Desert Eyes: Happy Birthday Udo Kier
October 14, 2014
We’re driving around Palm Springs and Udo Kier is asking me to check on his ball. Has it arrived? I’m not certain what he’s talking about. A ball has not been mentioned yet today, but as we slowly creep past his block, I check for a ball as if this is the most normal thing to do. “It’s enormous, you can’t miss it,” Udo tells me in his distinct German accent of Udo-ness; only Udo sounds like Udo. I don’t see the ball. “No. No ball. OK. It’s not here yet, let’s drive some more,” he says with a curious mixture of stern cheeriness. We do just that, eyeing houses, discussing the architecture of Palm Springs, how our mornings went. We discuss his life living in both Palm Springs and out further, far into the high desert. He stops by his other house to show a couch he wants to give me. It’s lovely from what I can see, but dusty and crammed in the back of his garage. It's massive. How will I ever move this thing? He seems incredulous: “Well, don’t you have any strong friends?”
Yesterday Udo and I drove around Morongo Valley shopping in thrift stores. Udo doesn’t care for the antique marts where everything is curated and nicely arranged and usually overpriced. He prefers the hunt, to search through the junk, to stumble on something remarkable and unexpected. And he always manages to do so. We come across a big white desk with pink and gold details – faux neo-classical with those delicate legs. Probably from the 1960s, but very Louis XVI. It’s a little ridiculous but sturdily made and beautiful, bordering on tacky and we both love it.
He says that I must have this desk. He urges me to buy it. I’m waffling but Udo persists. He tells me this is where Marie Antoinette would sit and write letters. He shows me how. He tells me it would look good with my hair. He's ever convincing, but I need to think about it (strong men). We continue to browse and almost immediately see two men, maybe antique dealers, spying the desk, inching closer, checking the price. We return to the desk. Udo says "She is going to buy it." I am? We place it on hold. Oh dear. More things to move. More strong friends.
Everyone in these dusty little shops know him. Some know he’s an actor, a movie star, some probably aren’t so sure. They can tell he’s something famous. He talks nicely and with jovial familiarity to everyone working. When we drive further on to a thrift store in Yucca Valley, an older female employee wearing her Angel Thrift smock stands out front on her smoke break. She greets him with a scratchy, gin-soaked voice, “Hey, Udo. We got some clay pots.” Udo is pleased. She takes a drag from her cigarette and says, “Yeah. But you got too many clay pots.” She cackles and goes back inside. The clerk says an immediate hello -- there's things in the back. Everyone’s happy to see him. Walking through the store, someone asks Udo if I’m his daughter. He says, “Don’t insult her! She’s my granddaughter.”
Driving through the desert, we talk about his life, art, his work (and all the work he's currently doing -- it's a lot), people he’s met, working with Fassbinder, von Trier, Morrissey, Van Sant, Argento, Herzog, Maddin and more and, then, movies he’s loved as a kid. He loved watching Errol Flynn pirate movies. He didn’t have much money growing up, but he’d rush to see Flynn on screen. He discusses one of the three pictures he almost made with Alejandro Jodorowsky. It later became Santé Sangre. Before it was to star Udo and Bette Davis. Wait. What? Bette Davis?
Udo says he cried that they couldn’t raise the money back then; that he couldn’t work with Bette Davis. “Originally Bette Davis played my mother. It was a circus family and my father cut off the arms of my mother and I swear to her that as long as she lives, I will be her arms! Imagine! Imagine! Bette Davis and me! And I would have trained how to do it.” Udo adds: “I don’t want to spill a cup of coffee on Bette Davis.”
