Directed by Ed Harris. Starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Jennifer Connelly, Jeffrey Tambor, John Heard, Val Kilmer. (2000, R, 122 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 9, 2001
Calling Pollock a labor of love is like saying Marilyn Monroe was easy on the eyes. The statement does a disservice to all involved. Harris (this is his directorial debut) first became enamored of his subject some 15 years ago when his father sent him a biography of the artist and noted that the two men looked alike. Harris' fondness for playing conflicted Everymen also mirrors Pollock to some degree; his characters in The Abyss, Knightriders, and Glengarry Glen Ross are perpetually torn asunder by their warring emotions, and his role as Christof in The Truman Show was pure Pollock egocentrism. Harris doesn't shy away from the more salacious aspects of Pollock's career -- the alcoholism, the tantrums, the general air of manic depression that overhung not only his personal life but also so much of his work. These things are, of course, entirely in the realm of Pollockiana, and to be sure, the film holds few if any revelations for even the most offhanded follower of American 20th-century art. What makes Pollock such a powerful, lovely film, is Harris' consummate attention to detail: Not only does Harris look like Pollock, the film itself seems drenched in period detail. You can practically smell the oils, the cigarettes, and the beer. The film opens in November 1941, with Pollock, drunk, in a Greenwich Village stairwell, hollering “Fuck Picasso” at the top of his lungs, which is as good a way to start the film as any. Moments later, we're introduced to another painter and Pollock's eventual spouse, Lee Krasner (Harden), who literally pops her head into Pollock's hung-over apartment (“Being cheeky, I just drifted on over here,” she says through a mouthful of Brooklyn) and makes friends. Shortly thereafter, this intellectual tough cookie makes somewhat more than friends, and from that point forward Krasner and Pollock are, if not a couple, then certainly a working team, until the (very) bitter end. When she shows him her own art, it's the best cinematic foreplay I've seen in years. There's a gorgeous shot of Krasner undressing in the background, framed by light from an open door, as a befuddled Pollock hovers uncertainly in the fore, and Harris fills the movie with such heady images. There's Pollock urinating in Peggy Guggenheim's (Madigan) fireplace, Pollock trundling up the road with a case of beer slung over the handlebars of his bicycle, Pollock roaring drunk -- petulant and weeping and needy. Harris knows a dramatic moment when he spies one, and the film is chock-full of choice bits and spot-on characterizations from the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (as Pollock's critical savior-turncoat Clement Greenberg), Jennifer Connelly (as Ruth Klingman, Pollock's mistress), and an odd and endearingly geeky Val Kilmer (as Willem de Kooning). The heart of Harris' film -- as it was for Pollock -- is in the actual sweaty work of painting, the uncorking of the Djinn within that allowed the artist temporary sanctuary from his demons. Here Harris truly excels. One magical scene shows Pollock creating a mural commissioned by Guggenheim: He stands eyeing the massive, empty canvas, which is set against a wall, and then begins slashing the brush at it in huge, bold, black strokes, a flurry of movement, then a riot of color, all set to a pulsing string score by Jeff Beal. You shudder with delight at this privileged glimpse into the birth of such terrifically vigorous art, and we haven't even come to Pollock's “drip” period yet. Whatever else, Harris wields a mean paintbrush; it's art as machismo. If Pollock's work is the heart of the film, then Marcia Gay Harden's Krasner is its soul. Without her investment in him, Pollock's life and work would likely have been vastly altered, and Harden's performance is a flat-out revelation, every bit as good as her star turn in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (where she played another gorgeous toughie with an impenetrable accent). Pollock is that rare breed, a biopic that makes you want to learn more about its subject, as much as you can, as fast as you can.