With a plot that’s a mashup of Sunset Boulevard and Midnight Cowboy, Heat (1972) is the story of comely but down-on-his-luck young actor Joey Davis, who waits for his big break at a seedy Santa Monica motel run by an overweight diva with mood swings and peopled by sketchy low-life tenants. There he meets faded TV star Sally Todd, mother of one of the motel’s most neurotic residents, and begins an affair with her on her promises to introduce him to producers and directors.
Produced by Andy Warhol and directed by Jed Johnson, with a story developed by Paul Morrissey, Heat continues the Warhol film tradition of controlled spontaneity with its ad-libbed dialogue and cast of mostly nonprofessional actors. As in films like Flesh and Trash, the Warhol “superstars” awkardly make up the words as they go along, occasionally stumbling into pure entertainment gold.
Here, long-haired, ridiculously good-looking Joe Dallesandro has perfected the role of hustler as his stock-in-trade, calmly resigned to offering his physical charms to anyone who can possibly help him. He scores a discount on the motel rent by servicing portly proprietress Pat Ast, who waves away the heat with a constantly fluttering Japanese fan and bawls out tenants between orgasms achieved by rubbing against the solid muscles of Little Joe. Mellow, low-voiced and positively wooden in his delivery, Dallesandro forms the apex around which the rest of the cast emotes unrestrainedly.
Overall, Heat is a visual ode to the flawlessly beautiful Joe, but the engine providing the picture’s momentum is the gloriously brash and vulgar Sylvia Miles. As the aging Sally Todd, Miles bares her still-impressive breasts in nude love scenes with young Dallesandro and commands focus by plying her considerable acting skills, which are severely lacking in the rest of the cast. Miles’s dialogue improvisations are instinctively right on the money, always timed impeccably for maximum comic impact. The “lesbian” exchange with daughter Andrea Feldman and the “what you you mean, what do I mean?” scene with motel owner Pat Ast are among the most brilliant on-film improv scenes in the history of movies. And Miles’s artistry elevates her untrained costars’ performances as well.
With its campy cast of characters, uninhibited nude scenes and dozens of unforgettably funny and repulsive moments, this steamy cult classic is a must-see for fans of experimental film.