Cracked Actor: Cookie Mueller


Cracked Actor: Cookie Mueller

By Isabella Trimboli

Welcome to our new column, which looks at personalities, iconic and obscure, who lit up the screen. For the first installment, an ode to the immortal style of Cookie Mueller.

To celebrate the re-issue of Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black, launching at the Metrograph Bookstore on Friday, May 5, our series Stumbling Onto Wildness: Cookie Mueller on Film screens at Metrograph through May 19.

Cookie Mueller

The high school bathroom is the definitive site of adolescent depravity. Grotty, confined cubicles are ripe for all manner of sin: brawling, smoking, heavy petting. In Female Trouble (1974)—John Waters’s lurid vision of begrudged motherhood and lethal beauty—three teenage delinquents convene by the door of a rancid girls’ lavatory to complain about their pedagogical captivity, and to fix their hair. “I’d like to set fire to this dump,” scolds Divine’s character Dawn Davenport, recently reprimanded after chomping down on a meatball sub during geography class. “It’s like a prison here,” says Susan Walsh as Chiclette, hoisted up on the windowsill, chewing gum and teasing up her already ballooning hair. Cookie Mueller, performing as side-kick Concetta, inspects her blemishes with a compact mirror while holding a cigarette in the same hand. Her makeup is so powdery and pale, with lipstick lighter than her own skin, that when she speaks, her red open mouth practically radiates on screen. “Just because we’re pretty everybody’s jealous.” Her words are delivered with a thick, Baltimorean lisp, the actress trying hard to enunciate through a wad of spit, the line consequently coming out like a slurpy threat.

“In John’s films you had to exude energy, and you had to shout. One reason for this was the low-budget sound equipment. If you didn’t shout, no one was going to hear you,” Cookie writes in ‘John Waters and the Blessed Profession—1969,’ a story from her astringent, anecdotal 1990 collection Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black (which is finally being reissued by Semiotext(e) this month), about her star turn as part of Waters’s acting ensemble. “The other reason,” she continues, “was purely a matter of style.”

Cookie spends most of the bathroom scene running a finger through her greasy fringe, and applying mounds of hairspray to a half-up beehive that reaches for the heavens. (This juvenilia look has had unusual staying power: at my Catholic high school in the late aughts, bouffants and concealer-as-lipgloss were the de facto uniform). It was also par for the course for Cookie. In her story ‘Two People—Baltimore, 1964,’ she writes of herself and a friend turning up to school with “Combustible hairdos, sprayed with lacquer and teased as high as possible. We wore the tightest black skirts… So tight they hobbled us… black stockings, white blouses with ruffles at the neck and cuffs, pointy bras underneath, and five-inch spike heels… Lesser women than we would have become acrophobic.”

As cigarette smoke fills up the ladies room, the trio then discuss another form of oppression—Christmas presents—and Cookie-as-Concetta boasts that she will turn her parent’s holiday generosity into cold, hard cash. “I should be getting a lot, and I’m going to take it all back and get the money for it.” Slurred but resolute, she adds emphasis to the delivery of “back” and “money,” her face shifting from gormless into a glower. Though it lasts for less than a minute, the scene is exemplary of what Cookie was frequently called upon to fulfill in her handful of brief but brilliant film roles: to emit the perfect blend of menace and raunch, and to prove that sexy and scary do not have to be diametrically opposed.

Cookie Mueller was known under several epithets at different periods of her life: Baltimore diva and Dreamlander, Provincetown party girl, and New York’s favorite witch-doctor columnist, art critic, and coke dealer (she once even helped Fassbinder procure some MD). But all of Cookie’s work fed into one another—her screen presence bled into her caustic but doggedly optimistic writing, and acting was a way to stretch her worldview into cinema: “Invest in beauty!” and “Stand up and be a grouch!” as she commands in her columns. She was dedicated to glamor and having a good time, and she enmeshed herself with those making the best, wildest work in America during the ’70s and ’80s.

Parts of Cookie’s life are easy to romanticize, because they capture a period that is difficult to imagine now—when narcotics weren’t full of fentanyl, when taking annual, months-long trips to the Amalfi coast was possible with spotty to non-existent employment. Though the list of “inane jobs” that Cookie credits as her education is extensive: “clothing designer, race-horse hot walker, drug dealer, go-go dancer, underground film actress (otherwise known as independent feature actress), theater actress, playwright, theater director, performance artist, house cleaner, fish packer, credit clerk, barmaid, sailor, high seas cook, film script doctor, herbal therapist, unwed welfare mother, film extra, leg model, watercolorist, and briefly as a bar mitzvah entertainer, although I’m not even Jewish.” These experiences—and then some—were reworked and laid out in her writing, which is stuffed with cutting observations, hysterical opening lines, and irreverent pleasures. She passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1989 at 40 years old, just weeks after her husband, the artist Vittorio Scarpati.

