‘Addicted to dreaming’: James Bidgood, the Pink Narcissus director who defined camp

Show caption ‘A boudoir of burning pink’ … Bobby Kendall in James Bidgood’s underground classic Pink Narcissus. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Art and design ‘Addicted to dreaming’: James Bidgood, the Pink Narcissus director who defined camp With his sexy bullfighters and tumescent belly dancers, the late filmmaker pioneered an aesthetic since imitated by everyone from David LaChapelle to Lil Nas X Oliver Basciano Wed 2 Feb 2022 16.12 GMT Share on Facebook

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For nearly 30 years, Pink Narcissus was a film as mysterious as it is sensual and erotic. Clocking in at just over an hour, it was released in 1971 with an anonymous director, and skirted the obscenity laws. Artistic, radical, with a truly innovative cinematic palette, it remained unashamedly gay and pornographic. Shot on Super-8 and almost dialogue free, it builds a loose narrative around the dreams and fantasies a male sex worker has in his New York apartment between clients. He imagines himself a Spanish matador, a Roman slave, and among leather-clad bikers hanging around grimy toilets.

As much as the acting, the sensuality of these scenes comes from the washes of scenographic colour: the bullfighter pulls up his high boots amid a variety of purple hues; the cottaging spot is a monochrome of black and grey; Narcissus is shown in a boudoir of burning pink. The climax comes when the sex worker – a mop of dark curly hair, high cheek bones – plays both a Middle Eastern potentate and his catamite, entertained by an increasingly energetic male belly dancer, the latter’s erection barely covered in a sheer veil.

Don Brooks in Pink Narcissus. Photograph: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

In 1999, James Bidgood, who died on Monday aged 88, was revealed as the author of this underground classic. The director had fallen out with the producers over the final cut of the movie and, despite having spent six years making it, meticulously building the sets and filming the entire thing in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, he demanded his name be removed. The film, he said, was a portrait of his own dreams as a young gay man in New York.

“I’m addicted to dreaming,” he told Butt magazine in 2010. “If you mean getting lost in fantasies, ideas, hearing tunes, seeing rhyme couplets, cuz I’m workin’ on a musical, the whole schmear, book, music, lyrics. I win all sorts of awards dreaming. I’ve won the Tony and wept uncontrollably giving my thank you speech at least a dozen times in my imagination, usually in the bathtub.”

The revelation that Bidgood was the author ended years of speculation, and put paid to rumours that Pink Narcissus was the secret project of either Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger. The former had released Blow Job in 1964, a 34-minute silent flick concentrating on the face of the lucky receiver; Anger’s biker fetish film Scorpio Rising had been released the year before. Both films revelled in erotica yet neither reached the same level of kitsch flamboyance as Bidgood.

The director had been in New York for two decades when Pink Narcissus was released. Born in Wisconsin in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, his first cinematic obsession was the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of song and dance extravaganzas. When he left home aged 18 he found that: “New York was exactly as it appeared to be in MGM musicals. It was fast and it was more exciting than your second orgasm.” He turned to drag, making his own costumes and debuting as “Terri How” at Club 82, a basement cabaret frequented by the mafia as much as the underground gay scene. “When I made my entrance, all dolled up in glitter and soft, fat ostrich feathers, I imagined I was working the boards at the Ziegfeld theatre,” Bidgood told Another Man in 2019. He was tasked with mixing with the clientele, encouraging them to buy more drinks, and the pay got him into Parsons School of Design where he honed his costumer skills. Soon he was able to make a living making dresses for society balls, giving him maximum freedom in his art.

‘He meticulously built the sets in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment’ … Pink Narcissus. Photograph: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

His photographic style seemed to be fully formed from the start: young men with boyish looks, smooth chests and pert bottoms posed on a variety of mythological and fantastical stage sets. The photography series Apache (1964–66) shows a lad leaning on a lamp-post against a fairground background. The deity Pan sits demurely on a tree trunk in Pan from Behind (1965-1969); Jack Frost, in nothing but a jockstrap and glitter spray, is tied to a giant snowflake. The August/September 1965 issue of Muscleboy, one of the “fitness magazines” then skirting the obscene-material laws, featured a cover image by Bidgood: a young man reclining in an undergrowth clearly constructed with old green and blue scrunched up textile. A year earlier, Young Physique, another such title, had a brunette in white furs and tall white leather boots.

Bidgood said he was traumatised after losing control of Pink Narcissus. As the pornography laws in the US loosened, he filmed a hardcore orgy scene titled Baghdad, but the feature film it was intended for never got completed. Meanwhile his masterpiece inspired the likes of Pierre et Gilles and David LaChapelle, who enjoyed the fame and economic security that eluded him. Bidgood has also been cited by a younger generation of creatives, including singers Charli XCX and Olly Alexander, and his influence can be detected in the style of rapper Lil Nas X among others. He enjoyed a retrospective at the Museum of Sex in New York in 2019, a monograph published by Taschen, and a 2020 collaboration with designer Christian Louboutin.

Nonetheless he remained until the end in the cramped apartment in which he made his work. “I’ve been stuck with my dreams for close to 80 years now, and I still have to worry whether I have the rent money every month,” he said in 2010. A fundraiser has been set up to meet the costs of his funeral.