Biopics Mix Shticks, Kitsch

Moviemakers love to dramatize the lives of famous artists, but they often stumble on the details.

Nicole Kidman (with Ty Burrell as her husband, Allan) goes from bourgeois to bohemian in the Diane Arbus biopic Fur, 2006.

Nicole Kidman (with Ty Burrell as her husband, Allan) goes from bourgeois to bohemian in the Diane Arbus biopic Fur, 2006.


Just about every great artist with a sufficiently reckless personal life will, it seems, eventually get a movie made about him… or her. Capa with Adrien Brody is forthcoming in 2007, Goya’s Ghosts with Javier Bardem is due out before the end of this year, and Klimt with John Malkovich has already been released in Europe, although—never a good sign—it has yet to find a distributor in the United States. So far, our newish century has been fairly thick with artist biopics. Pollock, starring Ed Harris, came out in 2000, followed a couple of years later by Salma Hayek as Frida (Kahlo, that is). Colin Firth played Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003, and Andy Garcia took a crack at Modigliani in 2004, the same year that Joe Mantegna assumed the title role in Pontormo: A Heretical Love. Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as the photographer Diane Arbus, is now playing in theaters nationwide.

The boomlet in this subgenre began in the 1990s. Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonora Carrington, Artemisia Gentileschi, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol had their life stories—or significant chapters from them—splashed across the silver screen. One reason for the film industry’s interest in artists was the 1980s bull market in art. Another was the change in style of book biographies, with slavish adoration and stentorian monument making yielding to more probing psychological, sexual, and pharmacological examinations of subjects’ lives (sometimes to the point of sensationalism). Not that José Ferrer’s shoes-on-his-knees Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952) was Mr. Sunshine, or that Kirk Douglas’s remarkably look-alike van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) was a saint. It was just that the movies no longer wanted another Michelangelo played by Charlton Heston (The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965) as if the cameras were still rolling on his way-bigger-than-life Moses.

The movies have always loved artists, especially famous ones. Vulgar studio heads who made the money that kept them in caviar and Cuban cigars by lowballing their audiences could periodically redeem themselves by making a classy flick about the kind of real artist they themselves might be if they made classy flicks about real artists. And if the films traveled far enough back into art history—say, to 17th-century Holland—they’d step right into a pre-electricity version of the film industry, where picture makers of an earlier sort also endeavored to bring gloriously visual versions of great narratives to the public. The unveiling of the Night Watch in Alexander Korda’s 1936 ur-biopic, Rembrandt, fairly shouts, “If you people in the audience don’t like this groundbreaking motion picture, you’re no better than the tittering idiots in the movie who can’t see the genius in Rembrandt’s groundbreaking painting!”

In our current era of relentlessly overdesigned movies wherein, as a film-critic friend of mine says, “every shot has to sell itself,” the subject of art and artists serves, among other things, as an excuse to make everything cinematographically beautiful. In Modigliani, Paris in the 1910s looks as clean and spacious as the beachy, suburban locale of the teen-fave television series The OC but with the odd absinthe bottle lying around. In the 17th-century Italy of Artemisia (1997)—shot almost entirely in Old Master umbers and siennas—the characters look as if they had good dentists, and nobody seems to suffer from the pox. Of course Camille Claudel (1988) wasn’t quite as good-looking as Isabelle Adjani, Jackson Pollock not quite as strong-jawed as Ed Harris, and Vermeer probably not quite in Firth’s league as a heartthrob. These are conventions of moviemaking, certainly, but they’re also conventions of Old Master painting; unless you believe, for example, that the converted Saint Paul was actually the gym-buffed hunk Caravaggio made him out to be.

Artist biopics labor under a couple of built-in burdens. Cramming somebody’s career into two hours, or thereabouts, means that nearly every scene has to convey a crucial moment: defying the parents to become an artist, creating the first masterpiece, meeting the influential patron or the grand passion-to-be, etc. A good portion of dialogue must therefore be groaningly expository, in the manner of one of Ingrid Bergman’s famous utterances in Casablanca: “Victor, I’m frightened. Please don’t go to the underground meeting tonight.” (In Frida, the artist’s father answers his wife’s objection to their daughter marrying a non-Catholic, “I’m a German Jew, and you married me.”) In movies, art-historical eminences talk to each other as though they’ve already read the Art History 101 textbooks in which they all ended up.

As with sports movies, the public in artist biopics is consumed with interest in some forthcoming make-or-break event—The Big Show standing in for The Big Game or The Salon for The Championship Fight. And as in sports movies, there’s an equivalent to the money shot of the winning touchdown or dramatic knockout that we’re all waiting for. Michelangelo on the Sistine scaffold, painting those two cosmic fingers; van Gogh delobing himself; Pollock discovering the drip. In spite of a movie’s ability to show you these unseen moments, the effect is often unsatisfying, or less satisfying than seeing a Michelangelo sculpture in the Vatican or a van Gogh or Pollock museum exhibition. In the movie, flesh-and-blood (or bump-and-impasto) Pollocks have been degraded into surfaceless, unvisceral projected light. Moreover, the filmed Pollocks aren’t actual Pollocks, merely prop-department knockoffs used because the artist’s estate refused to lend authentic works to the set. (The same thing happened in 1996 with fake Pablos in Surviving Picasso, starring Anthony Hopkins as a Gestapo-friendly Picasso in occupied Paris, and in 1998 with ersatz Francis Bacon pictures in Love Is the Devil, in which Derek Jacobi played the painter.)