I mention Davis’ eyes. Udo and Bette, in a staring match! Udo laughs. Bette’s eyes lead to another favorite actress and her famous eyes, Elizabeth Taylor. “I was in love with Elizabeth Taylor when I saw Suddenly, Last Summer. Oh, my god! She should have got an Oscar for that.” He brings up numerous Taylor performances that stayed with him including Reflections In a Golden Eye (“With Marlon Brando when she hits him!” he says), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Butterfield 8 and X, Y & Z. And then he tells me he kissed her, in real life. “It was at a dinner in Miami … the guest speakers were Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. And I was sitting at one table, with a very famous artist and I was bored. Because the wine, they give it to you and you drink it. But the food takes forever. So I said, I’m going to take a rose from the table and give it to Elizabeth Taylor. She’s at the table with Valentino. The painter I’m sitting with said, ‘You are not brave enough to do that.’ So I poured one more glass of wine, took the rose, walked over to where she was sitting, kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘You are so beautiful’ and gave her the rose. She said, ‘Thank you.’”
“My dream as a young actor was playing Elizabeth Taylor’s son because we had the same eyes. My idea, was, I would be her son, who she doesn’t know about in Rome. And he comes into her life and she’s flirting with him, and then they have an affair and she finds out it’s her son.” I’m taken aback by this. What a wonderfully sexy and kinky idea. (Udo has a lot of intriguing ideas.) I exclaim, “Why didn’t you write and direct this movie?” He agrees he probably should have.
I bring up Udo’s beauty. He’s shy about this for a moment. I tell him he’s still gorgeous now, because he really is. He’s lucky in that, as he gets older, he never loses his Udo-ness, it just seems to increase. He’s too interesting a person, too unique, too vital, too great an actor, too smart for anything like beauty to fade. I’m not flattering him. It’s just too obvious. Every place I’ve been with him, Paris or Winnipeg or Los Angeles or in the middle of a dirty thrift store in Morongo Valley, people look at him, things shift, the room temperature changes. Charisma. When he was young, he had to know he was one of the most beautiful men on the planet, I say. He’s very gracious about this. Not boastful. Women must have thrown themselves at you, I tell him. Men and women. It must have been crazy all the time. He is again, humble and discreet but he knows that I know. Yes. It was fucking insane.
We stop off at his halfway finished property in Joshua Tree. A simple, but semi large green structure, set in the vast expanse of desert. His survivalist-looking neighbors, seemingly the only ones, check in and offer a beer from their truck. They invite us to see their pet donkeys. They love Udo. The man hands him a bag full of thrift store neckties. We’ll see the donkeys later.
Inside the house, he’s still putting in the kitchen and the bathroom. The inside is like a barn with exposed beams that he’ll keep that way. It’s gorgeous. It’s filled with all kinds of pretty, strange things, all eclectic and fitting of Udo’s taste. Udo loves the Palm Spring mid century modern aesthetic, and he has an impressive, enormous art collection (and furniture and just about everything), but he’s not boring and strict about it like too many people. An instinctively creative person, he mixes it up with all eras and expression and his own art projects. Udo makes fantastic chairs out of neckties. (Now I understand the neckties.) There’s a box of doll heads and I reach in to grab one. All of the dolls have holes in the back of their heads. He says he’ll put feathers in the holes. He shows me a lovely antique dining room set that he hates to part with but doesn’t have room for. He says I can have it if I can move it. More strong men. He tells me, once it’s all moved and set up in my dining room, he’ll come visit me and the dining room set. He’ll make a movie about it. Elegant and absurd: About a man who comes over to visit because he wants to sit at the table and chairs he gave to his friend. But then he just keeps coming over, repeatedly, over and over, to sit there. He sits in different chairs. He likes to put his hands on the table. He misses the table. He misses the chairs And sometimes he’ll come into her house and just sit there alone. This movie is told off-the-cuff, poetic. Like when he instructed me to get air conditioning: "You don't want to be a dried flower, Kim."
We drive back to Palm Springs, talking about the desert, why it’s preferable to spread oneself across this hot, high lonesome instead of settling in Beverly Hills or somewhere like that. Udo, who does not have a normal life, but remains down to earth and sensitive, talks about having a normal life. “I don’t want to lose reality. The more normal you feel, the more you have a fantasy of being someone you loved. And that was always my goal, to talk to people, finding out people’s stories… I will look at a man walking in a strange way and I think, that’s great. Maybe one day I will play a role and I will walk like that man or that woman who walks very strange…"
"The problem is that people think that actors live in this mundane world. That they’re driven in a Rolls Royce and all that. And those that do, they lose reality. If you live like a millionaire, and then you play a millionaire, what is there to do? I fantasize of a combination of [things] of what I’ve read in books or magazines or Dostoyevsky or see in real life. If you have lost the reality, you lose the fantasy. You need to have the need for fantasy. The happiest of all the places where I could be is here, in the high desert. There is something magical about it.”