Nan Goldin, Cookie at Sharon’s birthday party with Genaro and Lisette, Provincetown, 1976. Image reproduced courtesy of Nan Goldin.

Nan Goldin, Cookie at Sharon’s birthday party with Genaro and Lisette, Provincetown, 1976.
Image reproduced courtesy of Nan Goldin.

Never a leading lady, Cookie’s roles for Waters were always as the girlfriend or minor miscreant sneering in the corner. Bratty, bemused, tough, with an innate sweetness; sexually wise, often angry and annoyed, but too unbothered to go completely berserk.

If the characters in Waters’s films were composites, each infused with attributes ripped from the side of cinema often rebuked as unseemly or unserious—the brattiness of teensploitation, the weepiness of ’40s woman’s pictures, the crudeness of ’50s cheapies—then Cookie’s performances were a convergence of these clichés and her own boisterous, blasé personality. “The Cookie that you see in John’s early movies… that is Cookie,” collaborator Pat Burgee remembers in Edgewise, Chloe Griffin’s exhaustive, devotional oral history of Cookie’s life and work. “It’s like taking the color straight out of the tube without any mixing.”

Never a leading lady, Cookie’s roles for Waters were always as the girlfriend or minor miscreant sneering in the corner. Bratty, bemused, tough, with an innate sweetness; sexually wise, often angry and annoyed, but too unbothered to go completely berserk.

Her aggressive enunciation was the perfect match for his insolent, bitchy dialogue, but she was also often tasked with the more physically demanding roles. For instance, In Pink Flamingos (1972), playing a spy, Cookie’s undercover reconnaissance mission involved submitting to barnyard sex with Divine’s son Crackers and a couple of live chickens that claw at their skin and are crushed between their bodies. She shrieks, jerks, curses those “fuckin’ chickens” even if her upturned mouth reveals a suppressed laugh. As Flipper, the one-armed lesbian in Desperate Living (1977), she first appears wearing only leather underwear and a fuzzy scarf, gleefully whipping a male gimp as a bar full of dykes cheer her on. (For another scene, fellow Dreamlander Mink Stole remembers Cookie refusing to wear a coat in the freezing cold “because she wanted to look hot.”) For her last appearance in a movie for Waters, however, she was wheelchair-bound. In Polyester (1981), the first film where many Dreamlanders took a backseat to more established talent, Cookie cameos briefly as a victim of the ‘Baltimore Foot Stomper,’ being interviewed by a local TV station about her attack. “He didn’t say nuffin. He just stomped on my foot!” she screeches as she’s wheeled out from the hospital, foot in a giant white cast. Her speech impediment has improved since her earlier roles, but the cone-shaped beehive remains.

Cookie met Waters in a church basement, at the premiere screening of his first feature, Mondo Trasho (1969), where Cookie took home the raffle prize: dinner at the sleazy Little Tavern restaurant, and a screen test (other prizes included a cut of rotting meat). Two weeks later, she was on the set of Multiple Maniacs (1970), performing a dual role: first as a white-bred suburbanite, aghast at the horrors of Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions roadside freakshow; then, more notably, as ‘Cookie,’ Divine’s hippy, slutty daughter. Titties constantly twirling, she gives a particularly memorable lisp-laden monologue about fucking a weatherman in the middle of the D.C. riots of ’68, despite the pair being blinded by tear gas and having Vaseline smeared all over their faces.

“We were making fun of hippies,” Waters said of his early films in a recent interview for ​L’Officiel. “Even though we were sort of hippies... we made movies to make hippies nervous.” Onscreen, Cookie embodies this contradiction. She has the aura of a hippy who knows better: eager to indulge in bacchanalia, but holding no delusions about its peace-making properties. This insight was likely gleaned first-hand. At 18, she fled the drab outer suburbs of Baltimore for the hedonism of Haight-Asbury, where she crossed paths with Satanists and Manson girls, had a mental breakdown, and ended up a psych ward for six months. After accidentally receiving shock therapy (she got in the wrong line; “I thought I was waiting for drugs,” she would later write) and being discharged, she returned home to Baltimore.

