It was hard not to raise an eyebrow upon hearing how, these past few years, Method man Ed Harris was getting into the head of Jackson Pollock, America's first and most notoriously self-destructive art star. Harris apprenticed himself to the dead artist, spending years learning the intricacies of Pollock's "action painting," a technique that involves hunching over a canvas laid out on the floor, and flinging, spattering, and drizzling paint on it. What's more, he also learned to ride a bike with a case of beer balanced on the handlebars--while smoking, cracking a bottle, and drinking. Now that's achievement!
Aided and abetted by a fawning press, this whole business of great actors taking on great-man roles is rather tiresome. Almost inevitably, the performance of the actor overshadows the life and times of the subject, especially when the subject is a world-famous artist (think Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, or Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh). On top of all that, Harris's insistence on directing Pollock, his first effort in this capacity, seemed to set up the whole endeavor as a vanity project bar none.
So it's all the more remarkable that Pollock succeeds on the merit of its acting, duly garnering Oscar nominations for both Harris and his costar, Marcia Gay Harden. With neither reverence nor revisionism, Harris takes on a much-mythologized subject who remains enigmatic--despite the 900-page biography ( Jackson Pollock: An American Saga) on which the screenplay was based. Both as actor and director, he channels Pollock's magnetism--an unself-conscious, primal quality that had him taming a crow for a pet, or crawling on all fours around his canvases, ritualistically marking them with handprints. Yet Harris avoids succumbing to that magnetism, instead offering an unsparing view of the kind of broken-down mental state that can produce revolutionary art. As Pollock's artist wife, Lee Krasner, Harden is equally uncompromising with an equally complex figure: someone who found her mission in another's life and was simultaneously committed to and resentful of it (not least because Pollock offered her so little in return).
Pollock was a taciturn and severely depressed alcoholic, more or less nonfunctional without a caretaker. When the movie opens, in 1941, that role is served by his brother Sande, with whom he shares a sixth-floor walkup. But news of Sande's leaving New York provokes one of Pollock's many drinking binges, and when Sande and Krasner collect him at the detox unit, he bawls in his brother's arms like a mortally wounded animal. The scene is appalling--and also a concise metaphor for the transfer of responsibility. Krasner was more than willing to take over, having instigated the relationship with him, but she was no starry-eyed supplicant. Rather, this astute observer of the New York art scene, a woman who made it her business to know everybody, had recognized Pollock's genius early on and simply decided it was her destiny to bring it forth.
And yet, despite the bohemian lifestyle, gender rules still applied in this day and age. Within months Krasner, the self-described "cheeky" woman who refused to make coffee for Pollock in her apartment, sacrificed her independence and her career to be not just Pollock's lover and wife, but his cook, his business manager, and his personal coach. In the film, she's shown doting on him continually, reflexively patting his back, answering questions for him--even clipping the guy's fingernails. (Pollock may be a period piece, but things haven't necessarily changed: I personally know women who have cut their artist-lovers' toenails.)
A surly drunk and a bossy, overbearing busybody: Not exactly a match made in heaven, but what came out of it--the artwork--was indeed sublime. And luckily, Pollock and Krasner, with the help of some excellent supporting characters, are compelling enough to carry the movie, because the sketchiness of Pollock's screenplay creates problems. First, there are the clichés. (Is it possible to make a movie about an artist without clichés?) We witness the incremental development of Pollock's action-painting technique, but the film can't resist the myth of a "breakthrough moment," portraying his dripping-paint discovery as an accidental epiphany. As Krasner says later, in a cringe-inducing moment, "You've done it, Pollock--you've cracked it wide open."
While Pollock obviously covers a person and not an entire era, there's some confusion about the wide circle of influential people who surrounded him. Certain characters are highlighted, including eccentric heiress/gallerist/art collector Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), über-critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), and Pollock rival Willem de Kooning (a dorky, toothy Val Kilmer, who somehow calls to mind David Bowie's turn as Andy Warhol in Basquiat). But other names, both of people and paintings, get mentioned without any context. At the same time, even with two viewings, I wasn't able to spot Helen Frankenthaler, the sole female painter in the boys' club known as the New York School, as played by Stephanie Seymour (yes, that's Axl Rose's ex, the underwear model now hitched to Pollock producer and Interview magazine publisher Peter Brant--indicating once again that connections get you everywhere).
Anyway, Pollock does encompass the painter's more legendary moments: peeing in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace, upending the table at his own dinner party, and, most chilling, allowing Hans Namuth to capture his action painting on film at the height of his career. (It has been said that Pollock came to feel as if the filmmaker were sapping his life force; the moment that shooting ended, he went back to the bottle, after two years of sobriety.) Oddly, however, there's little sense of narrative flow. Instead, the movie has a slightly stilted quality that makes the whole seem less than the sum of its parts. This, taken with Harris's no-strings-attached direction and the strange choice of cloyingly peppy orchestral music accompanying the art-making scenes (which brings to mind NPR's Marketplace theme), can make the film seem like a public-television production. In a way, it's "all surface," to borrow the term that Greenberg ascribed to abstract expressionism. That the actors can penetrate it to portray their characters' depth is a testament to their skills. After all, an insightful picture in a subpar frame is far preferable to elevating shoddy work with an elaborate setting.
Pollock starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.