We return to Palm Spring and I stay the night. We wake up, drink coffee and check on his other house. He waters a tree. And, then, back to that ball. We drive down his street. I finally see the ball. He wasn’t kidding about this thing. You couldn’t miss it. An enormous orb taller than his fence, made of steel and iron or something ridiculously heavy has arrived on a truck, a massive sculpture to set in his expansive backyard by the pool. The artist unloads it himself in the blazing sun. Udo is grateful and kind to the artist, a friend, accomplishing something that appears incredibly dangerous. How heavy is that ball? The artist doesn’t need any help, and seems to want to be left alone focusing on this task, so we go back into the house. Udo makes lunch and we talk about work. But we can’t stop eying that ball. Udo decides he likes the ball slightly off center and we interrupt our conversation to peek on the thing’s progress. Udo is correct. The ball is somehow more impressive and interesting when pushed a bit to the left. It takes three hours to unload the ball.
We move outside by the pool and gaze at it. I am oddly moved by the ball, the way it’s just sitting there, tall and round and set against the blue sky. It’s strangely beautiful. You can stand inside the ball and Udo says I can dance in it at night. Udo is thrilled by his newest work of art. He points out that it looks like a giant eyeball. Udo names it, half jokingly, half serious, “The Eye of the Universe.”
I drive back to Los Angeles that night and fall asleep early. I wake up around 6 AM to an earthquake. The bed is shaking, the walls are shaking and I’m confused. I remember I’m in Los Angeles, and not in Palm Springs. I suddenly worry about that enormous ball. I sincerely hope that ball hasn’t rolled into Udo Kier’s house. I reassure myself. It’s an eye. It’s Udo. And Udo is resilient. As large as it is, it won’t win. And if that eye tried, it would make a great movie with Bette and Liz and Udo. The Eye of the Universe.
Happy 70th Birthday, dear Udo.
Udo was recently honored this year by the Munich Film Festival with "An Extraordinary Personality in International Cinema" award. Five of his films where shown and the new documentary "Arteholic" which features Udo discussing work in prestigious art museums throughout the world, was shown. He has many movies coming out soon including Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room. He's being honored with the prestigious lifetime achievement award, the Teddy, at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. The Teddy is also honoring Udo's friend and director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for what would have been his 70th birthday in May.
Your knack for atmosphere...an elegant foray into the warp and weave of Udo - a beautiful ode.
Posted by: Brian Western | October 14, 2014 at 06:30 PM
Kim Morgan, this has to be one of the finest actor profiles I've ever read. I know … a bit hyperbolic. It may sound that way, but I'm serious. Udo Kier is rather a special, uniquely talented actor. When his name is mentioned, an image automatically comes sharply together in the mind's eye, but when he shows up in a movie, only part of the automatic image rings true, for Kier is still, after all these years, capable of surprising us. There is always MORE than meets the eye. And that's what you've captured. Really, a marvelous, immediate bit of verbal portraiture. Thank-you so much. I'll be back. Oh, by the way, I found you when someone posted this piece in the Face Book Film Forum. Am grateful they did.
Posted by: Nick Faust | October 14, 2014 at 08:52 PM
I always wondered what it would be like to drive around Palm Springs with Udo. Amazing, lucky!
Posted by: Catherine | October 14, 2014 at 09:07 PM
What a beautiful man. Fits the profile: interesting people make interesting actors.
Posted by: Miss Lisa | February 14, 2015 at 10:20 AM
Udo Kier, practically begging the Prince of Puke, John Waters, to be in one of his films -- "I could play a German hillbilly."
From 'Edgewise,' the new book about Cookie Mueller.
Posted by: mark s. | April 10, 2015 at 09:53 AM