Retrospective

The Balthus Connection: What E.L. Doctorow, Jessica Chastain’s Film Debut, and a Painting Have in Common

E.L. Doctorow. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

E.L. Doctorow.

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In honor of E.L. Doctorow, who passed away at the age of 84 yesterday, we turn back to ARTnews’s May 2007 issue, in which Hilarie M. Sheets spoke with the writer about a film adaptation of his short story “Jolene: A Life.” The film, Jolene, features Jessica Chastain in her film debut as a woman who finds herself in a number of flawed relationships. Riva Yares, the producer of the film, as well as the director of an eponymous Arizonan gallery, cast Chastain because she looked like the nude woman in Balthus’s Odalisque à la mandoline (1998–99), which hangs on a character’s wall in one scene. Hilarie M. Sheets’s full article on the film follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Bringing the Balthus Girl to Life”
By Hilarie M. Sheets

At a 2004 reading of his short story “Jolene: A Life” in Scottsdale, Arizona, E.L. Doctorow thought the woman in the front row with her eyes closed was asleep. In fact, Riva Yares, an Arizona-based art dealer who describes herself as a Doctorow groupie, was visualizing the story as a film. When the author finished reading, Yares turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to make a movie.”

Showing the same intrepid spirit that brought her from Israel—without a word of English—to what she calls the “Wild West” to open an art gallery in 1964, Yares has launched herself into the movie business as a first-time producer with Jolene, which is scheduled for release in the fall. Shortly after the Scottsdale reading, she went to New York and wrote to Doctorow requesting a meeting. “I got a call at 9:00 in the morning from his secretary, and she said, ‘Mr. Doctorow will see you at 2:00 in your hotel,'” Yares recalls. “I hung up and screamed so hard that everybody in the hotel opened their doors to see what happened.”

Doctorow was impressed with Yares’s engagement with his story, which follows a young woman’s struggle as she passes through a series of difficult romantic relationships. “Riva was passionate about the Jolene story and connected to it personally, which what you want from a filmmaker,” says Doctorow. “She was a novice, but as a reputable art dealer she lived by her visual sense, so I felt it wasn’t that much of a stretch for her to turn to film.” He readily approved Yares’s choices of Dan Ireland as director and her son, Dennis Yares, who runs the Santa Fe branch of her gallery, as screenwriter—and says he is very happy with the resulting film. “But we wouldn’t have gotten as far as an option,” says Doctorow, “had I not judged Riva to be the kind of person who succeeds whatever she sets out to do.”

Jessica Chastain in Jolene. ENTERTAINMENT ONE

Jessica Chastain in Jolene.

ENTERTAINMENT ONE

Yares, who shares production credit with Zachary Matz, found her new role stressful, especially as a woman dealing with a large, mostly male crew, but she drew on her years of experience running a successful gallery. She was closely involved with the choice of actors—the cast includes Michael Vartan, Dermot Mulroney, and Denise Richards—and she is delighted with newcomer Jessica Chastain in the lead role. It’s no coincidence that Chastain bears a strong resemblance to a Balthus painting from Yares’s gallery that appears in the movie. “In the painting there’s a girl with red hair lying naked on a bed,” explains Yares. “We looked for a Jolene who looks like the Balthus girl.” Yares used that painting, as well as works from her gallery by Milton Avery, Hans Hofmann, and Yves Klein, to decorate the Las Vegas penthouse of a Mafia bigwig, played by Chazz Palminteri, who in the film points out Jolene’s likeness to the painting.

Yares hopes Jolene won’t be her last foray into film. “I reached a certain point in my art career where I had shown everyone that I admired,” says Yares, who from the start exhibited contemporary work when most other galleries in the area showed what she calls “cowboy art.” Over the years she has mounted shows of Alex Katz, Roberto Matta, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, among many others. “Producing goes so well with the art,” Yares says. “The gallery makes me happy. The filmmaking makes me a nervous wreck, but it’s like an addiction. I can’t wait to do the next one.”

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