Maybe this bout of adolescent psychosis and internment explains her avowed adoration for Elia Kazan’s Depression-set teen drama Splendor in the Grass (1961), in which Natalie Wood’s Wilma Dean, a vision of chaste loveliness, attempts to drown herself in a cherry-red prom dress after being confronted by sex (not even the act, but simply the possibility). The 16-year-old then goes off to a nice enough sanitorium for two years, to recoup her sanity and forget all about her teenage boyfriend Bud. Cookie loved the scene where Wilma is soaking in a bathtub, and her mother comes in, concerned that abstinence had not been adhered to. “I’m the lovely virginal creature who wouldn’t think of being spoiled,” Wilma screams, hopping out of the tub, facing her mother, dripping in soap suds. “I’ve been a good little girl, mom!” The film isn’t a cautionary tale of innocent girlhood gone bad, but rather that, virtuous or not, you’ll be punished—either by those in charge, or your mind.

In life, writing and her film appearances, Cookie presented another option: that the disasters of sex and womanhood could be seized for perversity, humor, freedom, and a good story to be told at parties.

Cookie Mueller

This ability—to narrativize one’s suffering and absurdity with blunt precision—got a workout when she moved to New York in the late ’70s and began writing for Bomb Magazine and Details. She also had a health advice column, Ask Dr Mueller, where she gave out crackpot cures and alternative remedies for readers’ various illnesses and anxieties. She continued acting, but her roles were mostly brief cameos. This was not from a lack of trying: “I did extra work in big-budget films, got hit by cars, water, guns, fists, whips in all kinds of low budget bombs. I answered all casting calls,” she writes. Nor was this due to her conduct. On all accounts, she was an exemplary performer—professional, dedicated, instinctive. “If I gave her one direction, she completely took it, and not only took it but understood it. That is the difference between a hack and an actress,” says writer Gary Indiana, who called her his “muse,” and collaborated with Cookie on several plays, where she enjoyed far more substantial roles. These included Indiana’s The Roman Polanski Story, where she performed as Sharon Tate, Tate’s mother, and Anjelica Huston.

Even if the roles were small, her libidinal fury and unpretentious intellect still left an impression on a series of independent and No Wave titles made in New York, some of which have been remembered, and others that only exist now as degraded VHS rips, if at all. In Final Reward (1979), Cookie is the masochist girlfriend of an ex-felon, played by Richard Hell, and she appears, alongside Indiana, Taylor Mead, and the painter Alice Neel, in video artist Michel Auder’s hard-to-see A Coupla White Faggots Sitting Around Talking (1980), which was shot in the apartment of Delphine Seyrig’s husband, the artist Jack Youngerman.

In Eric Mitchell’s Sunset Boulevard by way of Mudd Club Underground U.S.A. (1980), Cookie opens and closes the film, starring as a disgruntled barmaid, infatuated with street hustler Victor (Mitchell). The speed to which Cookie’s performance goes from coddling to cruel is dizzying; in the final scene, reunited with Victor, she gushes, telling him how much she likes him, how she wants to take him on a holiday to Puerto Rico, and then smooches him until she withdraws in a huff. “How come you never have any fun!” Naturalism wasn’t quite her forte—her particular talent lay in her unique, huffy intonation, as she spouts lines like “I’m not da bank,” “Get the fuck outta here,” “God, what a WASTE.”

You can spot Cookie briefly in Downtown 81—a cloud-laden fantasy of New York shot in 1980-81 (released in 2000), featuring a 19-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat—as a stripper who stomps into a bar swaddled in a giant, Cruella-colored fur coat. (Perhaps inspired by her short stint as a go-go dancer, she would again cameo as a stripper, at the fictional Pussycat Lounge, in Micheal Oblowitz’s 1983 King Blank, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it scene that Oblowitz described as the most erotic in the film.) In Amos Poe’s Subway Riders (1981), she plays Penelope Trasher, a sex worker and aspiring actress, infuriated by the racket coming from the apartment of her murderous, saxophone-playing neighbor Ant (Poe, and in some scenes, John Lurie). Cookie projects an enviable ruthlessness; cunningly dealing with clients, bickering frankly with her girlfriend, and in one scene, brushing off Ant’s advances by issuing a brusque insult (“Don’t touch, you can’t afford it!”) before shoving him aside when he tries to hand her a crumpled-up dollar bill.

In Susan Seidelman’s punk odyssey Smithereens (1982), Cookie got the chance to revisit Waters-esque pastiche, as a B-grade horror siren fleeing a hypnotist and his extraterrestrial parasite à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Her performance in the film within the film is all coarse screams, feigned gasps, and ‘no’s as the gooey host violently attaches itself to her, but this seemingly ideal dumb victim comes out on top: she rips the alien creature off her neck, before stabbing her attacker in the eyeball with a pair of scissors.

