Artist Biopic Films

When you can’t get to a museum…

Rembrandt – 1936 Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, directed by Alexander Korda with Elsa Lanchester, Gertrude Lawrence, Roger Livesey. A parentheses depicting the aging painter after his wife’s death as he veers toward darker representation despite its unpopularity and accompanying depletion of resources. Little storyline, but a sympathetic look at the unhappy, egotistical artist and his period. Visually adroit. Laughton is compelling. Netflix

Vincent Van GoghLust for Life 1956 based on the 1934 novel by Irving Stone. Kirk Douglas (who strongly resembles the painter) in a slice of biographical tour de force. From exiled ministry in a poor mining community where he chronicles but alienates the poor, to stalking an attractive cousin, to Paris where he houses and is then rejected by a prostitute/model who can’t bear the poverty, to Arles, which seems, at last, like a refuge.

With the help of his gallerist brother Theo, who supports Vincent, Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) joins him in the south of France. The two volatile men can’t manage to live together. When hallucinations start, Vincent enters a mental institution establishing a close relationship with its founding doctor of which we see little here. He eventually returns to painting, but in the countryside one day, kills himself. (There are conflicting theories on whether it was, in fact, suicide.) Vivid. Amazon Prime and Netflix

Vincent Van GoghAt Eternity’s Gate 2018. Written, directed, and co-edited by Julian Schnabel with William Dafoe as the artist. These are Van Gogh’s last years. While Douglas externalized, Dafoe internalizes him, offering a more thoughtful, though equally agonized interpretation. This version conjectures the icon may not have killed himself, actually playing out an alternative possibility. Oscar Isaac plays Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend, Van Gogh’s brother Theo. Slow, but intriguing. Netflix

Alberto GiacomettiFinal Portrait 2017 Written and directed by Stanley Tucci with Geoffrey Rush as the artist, Armie Hammer, Clemence Poesy, Tony Shaloub. 1964 Paris. When Giacometti runs into old friend and critic James Lord, he asks the young man to sit for him. Flattered, the writer accepts.

What Lord thinks will be a few days turns into weeks, entangling him in Giacometti’s turbulent life and a tempestuous romance. He does, however, gain an understanding of what compels the man to try to catch what he sees between blinks, as, to some degree, do we. Lord wrote an excellent book, his point of view as sitter (minus romance and diversions), illustrated by his progressive photos of the work: A Giacometti Portrait. Netflix

Jackson Pollack – Pollack -2000. Adapted from the book Jackson Pollack: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Directed by and starring Ed Harris. An excellent cast includes, in part, Marcia Gay Harden as artist/wife Lee Krasner, Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim, Sada Thompson as Stella Pollack, Jeffrey Tambor as Clement Greenberg.

The life of the alcoholic, abstract expressionist emerges firmly in Harris’s teeth. It’s a visceral study of what seems to be a bipolar man who crashed through art’s traditional forms with splats and airstrokes becoming an enfant terrible late in life. Market politics, fallout of friends and lovers, the subject’s mercurial temperament take us from New York to Long Island, from poverty to celebration to death. Marvelous acting. Well represented, real-time painting. Beautifully researched detail. Amazon Prime and Netflix

Frida KahloFrida – a 2002 film produced by and starring Salma Hayak as the surrealist Mexican painter. Directed by Julie Taymor with her wildly creative stamp all over it. Of all artist biopics, this one leads you furthest into the mind and spirit of its subject. Paintings literally come to life. Hayak is terrific.

Impaled by a metal pole in a bus accident at 18, Frida Kahlo had countless operations, remaining debilitated and in pain her entire life. Art came to her almost accidentally, at first presented as therapy. Even as a young woman, she was a force of nature. A passionate, dysfunctional relationship with womanizing husband, painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), is matched by her own bisexual dalliances. We see both careers rise in Mexico and New York, meet Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), with whom she has an affair, and patron Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton). To the end of her aborted life, she burned with creativity. Amazon Prime and Netflix

J.M.W. Turner – 2014 Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. The last 25 years of the artist’s life is manifest with outside-Hollywood-delicacy. Turner is adored by and sexually uses a taken-for-granted housekeeper, travels, works, and establishes a relationship with a seaside landlady with whom he spends the rest of his life incognito. Cinematography is painterly. We see through his eyes. A quiet film. Amazon Prime and Netflix

Top Bigstock photo: NEW YORK – AUGUST 23: View of the Van Gogh painting in the Museum of modern art in New York on August 23 2015.

About Alix Cohen (900 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.