I recently watched the 1972 film Ciao! Manhattan on TCM and it left me with incredibly mixed feelings. The specific reason that I was watching Ciao! Manhattan was because it was the last film to feature the legendary model and actress Edie Sedgwick. Tragically, at the age of 28, she died merely weeks after completing work on Ciao! Manhattan. And while the film is dedicated to her memory and was apparently meant to be a tribute to her, it instead feels incredibly exploitive. Watching the movie, I was aware that Edie was literally dying on screen and, as so often happened in her life, nobody was willing to step forward and help her.
In the late 60s, Edie Sedgwick was a model who was briefly the beautiful face of the underground. Vogue called her a “youthquaker.” She made films with Andy Warhol, she dated the rich and the famous and for a brief time, she was one of the most famous women in America. But a childhood full of tragedy and abuse had left Edie fragile and unprepared to deal with the pressures of being famous. She was fed drugs by those who claimed to care about her, she had numerous mental breakdowns, and, when she was at her most vulnerable, she was pushed away and rejected by the same people who had loved her when she was on top of the world. Edie died because, when she asked for help, nobody was willing to listen.
I guess I should explain something. I don’t believe in reincarnation but if I did, I would swear that I was Edie Sedwick in a past life. Of all the great icons of the past, she, Clara Bow, and Victoria Woodhull are the ones to whom I feel the closest connection. (Edie is the reason why, for the longest time, I assumed I would die when I was 28. But now I’m 29, so lucky me.) When I watched Ciao! Manhattan, I felt as if I was watching myself (or, at the very least, a close relation) on-screen.
Ciao! Manhattan opens with Susan Superstar (Edie Sedgwick), standing topless on a street corner and hitchhiking. She’s picked up by an aimless drifter named Wesley (played by Wesley Hayes). Wesley gives Susan a ride back to the mansion that she shares with her mother (Isabell Jewell) and her servant, a rather disgusting guy named Geoff (Jeff Briggs). Her mother hires Wesley to help take care of Susan. It turns out that Susan used to be a world-famous model but now she spends her time sitting in an empty swimming pool, drinking and doing drugs. While Wesley and Geoff listen, Susan talks about her past in New York. While Susan talks, we see black-and-white footage of Susan (and Edie’s) past.
Ciao! Manhattan began life in 1967 as an underground parody of a spy film. When Edie had a nervous breakdown and was sent to rehab, filming was abandoned. When she was finally released in 1970, filming began again. The 1967 footage was now used for flashbacks to the wonderfully glamorous life that Susan (and Edie) had lost.
And, when viewed as a documentary of how Edie was exploited and then subsequently abandoned by everyone that she cared about, Ciao! Manhattan works. The contrast between the happy and vibrant Edie of 1967 and the barely coherent and visibly unhealthy Edie of 1970 is heartbreaking. Whereas the 1967 footage features an existence that is in constant motion, the 1970 footage shows us an existence that is slow and drenched in sadness. The film makes no effort to pretend that Susan Superstar is anyone other than Edie Sedgwick and, when Edie talks about her past, no names are changed to protect the guilty. And the film shows that, even after surviving a literal Hell, Edie Sedgwick was still a natural-born star. Even when she’s slurring her words and staring at the world with poignantly sad eyes, Edie demands and gets the audience’s attention.
When Ciao! Manhattan allows Edie to tell her own story, it works. But, unfortunately, the film spends too much time with Wesley and Geoff, who are two of the most repulsive characters that I’ve ever seen. Geoff is written to be offensive whereas the character of Wesley is done in by the very bad performance of the guy playing his role. (Wesley Hayes was reportedly not a professional actor and it certainly shows.)
This is a film that provides evidence that, even in her last days, Edie Sedgwick was a talented and unique presence and, for that, I’m glad. But, ultimately, it’s hard not to feel that Ciao! Manhattan was the final case of Edie and her tragic life being exploited for someone else’s profit.
Usually, I would end a review like this by including either a scene or the film’s trailer. But, instead, I’m going to end this review with Edie Sedgwick’s silent Warhol screen test. This is how I prefer to think of Edie Sedgwick — hopeful and curious with the promise of her entire life ahead of her.