review by Elias Savada, 23 February 2001

One need not be a fan of the audacious style of Jackson Pollock to admire Ed Harris’ decade-long journeyman effort to bring the tortured life of one of America’s true originals to the screen. It's an tremendously ambitious project, staged simply yet with bold performances that have earned Harris and co-star Marcia Gay Harden Academy Award nominations as the explosive, self-destructive genius and his deliberately self-sacrificing wife/den mother Lee Krasner. The film's two hours' length compresses fifteen years into a exhausting, snippet-filled portrait of the artist as a troubled man, sputtering, stalling, and ultimately collapsing into an alcohol- and depression-steeped death. Pollock's end in the summer of 1956 came less than a year after James Dean's demise robbed the '50s of another important icon. They shared nothing in common save that they both ended their lives with their feet on the accelerator pedal and their heads in the clouds. Whenever a super-sized personality as talented as Dean or Pollock is cut short, it's inevitable that we pause and reflect on what could have been. Last week it was Dale Earnhardt's final drive that shared another undeserved spotlight. We collectively mourn for these stars that dim too early. James Dean had a postage stamp honoring him. Now, with a distance of nearly fifty years, Ed Harris wipes off the crusty tears, lifts the black veil, and mails you his ruggedly honest missive about the dark side of America's first "Art Star." Actually, what Harris hand delivers is a whomp to the sides of our heads with his booze-filled memoir of the tormented abstract expressionist fighting, and eventually losing, the battle against too many personal demons daring him onward and downward.

The script by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller (based on the book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) casts the painter's circle with formulaic glimpses never fully developed. It dashes about the New York landscape, landing in a gutter here, a bedroom there, before settling down at The Springs, the actual Pollock/Krasner property where most of the movie was filmed. The characters tear about too briefly to register beyond Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams) as art doyenne Peggy Guggenheim and Jeff Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) as Clement Greenberg, a critic who championed the artist for the New York intelligentsia. The rest of the top-billed cast barely makes an appearance beyond a few minutes of screen time. Jennifer Connelly pops up only during the last twenty minutes as an easy squeeze for the philandering Pollock. Bud Cort (God Bless Harold and Maude!) is nearly unrecognizable in the early going as Harold Putzel, a.k.a. The Eyes of Peggy G, looking decades older than he could possibly be. The screenplay fails to adequately define Jackson's brothers beyond a worrisome brood concerned about the fame and liquor going to his head. Val Kilmer has a walk on (two, actually) as artist Willem DeKooning, and John Heard has a few lines in the role of "trusted friend Tony Smith." Director Harris affords the well respected cast preciously little quality screen time while he and Harden battle it out in front of the crowd. No ensemble flick here.

The film begins on November 28, 1950, with Jackson celebrated at a well attended showing of his work at the Betty Parsons Gallery. He's the talk of the town and gawked at by fans unaware of his weakening mental condition. Moments later we're back to a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the kernel of Jackson's eventually melancholy seeded with his sponging off brother Sande and his irritable, pregnant wife in their cramped Greenwich Village tenement apartment, his alcoholism already tearing at the family's soul. More and more of the same follows, tempered by the arrival of inquisitive neighbor/fellow artist Krasner, a brash Brooklynite who pushes herself into Pollock's life, even after he offers her the left-handed compliment, "you're a damned good woman painter." Their tenuous relationship is handled rather nicely. Pollock's eyes are terminally pointed downward, his anxiousness subdued as he stands in Krasner's darkened hallway. He's an unwitting voyeur as she disrobes in distant silhouette. Her control of his life begins here, as she unbuttons the wooden puppet that he is. It's a damned good scene that shows Harris' promise as a director. He's got another, during one of Jackson's early artistic epiphanies. After spending months searching for inspiration, he springs before a large canvas, furiously hurling brushloads of pigment. Lit from behind the artist, the shadow of the creator reflecting off the work imprints him within the picture. It's quaint, but effective.

Director Harris paints his cinematic canvas with slow-paced deliberateness, whether watching the chain-smoking Pollock mope around a barren room or try to light a match. You might feel pummeled by all the abundant mood swings, perpetual alcoholic binges, embarrassing situations, and tossed tables. Pollock is a definitely a bitter cup of tea, and probably not one that will endear itself to repeated viewings. Ed Harris and his directorial hand dyes this peculiar American legend with Technicolor hues (thanks to director of photography Lisa Rinzler and production designer Mark Friedberg) and the musical palette of Jeff Beal's jazzy score and plucky theme music. You won't find a touch of sentimentality around, just troubling truths aching for an audience.

Click here to read Cynthis Fuchs' interview.

Directed by:
Ed Harris

Ed Harris
Marcia Gay Harden
Amy Madigan
Jennifer Connelly
Jeffrey Tambor
Bud Cort
John Heard
Val Kilmer
Matthew Sussman
Norbert Weisser
Sada Thompson

Written by:
Barbara Turner 
Susan J. Emshwiller

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13








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