With all these handicaps, it’s small wonder that most movies about famous artists are bad. Modigliani, for instance, is a catalogue of flaws: painfully expository dialogue, well-fed and well-coiffed and BriteSmiled actors trying to portray poverty-stricken tubercular bohemians, awful prop-department paintings, and a chorus of mischaracterized luminaries (e.g., a fat and sedentary Picasso). Frida, which many of my artist friends liked a lot, struck me as a series of instructional filmstrips: “Children, here are the Ways of Mexico. Here is the sensitive-but-feisty young Frida. Here is the Selfish Genius, Diego. Here are the well-meaning Communists. Here is the hedonistic Avant-Garde.” And Frida’s money shot—the bus accident that crippled her and left her in lifelong pain—occurs too early to be dramatically effective. The automobile accident in Pollock—as opposed to Pollock’s real life; we’re talkin’ movies here—demonstrates better timing.

Even if the artist biopic is nicely played and nicely made, it usually struggles against the audience’s dreary foreknowledge of a downer ending. Rembrandt finishes in penury. Van Gogh commits suicide. Camille Claudel spen
ds the last 30 years of her life locked away in a mental asylum. Modigliani self-destructs on drink and drugs. A drunk Pollock kills himself and an innocent passenger in a car wreck. A drugged-out Basquiat doesn’t make it past his 27th year. These bleak denouements lack a true sense of tragedy, partly because they only parallel the artists’ art rather than arise from it, and partly because the life stories lack what’s called an “arc” in the screenwriting trade. What the comedian Denis Leary said about the depiction of Jim Morrison in the movie The Doors applies to many benighted central characters in movies about artists: “I’m drunk, I’m nobody. I’m drunk, I’m famous. I’m drunk, I’m dead.” Fictional artists are, of course, easier to make movies about. Their stories can have whatever drama, comedy, or character arc the film requires. Two of my favorites are Alec Guinness as the blinkered, comically ambitious painter Gulley Jimson in the 1958 movie version of Joyce Cary’s great novel The Horse’s Mouth, and Nick Nolte’s wonderful cad and painter-slob Lionel Dobie in the 1989 film New York Stories.

Nevertheless, exceptions in films about real-life artists occur frequently enough (about every five years or so) for hope to float at the cineplex. Whatever Julian Schnabel’s merits or demerits as a painter, and whatever pretensions he carries from one field to another (he told the Toronto Star in 2002 that Basquiat reflects “the battles and notions about perception that I’ve gone through as a painter”), he’s an excellent movie director. Basquiat is, to my mind, the class of the lot. Given their release dates in the mid-1930s and mid-’50s, respectively, Rembrandt and Lust for Life are probably better flicks, historically speaking; but none of the relevant movies I’ve seen gets modern artists and the art world like Schnabel’s picture. None of them conveys its savvy more smoothly, with less throat-clearing. And you won’t find two better performances than those of Jeffery Wright, in the lead role, and David Bowie, as a slyly monotone Andy Warhol. Four years later, Ed Harris did a pretty good job with the much more difficult subject—i.e., household word—of Jackson Pollock.

The recently released Fur, in which Kidman as Arbus disdains the kind of facial prostheses she donned to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours, joins that select company. It’s a deliberately slow, sometimes glacially paced film about a brief period in Arbus’s life: the three months in 1958 when she morphed from commercial photographer Allan Arbus’s dutiful assistant and hyper-repressed wife into a genuine, if nascent, photographer. The brave gamble of consolidating all the haunts and temptations that propelled Arbus from a primly collared existence to la vie artistique into a composite (symbolic) character, Robert Downey Jr.’s Lionel, mostly pays off, and mostly because Downey is such a remarkable actor. And because any movie benefits from dependable workhorses in character parts, it’s worth the price of a ticket just to hear Jane Alexander say—when daughter Diane protests that the dress she’s wearing, under withering maternal disapproval, was in fact a gift from Mom—“But I gave it to you last year.”

Whatever the varying quality of artist biopics, they’re not easy to get made. Harris reportedly spent ten years trying to get Pollock into production, and Frida was shopped around for seven. Conventional wisdom says that the difficulty comes from tweens, teens, and younger adults—the industry’s preferred audience, who tend to see movies they like again and again—possessing an insufficient sense of cultural history for a movie about a specific artist to pique their interest. You know: “Pollock? Was he, like, that artist who, like, dripped paint, or whatever?” Unconventional enlightenment, the kind that arises from watching a bunch of artist biopics on DVD over a short span of time, says the reason might also have something to do with defamiliarization. If you watch enough of these movies, with all their meaningful stares and critical glares, and lots of heavy breathing expended on the lack of career prospects for people who insist on daubing colored grease onto canvas only and exactly in the way they damned well want to, you wonder whether such a peculiar, cloistered activity is worth all the fuss. Still, the prospect of watching an intriguing actor impersonate a famous artist always pricks up an art fan’s antennae. Ever since seeing Fur, in fact, I’ve been thinking, Shave a little more hair off Downey—say, his whole head—and the man, with those liquid eyes, is a dead ringer for Picasso. And hey, how about Jeremy Irons as Mondrian? Shirley, get me Miramax on the phone!

Peter Plagens is a painter and writer who lives in New York.

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