Compare this to Bette Gordon’s voyeuristic neo-noir Variety (1984), one of the only films in which Cookie was given the chance to appear vulnerable, a little insecure. She appears as one of a number of women—the gang includes artist Nan Goldin—huddled together by the bar of Times Square hangout Tin Pan Alley, venting about their relationships with men: those who wouldn’t sleep with them, or who never properly cared for them; the deadbeats who somehow left them completely besotted, to the point that they ended up tailing the men in the street. Gazing down at the floor, a tangle of dirty blond curls covering her face, Cookie pipes up:

“If a man shows the slightest interest in me, I jump at it. He gets more appealing to me over time... I don’t know, I’d go after him.”

“You’d follow him?”

“No, me? I wouldn’t follow him, but I’d follow him in my head, maybe. But I have to act indifferent. I have to be really cold.”

Gordon, like Poe, and Indiana, wrote the part just for Cookie, and she was often tasked with pervading a role with her persona, bringing sardonic glee or scrappy effervescence to a scene. In Edgewise, friends and filmmakers discuss Cookie’s acting. Waters says that she was a much better writer, others mention that she would have considered herself more of an artist. She certainly was committed to being seen: “Everyone, all over the world, wants to be in movies. It’s modern human nature, a new biological urge, a twentieth-century physiogenesis,” she writes, only somewhat facetiously.

Cookie’s outsized presence was not only sought after by underground filmmakers. She was a subject for many photographers in her Downtown milieu, who captured her sharp, strange facial beauty: high cheekbones, streaked blond waves, and the black kohl that was permanently smeared over her eyelids. In portraits by Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe she looks still and serene, far removed from the derangement and exuberance she presented elsewhere—such as in the intimate photographs of Cookie taken by her close friend Goldin (collected in the out-of-print 1990 photo book Cookie Mueller), where she was often caught unaware and in motion: one hand pressed on her chest, ecstatic, in the middle of a guttural laugh; crying at her wedding; holding her son; embracing her long-time girlfriend Sharon Nieps; peeing in the Mudd Club bathroom next to a friend, red knickers hanging between her thighs.

My favorite image of Cookie, however, is of her in drag. Dressed up as Indiana’s ex-boyfriend (for a performance with Kathy Acker, in which the pair read letters addressed to their exes whose photos were projected on slides), Cookie is shot in side-profile, eyes downcast, smoking, with sideburns and a moustache pasted onto her face. She looks both imposing and angelic.

Just before her death, Cookie and a friend went on a pilgrimage to Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, to rub the heart-shaped pink tomb of Jayne Mansfield. The bottle blond actress was often seen by the movie-going public as a dime-store Monroe, but, to Cookie at least, she was a flamboyant genius, skilled at generating outrage and attention. Like Cookie, Mansfield understood the importance of cultivating myths, and saw extravagance and excess as a means of survival. In a piece for Details, Cookie wrote about the trip, and also opined on stardom, immortality, and the flimsiness of remembrance. Fanaticism was no longer “fashionable.” Artists now, she lamented, were sanitized and without zeal. While never explicit, she was describing the despair of her present: watching as she and her peers were ravaged by AIDS, while, too often, boring, sedate substitutes were propped up in their place. “You are allowed only to hint, to glance the edge of your manifesto, if you want an audience of fans,” she wrote. “Tongue in cheek you must slither. The wild crazy days are over. Most of the great creative fanatics are dead, many are forgotten.”

But Cookie has been deified. Her snarl is forever imprinted into cinema, and her writing is passed around between those who require different models for living. She represents a kind of marginal movie stardom that is at the risk of becoming obsolete; when you could stumble into a film career through presence, and singularity—not prosaic perfection, or a good PR strategy. This was partly generational (the last gasp of the Warholian “it girl”) but it was largely due to her irrepressible gifts, her blunt sincerity that seeped onto screen. Visible in her acting was a credo that inflamed her writing: to be open and free while remaining staunch, to be wise to the world without being calcified by it.

Take this anecdote, related by Mink in Edgewise, as testament. At some point in the early ’70s, the pair were riding a bus in Baltimore when a man began beating off in the aisle opposite them, to the disgust and discomfort of the surrounding passengers. Cookie, as was her way, promised to fix the situation. Waltzing up to the perv, she leaned down and right on cue, vomited all over him. What a lesson in scene-stealing, comic timing, how to turn a gross, sad public violation into grist for your own amusement.

Isabella Trimboli is a music, film, and book critic, and the co-editor of Gusher magazine.