Robert Mapplethorpe was a groundbreaking photographer who rose to fame in the 1970’s and 80’s. When he was diagnosed with AIDS he increased his artistic output and his market value rose. He would achieve a new level of infamy after his death when conservative politicians arrested a museum curator for displaying his work.
I knew very little about him going in to the film Mapplethorpe. While the screenplay had more nuance than the recent Bohemian Rhapsody it still clung to many biopic tropes. I decided to follow it up with a pair of documentaries that provided valuable context.
Mapplethorpe (2018). Matt Smith plays Mapplethorpe as a vain, angry, troubled man who wanted fame but didn’t analyze his work too deeply. We’re shown lots of his photos but no context to understand why they are important. The film is more interested in how Mapplethorpe mistreated his lovers, friends and brother.
John Benjamin Hinckey is the standout as Sam Wagstaff, the art collector who provided Mapplethorpe with a studio and his first gallery shows. There’s more rough m/m sex in this film than most biopics but Hinckey’s scenes with Smith show us something Hollywood’s even more afraid of; tenderness and intimacy between men. C+
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (2016). HBO’s documentary opens with former Senator Jesse Helms denouncing Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. What follows is a series of candid interviews with models, lovers, curators and siblings. They are mixed with archival video of his early exhibitions. Most adored him, in spite of his mercenary behavior. A rare audio interview with Mapplethorpe suggests that he was his own worst critic.
More interesting are the discussions of his evolving technique and savvy business sense. Mapplethorpe shrugs off some of the philosophy ascribed to his work. He describes a “sense of humor” about it that Matt Smith was not allowed to show. The comprehensive documentary is slow paced but makes a solid companion piece to the 2018 film. B
Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe (2007). I’d written last year about how male partners are often neglected in biopics. Sam Wagstaff was a breath of fresh air, though he often came across as a plaster saint. I was curious to see what dimensions he would acquire in this documentary.
This dry film establishes his lengthy career outside of Mapplethorpe. He fled his wealthy, repressive upbringing and a corporate advertising job to study art at NYU. He used his inheritance to amass “unorthodox and iconoclastic” collections of art, photographs and silver. He’s described as an enigmatic man who compartmentalized his life. This made his personality hard to pin down. Some of the interview subjects say Mapplethorpe treated Wagstaff as a cash cow and drove him to drugs. Others say the relationship freed him to explore his sexuality and pursue his passions. Still, all agree that Wagstaff’s contribution to the art world should be acknowledged and remembered. C-
In May 2019 the film Rocketman will portray the life of singer/songwriter Elton John. The film has gained some hype with discussions of whether or not we’ll see Elton’s (Taron Egerton’s) bare bottom as he cuddles with John Reid (Richard Madden). Mapplethorpe was less inhibited and had less distribution as a result.
Are you a fan of Mapplethorpe’s work? Which of his works resonated with you? Have you seen, or planned to see, any of these films? If so, what do you feel they left out? What biopics would you say transcended the identikit formula?
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