Hollywood film has always had trouble capturing the making of art by great writers, composers, and painters. This despite the fact that some much-applauded movies have had artists in leading roles. Such movies tend to succeed when they’re less about artistic achievement than about the artist’s colorful but totally screwed-up personal life. Take Van Gogh battling his mental demons in Provence (Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, 1956). Or Toulouse-Lautrec coping with shriveled legs while dwelling among the demimonde of Montmartre (José Ferrer in Moulin Rouge, 1952). Or Michelangelo lying on his back on a high scaffold in Vatican City, fending off his sexual proclivities as well as an imperious Pope (Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965). Last year the always adventuresome Mike Leigh tried to capture both the art and the era of Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner, but his Mr. Turner was hardly for all tastes.
In 2000, there was serious buzz about the rare Hollywood movie that grappled with the life and work of a twentieth-century artist. Pollock, focusing on the career of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, largely succeeded thanks to the heartfelt commitment of lead actor Ed Harris (a Pollock lookalike) as well as the kinetic excitement of Pollock’s “action-painting” methods. The drama implicit in Pollock’s tumultuous domestic life and sudden death proved helpful too.
My friend and colleague Cathy Curtis has just published an in-depth biography of another recent painter, and can’t helping wondering if Hollywood might be interested. Restless Ambition looks closely at the life of artist Grace Hartigan, who lived (as Cathy points out) “a life as colorful as her paintings.” There’s no question that Hartigan experienced personal drama. A stunningly attractive woman—as well as a talented expressionist painter—she survived four marriages and a wide array of lovers. The story of her last marriage, to a medical researcher who injected himself with an experimental drug that destroyed his physical and mental capacities, hardly lacks for pathos.
The possibility of Hollywood paying attention to Grace Hartigan would be tremendously apt, given that she herself was hugely influenced by both the myths and the visual stylistics of the motion picture industry. As a young girl watching silent movies, Hartigan was bedazzled by seeing monumental black-and-white images in close-up. These “huge faces on a glowing screen” later encouraged her to choose enormous canvases for her own work. And throughout her career she remained mesmerized by movie queens, movie magazines, and even paper doll collections like Tom Tierney’s Glamorous Movie Stars of the Thirties. Like fellow artists de Kooning and Warhol, she portrayed Marilyn Monroe after her tragic death, hinting in her work what it cost Marilyn to be “the last goddess.”
The general public, of course, has not always been respectful of the work of abstract expressionists. Which reminds me of a wickedly funny little Oscar-winner called “The Day of the Painter” (1960). This fifteen-minute gem, from the era when America movies were often accompanied by short subjects, gently satirizes the “serious” work that goes into creating a lucrative drip-painting masterpiece. I’d love to watch this one again.
Speaking of which, last week saw the death of George Coe, who both directed and starred in another of those great old short subjects. "De Düva" ("The Dove") is an outrageous parody of such solemn Ingmar Bergman classics as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. It’s performed in pseudo-Swedish, complete with subtitles, by a cast that includes the sublime Madeline Kahn in her first film role. Thanks to YouTube, I here present for your amusement a madcap foray into the art of cinema.