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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003
Portrait of the artist as a jerk
By KAORI SHOJI
Ed Harris, one of the finest and most disciplined actors in Hollywood, directs and stars in the title role of "Pollock," the biopic of modern-art giant Jackson Pollock.
The rights to tis project belonged to Harris for more than 10 years. The actor was inspired by the novel (written by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) and tirelessly campaigned to get the movie made. He studied painting to emulate Pollock's famed "drip art" technique (the film wasn't granted permission to use the original paintings). He gained over 20 kg to film scenes of Pollock's final years of dissipation. And he's one of the three executive producers -- which means he paid for a big chunk of it himself.
"Pollock" presents us with the most dedicated of acting artisans playing an artist governed by booze-induced emotional storms and tremendous self-absorption. Unfortunately, Harris never manages to bridge this gap and to the very end, he seems to remain someplace outside his character -- the fascinated onlooker who can't tear himself away.
To Harris' credit, that fascination never teeters into hero worship, and he draws Pollock as he was: America's first great Abstract Expressionist who was, to put it mildly, a drunken jerk. Pollock produced some of the most influential works of the 20th century but away from the canvas he was a depressive, obnoxious alcoholic who alienated his closest friends, ticked off his family and irrevocably damaged his fiercely supportive wife (and fellow painter) Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who bagged an Oscar for this). Toward the end of the story Pollock talks about her with boozy weariness to his mistress Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connelly): "I guess I owe the woman something. Without her I woulda been dead."
Indeed, the film shoulda been called "Pollock and Krasner." Given his lack of personal charm, the Jackson Pollock story would never have stood on its own. No, both he and the film needed Lee Krasner to scold him, praise him, encourage and protect him. She also understood him like no one else: At one point she tells him that he's a man who "needs, needs, needs, needs" -- a most accurate summing-up.
For starters, Pollock needed Lee, the all-forgiving earth mother and stern, discerning disciplinarian. She showed up at his door one afternoon demanding to see his work. She introduced him to Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), moved in to take care of him and later initiated their marriage. She guided him through the messy business of art plus life, even if she had to put her own work on hold to do so. As for him, he literally held onto the hem of her skirt and waited to see what she would do next. She was dominating, he was fumbling. When they first prepare to make love, Krasner has her shirt whipped off while Pollock, at the far end of the room, is still lighting his cigarette. By the time he raises his eyes, she was ready and beckoning.
Is it any wonder then that Pollock's resentment toward Krasner always seems to fester beneath his moody silences and artist's rages? Her unfailing support both uplifted and stifled him, to the extent that he couldn't bring himself to muster one phrase of tenderness. It's always Krasner who's doing the nurturing, Krasner who says "I love you" (in her no-nonsense Brooklyn accent). In one scene when Jackson practically makes out with a young woman in their home in front of other guests, Krasner slaps the girl and then pursues Jackson outside where she kisses him fiercely, feverishly, as if trying to imprint herself on him and make sure there's no question about ownership. He submits to her caresses, but that's about as far as he'll go. Apparently, submission was his way of saying he loved her.
Harris built his career on an aura of austere maturity blended with an All-American boyishness. This was great for roles like the mission commander in "Apollo 13," but in "Pollock," it gets in the way. Harris does his best to yell, throw tantrums, call his wife a "f**king c**t" and upend a table laden with a full Thanksgiving dinner, but he always seems to be, well, acting. The inner demon is quelled by the inner actor/filmmaker who's under a lot of pressure to make this project work and consequently, Harris never occupies the role with the same insight and abandon of Marcia Gay Harden. His Pollock is merely competent rather than inspired.
As such, it's hard to see why a woman as bold, talented and independent as Krasner would fall so hard for the Pollock figure. At times the couple look about as matched as a Parisian libertine with an astronaut -- a pairing that would, perhaps, look better in a painting than on the screen.