Welcome to Cason’s Casting Couch, a column devoted to an examination of who booked what role and why. Casting, an opaque process beholden to budgets, scheduling conflicts, and abuses of power, can impact a movie’s final cut as fundamentally as editing. To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at Party Monster (2003).
by Cason Sharpe
Based on the memoir by James St. James, Party Monster tells the story of Michael Alig, the early ‘90s nightlife impresario who presided over an amorphous troupe of post-Warholian characters known as the Club Kids. Widely publicized for their shocking looks and jovial hedonism, this loose association of ravers was united by a vaguely political but ultimately empty ethos of queer love and free drugs, with Alig installed as host and de facto leader. Fuelled by the god complex bestowed upon him as a minor New York celeb, Alig fell prey to a drug addiction that culminated in the gruesome murder of Andre “Angel” Melendez, a 24-year-old dealer with a nickname he earned by wearing a pair of wings to one of Alig’s parties. Trashy B movie meets queer cautionary tale, Party Monster attempts to balance irony with pathos and ends up in melodrama, the genre perhaps best suited to tell the horrifying story that came to define a shallow and cynical subculture. A critical and commercial flop upon release, Party Monster now enjoys a cult status that supports and perhaps even eclipses the mythology of the real-life events that inspired it. It’s a terrible movie, and one of my favourites.
Party Monster’s primary problem is in its pacing. The movie’s arc mirrors that of any mediocre party: it’s fun for the first 20 minutes, after which things start to drag. Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato exuberantly traipse through Alig’s rise to fame, only to lose steam in their depiction of his downfall. Alig began throwing parties in the late ‘80s and was convicted of manslaughter in the late ‘90s. Condensing the sad, slow burn of a decade-long saga into a tight 90-minute feature is an ambitious undertaking, and I don’t begrudge Bailey or Barbato for trying. That being said, Party Monster is only watchable thanks to the cleverness of its casting.
Party Monster stars Macaulay Culkin in his first feature-length role as an adult. Between 1988 and 1994, the lovable blue-eyed munchkin appeared in 15 films, a childhood track record to rival Shirley Temple. A dwindling box office draw by the age of 14, Culkin retired in order to have some semblance of a normal adolescence. What better way to come out of retirement than to play a famous murderer from the height of your boyhood fame?
Culkin’s Alig is disturbingly childlike, prone to tantrums and delusions of grandeur. All the while, the prickly velvet rage of a homophobic upbringing simmers underneath. In one particularly poignant scene, Alig lounges on the couch and recalls a recent encounter with a paramour from his teens: “When I was 14 we were inseparable, him and I…” Culkin, curled in the fetal position, gazes off into the middle distance. “I called him last night…He’s married now. With kids. He wouldn’t even come to the phone.” What could’ve been a parodic performance is tempered by a smattering of these softer moments, allowing Culkin to humanize Alig while showcasing his hard-earned chops.
The real standout performance, however, comes from Seth Green, a prolific actor whose impressive resume of bit parts throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s never managed to snag him a breakout leading role. Green plays James St. James, Alig’s nightlife mentor turned toxic frenemy. Initially dismissive, St. James eventually warms to Alig or at least tolerates his presence. It’s a friendship of social convenience, predicated on the belief that two party monsters are better than one. St. James is also the audience surrogate; as Alig slides further into addiction and his behaviour becomes increasingly cruel, St. James is forced, like us, to reckon with the suspicion that his best friend is a sociopath. Green plays this arc seamlessly, his demeanour shifting from disparaging to jealous to conspiratorial to concerned, all while maintaining the blasé air of a socialite.
The rest of the cast reads like the guest list to an exclusive party in 2003: New York It girls Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny play a pair of doe-eyed Alig devotees, a dragged-up Marilyn Manson plays a loose cannon scene queen by the name of Christina Superstar, and DJ Keoki, Alig’s clueless arm candy, is played charmingly by Wilmer Valderrama. (At the time, Culkin was dating Mila Kunis, Valderrama’s co-star on That ‘70s Show, another enterprise tasked with interpreting the not-too-distant past). While performances range from stilted to overwrought, everybody who appears in Party Monster seems very happy to be there.
A lot has changed in the eighteen years since Party Monster was released. Paroled in 2014, Michael Alig died of a heroin overdose this past Christmas. The story flew under the radar, coming in at the tail end of a year filled with pandemics and protests. Besides, is it appropriate to mourn the death of a murderer, especially one whose life has already been mythologized in a biopic?
To better understand that question, let’s take a look at another important character in this story, one who is often overlooked within Party Monster’s glamorous lore. Played by Wilson Cruz, Angel Melendez was a young man from Colombia who found himself at the receiving end of a hammer’s blow following an argument about an overdue payment for drugs. Cruz, best known as Ricky on the ‘90s teen soap opera My So-Called Life, is no stranger to playing characters forced to navigate the violence of a white social elite. The day after Alig died, he tweeted the following:
Andre “Angel” Melendez was a son, a brother and was loved by his family and friends. He, as so many young people in the 90’s, longed to find a place where he belonged and where he felt safe to express who he was…He was the lead character in the movie of his life and today, I choose to remember him.
Cruz’s Melendez is a curious ingenue looking for community amidst synthetic powders and throbbing beats. His performance is subtle, quiet enough to go unnoticed among the thunderous clangs of his costars. Donning an all-white suit and a pair of white angel wings, he wanders through the aisle of a fast-food restaurant where Alig has decided to host an impromptu rave. After scoping out the scene, he sidles up to the king of the Club Kids.
“Michael,” he says, his eyes flashing with nervous excitement. Alig ignores him. “Michael,” he says, louder this time, his mouth breaking into a wide grin. “Look, I got my wings.”