Van Gogh was a lunatic who cut off his ear. Picasso was a self-absorbed cur who abused women. Warhol turned out to be a weird, desperate loner, Basquiat a doomed junkie. Try as he might, shriveled little Toulouse-Lautrec failed miserably at romance. As for El Greco's explosive affair with that Spanish firecracker ...
Have we missed anybody? If you're a famous painter and you've got some demons raging inside your skull, it won't be long until somebody in Hollywood makes a movie that reduces you to your most colorful trait. Major personality problems are essential. You may be able to paint like Rembrandt on acid, but if you're a little short in the self-destruction department or haven't poisoned any wives lately, you'll wind up at the back of the line, biopic-wise. American moviegoers like their artists to be, well, artistic -- which, by the conventional wisdom, means tormented. And terminally unhappy. And impoverished -- at least to start. And crazy in a pseudo-romantic kind of way.
The great abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock fits the bill perfectly. He wasn't just a raving drunk given to turning over dinner tables and peeing in socialites' fireplaces; he replied to the self-sacrifice of his devoted wife, Brooklyn-born fellow painter Lee Krasner, by wrecking their house in East Hampton and taking up with a girl half his age. Early in his career, he apparently liked to stand at the top of the garret stairs with a snootful of whiskey and scream such oaths as "Fuck Picasso!" He descended into silent funks, resented his rivals and, once he achieved success, bragged about it endlessly to friends and family.
This is the Pollock we meet in Pollock, a bawdy yet distinctly reverent portrait of the artist wrought by actor (and now director) Ed Harris (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Right Stuff). It is by no means the most shallow tortured-painter movie ever made, because Harris' performance in the title role is full of passionate intensity, and Marcia Gay Harden brings to the thankless Krasner part great shading and subtlety. The lean and hungry Harris even went so far as to gain 30 pounds and grow a beard to portray Pollock in his later years, and all 122 minutes of his effort clearly represent a labor of love.
What you won't get from this festival of misbehavior, though, is much sense of Pollock's motivating ideas. A Life reporter asks him, "How do you know when you're finished with a painting?" and he answers, "How do you know when you're finished making love?" But what was the former student of Thomas Hart Benton thinking when he suddenly reinvented painting in early 1947, splashing industrial paints in swirls and tangles onto huge canvases spread flat on the floor of his studio and capturing the spirit of his age? Pollock's early champions, especially art critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), called the new work "action painting" and hailed it as the first major stylistic advance since Cubism. "You've done it," Krasner exults here. "You've cracked it wide open!"
Pollock's detractors, of course, didn't see anything of the sort. They dubbed him "Jack the Dripper" (a moniker curiously absent from this screenplay, by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller) and called him a fraud, which served only to further stoke the fires of his rage. In another art-biopic trope, the misunderstood giant slumps into his local general store on Long Island and offers one of his soon-to-be-priceless canvases as payment for a $56 grocery bill.
Happily, the dynamism of Pollock's paint-dripping method and the scale of his paintings are well suited to filming. When Harris, looking curious and somehow transformed, first waves his brush over the floorboards, we feel the tingle of discovery, the sense that something important is happening here. But that thrill doesn't last long. Despite his best intentions, Harris -- like the directors of Moulin Rouge or Lust for Life -- seems more interested in Pollock's emotional misery than in the quality of his work. To that end, though, he does produce some wonderfully telling moments. When the imperious art patron Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) finally gives him the nod of approval, we see the commingled relief and resentment her power evokes in him. And there's an absolutely beautiful scene halfway through the picture with an enormous empty canvas hanging on the wall in dim light, its expanse haunted by the pacing shadow of the artist himself. Here, in one startling image, we see a career in crisis, a career yet to be.
Unfortunately, there's too little of that in the movie. Pollock is a reasonably entertaining -- and occasionally quite moving -- picture of one of the 20th century's greatest artists. But it fails to go in very deep or come up with much beyond the same tortured-genius clichés moviemakers have for decades hung on almost anyone unfortunate enough to simultaneously raise a paintbrush and smash a wineglass.