PRINT November 2000



IT’S CUSTOMARY TO KICK OFF a review of an artist’s biopic with a few chuckling asides about classic cinematic representations of artistic genius, like Lust for Life (Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh!) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Charlton Heston as Michelangelo!). The reviewer knowingly ticks off the elements of neo-Romantic myth as they pile up madness, creativity, rebellion, berets, work boots, poverty, and, of course, originality. Ed Harris’s new movie is Pollock, but maybe we’re supposed to understand it as Pollock!!!, the larger-than-life version. True to type, the film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival in September and opens in theaters next month, promises the kitschy thrill of seeing your favorite AbExers impersonated on the screen.

But Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, who costar as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, both do a better than respectable job; in fact, they deliver quite graceful interpretations. The supporting cast is fine as well: The actors who play Tony Smith (John Heard) and Howard Putzel (Bud Cort) are particularly good in small roles, and Jeffrey Tambor’s Clement Greenberg is suitably droll. Amy Madigan, Harris’s wife, gives us Peggy Guggenheim as a barking bohemian, more laide than jolie. The only real clinkers are Val Kilmer as de Kooning and Stephanie Seymour as Helen Frankenthaler; their dumbness surfaces and distracts. Former teen dream Jennifer Connelly plays luscious Ruth Kligman with appropriately manipulative faux-naïvete; she’s good, but a young Shelley Winters could have played the hell out of the art tart (who, according to Warhol, wanted Jack Nicholson to play Pollock). Still, more than wishing for recasting, one is grateful for the near misses. Pollock strikes a chord in every actor’s imagination—was there method to his madness? and major stars like De Niro and Pacino, even Streisand, have at one time or another optioned a biography or expressed interest in the artist.

Why are actors so intrigued by Pollock? Because his is a great story, full of highs and lows, with plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery, which for the most part Harris eschews. On the few occasions he does succumb, such as the family-dinner scene in which an enraged Pollock starts banging on the table like Gene Krupa, you get the feeling it might really have been that horrible and embarrassing.

For the past thirty years or so, art-history insiders have referred knowingly to the “Pollock Myth” to which the larger culture is allegedly so susceptible. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (on which the film is based) answers this mythmaking with exhaustive research; the book is a reference tool rather than a true life of the artist (no one who lived forty-odd years—or for that matter, ninety-odd years—requires 900-odd pages). Aside from a few persistent themes (such as the implication that Pollock was homosexual), there is little narrative shape. The film takes the opposite tack. It is spare and anecdotal, stringing together major moments from Pollock’s early days in New York through his death in 1956: Here Pollock pisses in Peggy Guggenheim's hearth; there he befriends a crow. The story’s rhythm suffers from too little, not too much.

As the movie follows Pollock from downtown to the Springs and down the tubes, we do pick up information. Many of the details are taken directly from primary sources; fans will recognize re-created snapshots and reviews recited verbatim throughout. The period setting of the various locales isn’t bad, although inevitably cleaned up (this is a movie, after all); the tin-ceilinged East Village as much as the pastoral Springs may induce fits of real-estate envy in New York viewers. The Cedar Tavern is here, of course, hosting a short, smoky roundtable with de Kooning, Smith, William Baziotes (Kenny Scharf?!—poor William), et al. Guggenheim’s Art of This Century is especially accurate and entertaining: aggressively, progressively arty, filled with geometric jewelry and largely forgotten art-world figures. Along the way, the film sketches Pollock’s character: a need to impress his mother, sexual difficulties, artistic competitiveness, closeness to nature, inarticulateness.

Aside from his work, the main theme is the relationship between Pollock and Krasner. The script seems to permit complexity: She subordinates her work to promoting and caring for Pollock, but he is not ungenerous (also, by our standards, not unobnoxious), declaring on his first visit to her studio that she is a “damn good woman painter.” The two are represented as partners when things are good; when things are bad, he disregards her emotionally and sexually. Harden as Krasner elicits empathy, and Harris as Pollock is not a complete jerk.

The most laughable part of the movie should have been the painting scenes (think of Nick Nolte in Martin Scorsese’s segment of New York Stories, flinging paint around his loft, all brute force and muscular inspiration). But here the actor-artist is expressive, and also skillful. Harris’s execution is convincing (he trained with artist Lisa Lawley); his Pollock has an ease and an engagement on display only when he paints. Even Harris’s rendition of the earlier work, like Male and Female, 1942, looks good; with the drip paintings, the actor had the advantage of being able to crib from Hans Namuth’s two films of Pollock painting.

The second of Namuth’s documentaries (1951)—the one with the famous “canvas’s-eye view”—also functions anecdotally in Pollock: Its making pushes the psychically fragile artist over the edge. In this interpretation, by now a commonplace in the popular literature, Pollock is split between (private) authenticity and its (public) representation, which sends him into an alcoholic tailspin he kicks off by knocking over a whole Thanksgiving dinner table. As Naifeh and Smith put it in their bio, “By striking a Faustian bargain with Namuth—celluloid immortality for artistic integrity—by clinging to the image of the great artist, he had only confirmed it: he was a fraud.” It is, of course, a great irony that this film portrays a filmic representation of Pollock as the falsification he couldn’t bear.

In the scholarly literature, art historians have tied Namuth’s still photos to Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 essay “The American Action Painters,” as promoting an emphasis on the act rather than the end of painting. But Rosenberg (who actually seems to have had de Kooning in mind) was speaking not only of the existentialist act but the actor, in the more conventional sense. In 1948, he wrote an essay on the character drama that clarifies his point: In artistic or political endeavors, we often deliberately play a role, inhabit a character of our own devising, based on both personal and historical myths. Rosenberg later wrote specifically of Pollock, “In the creation of art, the puppet one makes of oneself is of the first importance.” The myths the artist created “helped make it possible for Pollock to paint under hardships that regularly filled him with despair.” One familiar character is that of the laconically masculine cowboy; critic Thomas Hess referred to another: “‘Jack’ never treated Pollock the Great Painter with irony or at a distance.” In other words, Pollock created and inhabited his own representation before Namuth (or Greenberg, or Life magazine, or Harris) ever got there.

Art professionals will almost certainly criticize Pollock for repeating clichés, for promoting outdated myths, even those generated by the artist himself. Yet they’ll continue to praise the art of the real Pollock, which might never have happened without the support of the preexisting myth. Shouldn’t we learn (or relearn) to take the myth a little more seriously? It doesn’t seem to go away, despite all the carping. Why did “genius” and even “greatness” mean so much to Pollock (and to Krasner)? What did they mean in 1950, as opposed to 1890, and what do they mean now? In a culture that enforces a certain mediocrity, not to mention the tedious conformity of resistance via subculture, the lessons that Pollock and his work embody may have as much to do with artistic ambition and achievement as with freedom or expression (the values that Meyer Schapiro and others championed in the ’50s).

The downside of Harris’s version is the condensation of complex experiences into single dramatic episodes, such as the “breakthrough” when Pollock accidentally discovers drip painting, no Siqueiros or Sobel in sight. This makes achievement seem either too easy or too chancy. But however partial the film’s success in making sense of the material, there’s something valuable or even—dare I say it?—inspiring about the idea that an artist could do something great, despite, or because of, everything.