With some artists, the biography may offer context — it can help explain the art — but the artist’s life is not on display at every moment. Meryl Streep doesn’t put her personal life on screen literally in her performances, and neither do Werner Herzog, Patti Smith or Bruce Springsteen, no matter how personal their work may be. But the life of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe jumps right out of his pictures, and you can’t divorce his sex life from the work.
Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 when he was just 42 years old. He grew up in a conservative, religious Catholic family in the New York borough of Queens. He went to art school at Pratt Institute, was in ROTC, and then quit to struggle as an artist in Manhattan. Pretty soon, he and singer Patti Smith got together — they loved each other — and together they lived the Avant Garde artist life at the famous Chelsea Hotel, where the owner took artwork as collateral for later rent payments, and the neighbors were other struggling artists like Bob Dylan. Smith left when she realized Mapplethorpe was gay. Eventually, Mapplethorpe grew both famous and infamous.
Whatever you think of Mapplethorpe’s subjects, he did stunning work. The photographs are sharp and precise, and blunt in ways that make you shake your head in wonder. Many of the pictures are of male genitalia and sexual positions. Major galleries and museums showed Mapplethorpe’s work, and there were — and still are — repercussions. Supporting Mapplethorpe’s work got the National Endowment for the Arts in permanent trouble. But he also made magnificent images of flowers, and portraits that seem to look right inside his subjects.
Ondi Timoner’s film biography, called Mapplethorpe, traces that life, and the movie does what you hope any film biography will do. It finds some of the meaning of Mapplethorpe’s career, without doing too much damage to the actualities of his life.
Timoner opens the movie with a montage of actual images of Mapplethorpe from childhood — in the washed-out color of home movies in the 1940s and ‘50s — the boardwalk at Coney Island, a baptism, little Robert in a cowboy hat with a six-gun, or in a tie and white shirt with other children at a confirmation. The point is not that this sweet and innocent child grew up to be a sex-obsessed ogre and enemy of American virtue; it’s to show that Mapplethorpe never lost his sweetness and innocence, in a way, even through the cocaine scourge of the ‘80s and a kind of cold arrogance that overtakes him for a while.
It’s a tough balancing act. As Mapplethorpe, Matt Smith looks always a touch inscrutable and maybe surprised by what he encounters in the world and what he does, but never malicious. Early on, he tells Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) about his fundamental sense that beauty and the devil are connected. “I have a certain Catholic aesthetic,” he says.
Timoner and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, keep the film underlit, so nothing looks quite open to the world. The only bright sun in the film comes in those childhood home movies; otherwise rooms are dark, and the outdoors looks uncomfortably flat. Even near the end, when Mapplethorpe sits with his brother on a Central Park bench eating a hot dog, the light is gray and unpromising. So, you wonder, what in Mapplethorpe’s life took away the light. He’s driven, but not morose, and even when the old Floral Park priest comes to visit, it’s not to condemn.
But the mixed tones and the irreconcilable oppositions in Mapplethorpe are welcome. The film never tries to sanitize Mapplethorpe’s life or his work. Most of those photographs will not make good Hallmark greeting cards. This picture of Robert Mapplethorpe is a jumble of talent, desires and attitudes toward beauty — to misquote Bob Dylan — that will please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.