Jackson Pollock, one of the key figures in Abstract Expressionism and America's first postwar art star, was a man destined to be consumed by his own internal fires. As insecure as he was gifted, a full-blown alcoholic prone to frightening rages, he was often on the edge of agony, a prisoner of demons he could no more identify than control.
Putting a figure like this on film, someone so close to the stereotypical Hollywood view of the artist as tormented and self-destructive, is a chancy enterprise. Though it's taken him nearly a decade of involvement to make it happen, Ed Harris, working as star and producer as well as first-time director, has managed to bring it off successfully.
It's not that "Pollock" doesn't have its share of standard, conventional elements--it does. But the intensity of Harris' performance--the best of his career, and that's saying a lot--and his gift for guiding co-star Marcia Gay Harden and cameo performers like Amy Madigan to an equally high level make everything else less important.
More than that, "Pollock" stands out among creative bio-pics for an ability to show art being made in a way that's as realistic and exciting as it's ever been on screen. To watch Lisa Rinzler's expressive shots of Harris as Pollock create his paintings, especially the famously acrobatic drip canvases, to Jeff Beal's Aaron Copland-influenced music is little short of thrilling.
Harris was first attracted to Pollock when his father pointed out how much he looked like the artist, but the actor hasn't stopped with a physical resemblance that is in truth uncanny. Harris has invested himself completely in the part, even changing his cigarette brand and building a studio behind his house so he could throw himself into practicing action painting, finally inhabiting Pollock with an intensity and force of life that is almost frightening.
Going along with this integrity, the film's solidly built albeit old-fashioned Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller script doesn't try to explain how Pollock got the way he was. Aside from a brief reference to the artist being classified 4F for being "too neurotic," it takes an ecce homo (here is the man) approach to his torments, refreshingly avoiding the kind of psychological theorizing that tends to be facile and simplistic.
Harris' Pollock is a complicated man, wary, restless and almost bursting with so much physicality and controlled energy he's as happy breaking a door down as unlocking it. Pollock also radiates the kind of fragility that can be terrifying, displaying enough congenital desperation to cause one character to say, "You remind me of a trapped animal." And he has a way of looking out at the world that is haunted more often than not.
That look confronts us in the film's opening sequence, set in 1950 at a packed Manhattan gallery opening at the height of Pollock's fame, after Life magazine had anointed him America's premier artist and every canvas sold as soon as he touched it. Yet the artist has the face of a man who's seen a ghost, and, we soon learn, the ghost was quite likely himself.
"Pollock" then flashes back nine years, to the artist as a mentally unstable alcoholic living in Greenwich Village with his brother and his brother's disapproving wife. Everything changes for him when a knock on his door reveals fellow painter Lee Krasner (Harden in easily the strongest performance of her career), cheekily introducing herself, as she puts it, to the only Abstract Expressionist in New York she hasn't met.
Raised in Brooklyn, from a Russian Jewish background, Krasner is in many ways Pollock's opposite: She's verbal and self-assured and faces the world with confidence. Both parties immediately sense the possibility of a relationship, but there is a tension as well as a complicity between them, the intuitive knowledge that whatever transpires will be as dangerous as it will be life-changing.
Once they are together, Krasner becomes Pollock's tireless advocate and propagandist. She encourages him in his work, does the best she can with his alcoholic binges, even masterminds his introduction to the eccentric but influential collector Peggy Guggenheim (a dark-haired Madigan in a superb cameo). And she is the driving force in the couple's move to Long Island, where Pollock does his best and most influential work.
Though the film has no shortage of dramatic confrontations or cameos of celebrated people (Val Kilmer, the man of a thousand accents, plays Willem De Kooning; Jeffrey Tambor is influential critic Clement Greenberg; Jennifer Connelly is the beautiful and willing Ruth Kligman), it is to the painting that it always and most successfully returns. Even occasional on-the-nose lines like "You've done it, Jackson, you've cracked it wide open" can't hurt that focus.
Whether it's Harris warily sizing up an enormous blank canvas, looking at it for weeks before picking up a brush, or the eureka moment when he discovers drip painting and then uses it in a way that the film emphasizes is anything but casual and accidental, "Pollock" has an innate feeling for the process of painting that its subject would appreciate. Even in his darkest moments, when success would mock him as even failure never had, Pollock always respected the work, and Ed Harris' film is as successful as it is because it passionately follows the artist's lead.
Pollock, 2000. R, for language and brief sensuality. In association with Zeke Productions and Fred Berner films, a Brant-Allen production released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Ed Harris. Producers Fred Berner, Ed Harris, Jon Kilik, James Francis Trezza. Executive producers Peter M. Brant, Joseph Allen. Screenplay Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, based on the book "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler. Editor Kathryn Himoff. Costumes David C. Robinson. Music Jeff Beal. Production design Mark Friedberg. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock. Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner. Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim. Jennifer Connelly as Ruth Kligman. Jeffrey Tambor as Clement Greenberg. Bud Cort as Howard Putzel.