(director: Ed Harris; screenwriters: Barbara Turner/Susan J. Emschwiller/based on the book “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith; cinematographer: Lisa Rinzler; editor: Kathryn Himoff; cast: Ed Harris (Jackson Pollock), Marcia Gay Harden (Lee Krasner), Jennifer Connelly (Ruth Kligman), Tom Bower (Dan Miller), Bud Cort (Howard Putzel), John Heard (Tony Smith), Val Kilmer (Willem de Kooning), Robert Knott (Sande Pollock), Amy Madigan (Peggy Guggenheim), Matthew Sussman (Reuben Kadish), Stephanie Seymour (Helen Frankenthaler) Jeffrey Tambor (Clement Greenberg), Sada Thompson (Stella Pollock, his mother), Norbert Weisser (Hans Namuth); Runtime: 117; Sony Pictures Classics; 2000)
“This is a superior film based on the troubled life and career of Abstract Expressionist artist and manic-depressive Jackson Pollock.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is a superior film based on the troubled life and career of Abstract Expressionist artist and manic-depressive Jackson Pollock. It highlights his artistic genius, his tormented inner being, his drunkenness, and his self-destructive behavior. The struggling artist eventually reached financial success, but that offered him no peace of mind. The script concentrates on a relatively short period of his life, beginning with him being discovered by the art world in 1941 and climaxing with his tragic car accident in 1956 when he was driving while drunk and ended up injuring his girlfriend and killing her girlfriend. Art biopics are rarely successful ventures but this film approaches those high caliber art films such as Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse and Paul Cox’s Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh, but falls short because of the film’s inability to get a handle on how to tell about the taciturn artist’s inner demons in a significant way rather than doing it in the traditional bleak and trite way Hollywood films usually illustrate an artist’s failings. In this case his downfall was because he always remained self-absorbed, was childishly irresponsible, and took himself and his loved one down with his uncontrollable inner sufferings. The outer manifestations of this was seen in his alcoholism.
The strength of the film is in the tour de force performances of both Ed Harris as the ‘Action Painter’ Pollock, a role that he is well-suited to play, and Marcia Gay Harden’s understated but brilliant performance as his Brooklyn-born wife and main supporter, Lee Krasner. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, in a lengthy role where she was actually the co-star. But this is Ed Harris’s film, a film he wanted to do as long as 15 years ago after reading a book about Pollock and noticing from a photo how closely he resembled him and how he had a certain vibe for him. He not only directs and stars in the film, but he financed it.
The film opens in 1950, nine years after Pollock’s rise out of obscurity, as he is in Betty Parsons’ gallery, meeting the idolizing Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connelly) who was later on to become his girlfriend passenger injured in the car crash that killed her girlfriend (Kligman was later to go on and write a memoir about him). She timidly asks the artist to autograph the Life magazine article that called him America’s greatest artist and made him famous overnight, as she holds the magazine next to her heart. From there the film flashes back to his struggling years in the Greenwich Village of the early 1940s — to his affair with fellow artist Lee Krasner which begins after she comes to his apartment to admire his experimental art. When married they will move in the mid-1940s to East Hampton, Long Island, and that was followed by Pollock’s blazing rise to success and then his sudden decline due to an alcohol addiction and pressing mental problems. Things move so fast that on one day he owed $56 for grocery money, which he paid for with his painting, and on the next day he was featured in Life magazine and became rich, famous and critically admired.
In his Village days, Howard Putzel (Bud Cort) liked Pollock’s experimental art and introduced him to wealthy art aficionado and patron Peggy Guggenheim (played by Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife). She begrudgingly walked up the 5 flights of stairs to his tenement apartment just to see his art. Because of her patronage — she displayed the unknown artist in her gallery and offered him a monthly stipend — he would become a recognized figure in the art world. His Greenwich Village days were filled with bouts of drinking and being nurtured by Lee, as he needed her encouragement to bolster his sometimes sagging confidence and his ability to screw things up because of his sour disposition. It was also a difficult time financially, as his paintings did not sell. It was noted art critic Clement Greenberg (Tambor) who gave legitimacy to Pollock’s work and more or less authenticated Abstract Expressionism as a real art school, and made it possible for art critics who despised him earlier on to come around a few years later and now call him a great artist.
In East Hampton Pollock develops the drip technique, which Harris duplicates in the intensive way Pollock actually painted. These scenes were brilliantly executed by Harris and made the film a labor of love. What it showed was physically how Pollock actually made his paintings while standing on the canvas placed on the floor and pouring a can of paint over them or controlling his brush to drip the paint on the canvas. Harris was absolutely convincing playing the artist, he looked as if he was a real artist at work.
With success coming Pollock’s way while in the Hamptons came material comforts, and for a two year period he laid off booze; but, all the adulation went to his head. When Pollock was forcing himself to go through the motions of Action Painting for a film showing how he creates his art, he suddenly realizes that he’s a phony and soon gets drunk turning frighteningly violent in front of his household guests.
Pollock is not an overwhelming film, as much as it is a superbly well acted one. It shows how Pollock found freedom only when he painted. He was a flawed man, a very difficult man to get along with who didn’t have much to say about art or life that was particularly interesting. Harris as a director, had a love affair with the artist that was much too respectful to get beyond what we already know about him. Yet he does not play down his flaws or resort to clichés to link his art to his life, but he nevertheless fawns over him much too much and thereby fails to link his driving madness to his artistic visions. In my opinion, Pollock became recognized as a great artist due to a good press and is someone who should be honored because he broke through the traditional way art was perceived, but he should not be honored for being a great visionary. He was someone who lived out the artist fantasy trip by achieving more in style than in substance, even though the film wants us to believe he was truly a great artist. The most perceptively amusing thing Pollock said came in response to a Life reporter’s question: How did he know when his painting was completed?” Pollock responds: “How do you know when you finish making love?”
REVIEWED ON 4/7/2001 GRADE: B+