Pollock on film

Ed Harris’ film on artist Jackson Pollock is filled with great performances

Starring Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by Ed Harris. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Ed Harris makes a very credible movie incarnation of the great abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. But the turbulent movie Pollock, which Harris also directed, sometimes treats the painter’s character and life rather as if it were a Pollock painting—overwhelming, enigmatic, a roiling surface lit up mainly by explosions of furious gesture and half-articulated passion.

The basic premises are uncomfortably close to the romantic agonies of the standard Hollywood biopic for great artists or the genius as tortured misfit and misunderstood neurotic, etc., etc. But Harris and company give only the merest hints of pop-psychoanalysis with their central character, and the portrait that emerges is a quasi-cubist collage of disjointed flaws and imponderables—the unnamed demons, the emotional inadequacies, the blackouts of basic social skills, the near-catatonic silences, the reckless bursts of sublime invention.

But while the movie’s Jackson Pollock is often a self-destructive lout whose magnificent creativity is both his redemption and his doom, the film’s own redemption lies slightly to the side of its portrait of the artist.

Harris and company have concocted a lively picture of Pollock’s muddled milieu in the New York art world of the 1940s. And, better yet, they have sketched out a grittily pragmatic picture of Pollock’s marriage to painter Lee Krasner (an Oscar-winning performance by Marcia Gay Harden).

Indeed, Harden’s Krasner is the real heart of the movie. Krasner gave crucial shape and direction to the artist’s life and career and showed heroic insight in guiding him through the incoherence and self-destructiveness that shadowed his entire existence. Harden is especially effective in rendering Krasner as a devoted wife whose lucidity and aggressiveness shield her from masochistic self-sacrifice.

Harris’ direction and Liza Renzler’s cinematography give us several vivid demonstrations of Jackson Pollock as “action painter,” and of the physical nature of the painter’s relation to the canvasses on which he drips, splatters, dabs and paints. Harris the director maintains an interesting distance from Harris the actor, which contributes crucially to the detached sympathy in the film’s overall view of Pollock as a larger-than-life striver aching to make some sort of gestural testament before the inevitable flameout.

The lead performance is a striking mixture of occasional near-ecstatic frenzies and stony silences and stillness. But the director also gets very good work out of an excellent cast. In addition to Harden’s justifiably admired work in the beacon-of-sanity role, there are several memorable bits among the supporting players fleshing out the film’s gently caricatured picture of the New York art world circa 1945—Amy Madigan (Harris’ wife offscreen) as an imperious Peggy Guggenheim, Jeffrey Tambor as critic Clement Greenberg, Val Kilmer as fellow abstract expressionist Willem DeKooning and Bud Cort as a fawning art collector.