It is said that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Never has that adage seemed more applicable than in the public’s reactions to the works of Robert Mapplethorpe. Praised as a masterful photographer by many and labeled heretic and sinner by others, his work ranged from commercially viable portraits of flowers to darkly erotic and sensual portraits of gay men, often naked and engaging in what might be labeled “kinky” activities. It comes as no surprise that the man behind these creations was as complex and layered as his work.
Coming to renown in the 1970’s as the bad boy of photographic art, Mapplethorpe stayed there until his all too early demise (only 42 yrs. old) in 1989 due to complications from AIDS.
MAPPLETHORPE – The Director’s Cut, is director Ondi Timoner’s recut of her 2018 release. By including more scenes from his childhood including verbal beratings from his father and his early interest in photography, Timoner gives us a more complete understanding of the events that shaped Mapplethorpe’s vision of the world. Shot in only 19 days and on a very tight budget, Timoner nonetheless gives the film a feel of 1970’s bohemian lifestyle in New York. The performances are all first rate. As Mapplethorpe, Matt Smith (Dr. Who, The Crowm) gives a mesmerizing performance. You can see the glint in his eye as a moment or a person becomes his next obsession to capture on film. To Mapplethorpe, people were often seen as objects to capture or a means to an end. Although he clearly had long lasting relationships with various people throughout his life, they often lacked any real depth, at least that he could express. Yet he longed for people to like him for himself, no doubt a result of his father’s constant reminders of his uselessness. The film was shot almost in reverse as Matt Smith lost 20 pounds off his already thin frame for the scenes of Mapplethorpe ravished by AIDS giving an extra poignancy to those scenes.
John Benjamin Hickey (Tony award winner for THE NORMAL HEART) plays Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s benefactor and eventually, lover. With just a look, he manages to convey all the hurt and pain inflicted by Mapplethorpe during their affair when he walks in on Mapplethorpe in a threesome with two of his models. Yet until his death, he makes it clear that he always was in love with the driven artist he brought to international acclaim.
Marianne Rendon gives a warm performance as the pre-rocker Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s first lover and one-woman support team. As likeable as she is in the role, the part as written is missing some of the edge that made Patti Smith a punk rock star just a couple of years later.
MAPPLETHORPE – The Director’s Cut gives a fascinating yet harsh view of the life of an artist who wanted both fame and success and also wanted people to bend to his vision of art almost to the point of worship.
This film struck a personal chord with me, having lived through that era, residing just 2 blocks away from the Hotel Chelsea where Mapplethorpe and Smith first lived in NYC, and having seen many of my closest friends die from AIDS related causes at that time. It opens this April at selected theatres.*