Robert Mapplethorpe, subject of the dramatized narrative film Mapplethorpe, makes a pretty anemic-looking cadet in his military uniform, anxiously smoking cigarettes and spinning 45-RPM records in his Brooklyn, New York, dorm room. He immediately goes AWOL to swinging Manhattan, the place where the future was happening in 1969. Played by Matt Smith, this impressionable young man from a conservative Catholic family, is ready to take his innermost secret proclivities out for a walk.
Where that walk leads him is the selling point of this titillating yet cool-nerved portrait of the artist by filmmaker Ondi Timoner, a look into the life and times of one of the most celebrated fine arts photographers — and one of the most controversial public homosexuals — of the late lamented 20th century. As such, Timoner’s movie is primed to appeal to audiences who are already up to speed, or at least clued in.
Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was an archetypal trickster and provocateur. His studies of BDSM demimondaines, noteworthy penises, delicate flowers, and the inevitable celebrities made him the darling of the sophisticated urban art world but an easy target for offended squares — galleries are still getting busted, 30 years after his death, for daring to display his photos. Mapplethorpe will probably never play theaters in Trumpland.
In one sense, Timoner’s vision acts as a gloss on Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids about rooming with Mapplethorpe at the notorious Chelsea Hotel. From Smith’s point of view, she and he were kindred spirits groping their individual ways to fame in the hurly-burly of the New York underground scene. In the movie, the idealized Patti (Marianne Rendón) is a bed buddy/little sister, the ideal “girlfriend” beard for his uptight parents, who are forever snooping into his life. Smith departs the movie before the meat course arrives, about the time he gets his first Polaroid — the Hasselblad would come later.
Robert has a good eye, the better to document the passing parade of art poseurs. Acid, flirtations, bondage, bum trips, leather bars, the occasional trick, and his perennial musings on the dichotomy of “beauty and the devil” take up screen time as he climbs the ladder. Gallerists are afraid of his work (“I can’t sell this. I can’t even show this.”) He’s too risqué and outré. But collector/lover Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) understands him, and the “art snob fag” dealers eventually come around — although they prefer his Deborah Harry and Arnold Schwarzenegger portraits to the hard stuff.
Mapplethorpe has a thing for Black men, and that opens up a disturbing facet of his personality. The “bag-head Black man” incident, in which he puts a bag over the head of a reluctant model, reveals our hero as a patronizing, mercantile, exploitative, objectifying, racist, dehumanizing onlooker, a vulture feasting on other people’s weaknesses. In other words, a typical pop artist of the 1980s, no different than Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger or anyone else. Just because he subsequently develops HIV/AIDS does not let him off the hook on this.
Filmmaker Timoner presents these faults as a given, neither glorifying him nor wallowing excessively in his death at age 42. He may not have been a bohemian saint, but he was certified prankster with a hard-on. In fact, the “wrong flowers” joke, in which the hospitalized artist accidentally receives someone else’s bouquet on his deathbed, is an inspired bit of deflationary humor, whether it’s true or not.
The truth finally comes to mean very little compared to his place in the culture as a reflection of a certain strain of American contrarianism. In actor Smith’s nicely paced and nuanced performance, Mapplethorpe is a selfish rebel redeemed, just barely, by his aesthetics. Nothing more but also nothing less. We can’t honestly weep for him but we can still admire his dissatisfaction.