JACK THE DRIPPER


Ed Harris has only directed one film in his career; this one. He hand-carried the property around town for almost 15 years. This stirring heartfelt movie is a testament to his grit and creativity. Like most actors, finally he had to gather a group of friends, find seven other producers, direct and star in it himself, (probably for scale), before he could get it made. Sometimes that can lead to a product that is a travesty, a joke, but certainly not in this case. Harris has given us a lean muscular vision, portraying the life of a great artist and a miserable human being. His father had pointed out to Harris, years ago, that there was a physical resemblance between his son and the artist, Jackson Pollock. But the looks were only a starting point for Harris. He played Pollock completely, living in the painter’s skin, and inhabiting his bones.

Roger Ebert wrote,” Harris may not be a painter, but he sure knows how to look like he paints.” This film stands on the shoulders of most all of the artist bio-pics. Harris as Pollock was better than Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, better than Anthony Hopkins as Picasso, better than Charlton Heston as Michelangelo; and he was equally as good as Anthony Quinn playing Gauguin and Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE.

Harris was fearless in portraying the less sympathetic aspects of Pollock’s personality; the manic depression, the alcoholism, the vaulted ego, and the bottomless insecurity. Having done his research, he was aware that Pollock was originally from Wyoming, and when he came to New York, he was like a hard-drinking brawling cowboy let loose in a world of soft hands, lisps, and ambiguous sexualities; the pre-war art world of NYC. Tennessee Willimas had known Pollock, and it was rumored that he had him in mind when he created Stanley Kowalski.

Ed Harris used it all, integrated it, and wore it like a filthy pair of underwear; crouched in a dark corner staring at a blank canvas, brooding like a Brando, petulant as Picasso, with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, with a beer clutched in one hand and a paint brush in the other, with paint splatters on his dirty t-shirt and torn sneakers, decorating his hands and fingernails; crouching and waiting like a cat studying a bird; like a man is deep water struggling toward the surface, toward the light. And then like a wild animal, he would leap to his feet, motivated and suddenly focused, and he would begin to sketch and paint frantically, like a dog devouring a piece of raw meat, using big bold strokes on large canvases. He would paint like a boxer would punch, in short jabs and roundhouse rights, uppercuts and kidney blows…and soon the painting would begin to appear, like the reluctant guest. Harris was nominated for an Oscar, and he should have won it.

In the early 40’s, Pollock had come to New York to visit with his brother and family. His brother was taking art classes. He tagged along, and then impulsively tried himself. His natural talent began to assert itself immediately; vigorous, original, and intense. When Pollock painted, he seemed free of the demons that normally rode his shoulders, and clutched at his heart; free to soar and glide and float above the terrible pain that pulled him down like a pair of leaden logger boots. Ebert wrote,” Painting was his gift. It lifted him out of his misery. It created a space for him to escape to, to breathe in, to live in.”.

Harris hired two women, Susan Ermshwiller and Barbara Turner [who is the mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh], to write the screenplay. Ermshwiller had mostly worked in the art department, and in set design previous to this effort. Turner had been an actress in the 50’s, and was now a writer. The first rate script hums along in perfect pitch, bending appropriately to make the female characters more accessible, more assured, intelligent, more vital than we have been used to in films; and yet the bitchiness was not left out, nor the sexuality or emotions. Jeff Beal, a film composer who has worked for decades, did the musical score. He has completed the scores for 39 other films. Recently he did the music for HBO’s series CARNIVALE. The score for POLLOCK was full of energy and discordant jumps; a bit like Aaron Copeland’s RODEO. As original as it was however, I found it to be very repetitive. It neede! d another expanded movement badly. The cinematographer was Lisa Rinzler. She had been the lenser for several Indie features, like THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999), and TREES LOUNGE (1996).

In 1949, when LIFE magazine did their famous article on Jackson Pollock, he was labeled,” America’s Greatest Living Painter.” A few months prior to that, he had given one of his paintings to a storeowner to pay for his groceries. The more jaded of his critics called him, “Jack the Dripper”. These are probably the same guys that looked at Picasso’s sculpture of a bull, and called it, “A pair of bicycle handlebars sitting on a pie plate.” Pollock’s super-charged new style smacked of Cubism, and French Expressionism, but ultimately it led the way for Klee and DeKooning into American Abstract Expressionism.

He remained on top of the Art World heap for a decade, but as he faded, so did any grip he had on his demons. He became even more sarcastic, hedonistic, pugnacious, and self-destructive.

Pollock obviously needed guidance, management, and maintenance. His wife, Lee Krasner, provided these things. Marcia Gay Harden did her finest work in this role. She seemed comfortable in the period hairstyles, clothes, and ambience. She moved with the assuredness and compassion of a woman who was the stronger, the wiser, and the most assertive of the pair. She, too, was an artist. But she set aside her art, her ambitions for herself, and became Pollock’s muse, lover, mother, and agent. She loved the man; loved his great talent, loved his spirit, and she set up house with his demons as well. She denied him nothing, except children. Pollock loved kids, and he wanted a family like a man wants a pet. Lee emphatically refused, realizing that taking care of him and his affairs was more than a full-time job. For most of those early years they had to live on love and hope. Pollock reciprocated both, ! when he could, in his own way. Ironically, after Pollock’s death, Lee Krasner picked up her brushes and returned to her painting. Working in his studio, she produced some fine artwork.

Jeffrey Tambor stood out as Clement Greenburg, the art critic who first disliked Pollock’s work, considering it too “muddy”, and then later became Pollock’s champion. Tambor, an underrated actor, has never been better. He created a Clem who could dispense tough love when applicable. Yet as a critic, he almost single-handedly pushed Pollock into the limelight, and when the artist’s work went into decline, Clem was brave and ethical enough to push him out of the spotlight. He had the courage of his convictions, and unlike most people, he wasn’t afraid of Pollock.

Amy Madegan, married to Ed Harris, added a lot to the picture by playing the socialite millionaire patroness Peggy Guggenheim. She startled us with her sweptback coif, and the petty arrogance of a very wealthy woman who collected artists and art like lesser women collected green stamps. Jennifer Connelly was pretty good as Pollock’s young groupie, Ruth Kligman, who would break up his marriage, and die at his side when he drove drunkenly off the road in his Cadillac convertible. This was the year before she and Harris appeared in Ron Howard’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Several other supporting roles were exceptionally cast with strong actors. Bud Cort, who can now play old asthmatic codgers like Walter Brennan used to, was appropriately fussy and effective as Howard Putzel, the Guggenheim majordomo. John Heard as Tony Smith, and Val Kilmer as Willen DeKooning provided likewise effective window dressing ! in well-done cameos. Sada Thompson played Pollock’s mother, Stella, like a deer caught in the headlights. She never seemed to fully get over, or accept, Pollock’s emotional manic-depressive episodes, his drunkenness, and his total insensitivity to those who loved him. Oddly, but realistically, Stella remained unimpressed even after Pollock’s great successes.

This is the best movie ever released about a famous artist. I enjoyed it very much. Any biio-pic about a tragic genius can run astray; can catapult us onto a roller coater of angst, bathos, and madness. Even though Ed Harris took us to all those places, he let the camera stay focused on Jackson Pollock, on the events of his sad brilliant life and career. Ultimately, we were allowed to make our own judgments.

I gave this movie a rating of 4.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus
Teacher, Actor, Writer.