Portrait of the artist as a young man: Robert Mapplethorpe biopic

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday March 5, 2019
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Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe in director Ondi Timoner's biographical film. Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe in director Ondi Timoner's biographical film. Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

How soon we forget! Just over a quarter-century ago, an American Catholic-raised schoolboy, visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), sent shock waves through political and artistic circles. In his provocative photos, subjects ranged from men in brazen states of undress, especially African American men (1980s "Man in Polyester Suit"), to beautiful floral arrangements, to a self-portrait of the artist with a bull-whip up his ass.

In the new biopic "Mapplethorpe," we meet a bratty young Mapplethorpe as played by rising UK star Matt Smith. Smith boasts an IMDB film resume as British cult hero for the adventures of "Dr. Who," and with LGBTQ fans for portraying Christopher Isherwood in the 2011 TV biopic "Christopher and His Kind."

In "Mapplethorpe" we find the young artist receiving his first camera from platonic partner Patti Smith. The story races through a short (Mapplethorpe died from AIDS-related causes in 1989) but historic burst of political and aesthetic energy as Mapplethorpe and friends (including lover-mentor Sam Wagstaff, played by John Benjamin Hickey) confront a vicious assault from the religious right, personified by conservative attack dog Senator Jesse Helms.

Mapplethorpe confesses that in another age, "I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented." One can argue over whether the filmmakers give enough attention to the artist's "crime" among the politically correct of appropriating images of minority men. There is also the issue of how Mapplethorpe allegedly forced his younger artist brother to exhibit under another name, because there could only be one Mapplethorpe. But we finally have a popular biopic that young LGBTQ people can sample, and embrace or reject based on their own views and needs.

For those inspired by this film, I urge them to consult Allen Ellenzweig's comprehensive 1992 volume "The Homoerotic Photograph: Male Images from Durieu/Delacroix to Mapplethorpe," published by Columbia University Press. The book's cover photo is Mapplethorpe's awesome shot of Dennis Walsh in 1976.

In the end, whether you dismiss him as a "shy pornographer" or see him as a leading queer American artist of the 20th Century, Robert Mapplethorpe was one-of-a-kind, and a widely available film bio was long overdue. It's directed by Ondi Timoner, with a screenplay by Timoner & Mikko Alanne. With Marianne Rendón (as Patti Smith), Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kerry Butler. Opens Friday.