 1968, two weeks after Valerie Solanas’s unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Warhol.

In November 1968, Viva wanted to go to Europe, and Warhol provided her with a round-trip plane ticket to Paris. In January of the following year, she sent Warhol a nasty letter from Paris that threatened that she would turn on him unless he sent her money. Her disappointed mentor decided to ignore her. She followed up with new threats in February 1969, in a telegram. Again she was ignored, as Warhol had more pressing concerns on his mind. He had to have an operation related to complications from his June 1968 shooting, and when he was in the hospital, Viva sent another telegram to “The Factory”, announcing her marriage.

Viva had met and married Michel Auder, a French filmmaker whom she brought back with her to the States. While in New York, she telephoned Warhol to tell him she had signed a contract with the prestigious publishing house G.P. Putnam to write an autobiographical novel. She informed Warhol that she was taping their conversation for use in her book, which she intended to call “Superstar”, an expose of the New York demimonde.

Thus, Viva and Warhol parted ways, and she signed up to star in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969), which was shot in Los Angeles. She went off to California with her new hubby in tow. She eventually made 13 movies in addition to the Varda picture, including such films as the Kris Kristofferson vehicle Cisco Pike (1971), the non-Woody Allen-directed Woody Allen movie Play It Again, Sam (1972), Dino De Laurentiis’s megalithic Flash Gordon (1980), and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), but they were just bit parts. She never made another film with Warhol after the break-up, and never achieved anything close to the notoriety she did as one of his superstars.

In addition to her 1970 memoir “Superstar”, she wrote a book about giving birth,”The Baby”, which was published in 1975 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Related Posts