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Ed Harris paints a stunning portrait of tortured artist Jackson Pollock Dripping with talent

Friday, March 09, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Peggy Guggenheim was not a happy woman. Imagine, making an heiress of her inordinate wealth (and weak ankles) climb five flights of stairs -- twice -- just to see the work of some artist named Jackson Pollock.


RATING: R for language and brief sexuality.

STARRING: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden.

DIRECTOR: Ed Harris.




But the exertion was worth it, for patron and painter. She arranged for his first one-man show, a monthly stipend of $150 and a commission: a mural for the entryway of her New York home. And he was on his path to becoming the subject of a 1949 Life magazine story headlined: "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"

Today, he is known the world over for his paintings done with his famous spattering technique; he drizzled and dripped color and life directly onto the canvas. Although the abstract expressionist once settled a $56 store balance with a painting, his work now sells for millions. Last fall, experts speculated that a 1947 painting owned by private California collectors could fetch $30 million to $100 million at auction.

The film "Pollock," opening today at the Regent Square Theater, suggests the answer to the question posed by Life magazine was "yes." It depicts Pollock as one of the most talented, original and tortured artists of his modern time -- a man who was a genius but who was "too neurotic" for World War II service, who was insecure, self-absorbed and no match for alcohol. He was an abusive, depressive drunk.

"Pollock" was a decade in the making, and Ed Harris not only starred and directed but helped to finance the movie. It's an outstanding film, marred somewhat by an inability to truly pinpoint what made Pollock tick and by some holes in the story near the end. Still, it will shed new light on Pollock the next time you turn a corner in a museum and encounter one of his famous canvases spanning the width of a wall.

The drama opens with an admirer obtaining Pollock's autograph on that famous Life article and immediately spins back nine years to 1941 and Greenwich Village. Pollock is bunking with his brother and pregnant sister-in-law and smarting over the attention lavished on Picasso and the inattention shown to him. A colleague who comes to the door -- painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) -- changes his life and his career trajectory.

Krasner, a Brooklyn native, falls in love with Pollock, a former Californian who had come to New York to join one of his brothers in studying with Thomas Hart Benton. She becomes his girlfriend, wife and tireless champion, sacrificing her career for his.

We watch as Pollock meets the other people who will shape his life, including Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, the star's real-life wife) and her art advance man (played by Bud Cort) and influential critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor). At Krasner's insistence, they marry and move from New York to a Long Island farmhouse where the barn becomes Pollock's studio.

Harris dramatizes the "Ah-hah!" moment when Pollock accidentally drips paint onto the barn floor and loves how it sprays and spatters. Later, when Krasner sees the results of his new technique, she affirms: "You've done it, Pollock. You've cracked it wide open."

It takes a while for everyone else to realize it. Life magazine and the rest of the world eventually recognize his genius, and we watch as the artist reaches the top of his game and then starts the slide down, with a bottle in his hand and a pretty young woman who's not his wife at his side.

Harris the actor uses his expressive blue eyes to show us the artist thinking, intimidated by the canvas that will become Guggenheim's personal mural, and then setting to work, possessed by inspiration. Those same eyes flare with venomous anger and deaden with depression, too.

Harris the director brilliantly segues from a scene with a drunken Pollock -- upending the Thanksgiving table -- to a canvas that almost seems like a map of his mind. It's a tangle of bursts of black, white and gray, and the dark veins seem symbolic of the demons in his life.

"Pollock," which closes with a moody Tom Waits song called "The World Keeps Turning," stumbles near the end. It introduces a girlfriend named Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connelly), but it fails to tell us much about her. Pollock's circle of friends, including Val Kilmer as lookalike Willem De Kooning, gets short shrift, too.

Harris dedicates the movie to his parents. It was his father who sent him a copy of a Pollock biography in 1986 and suggested there might be a movie there. Heck, Harris even resembles Pollock.

The 50-year-old actor, six years older than Pollock was at his death, has always been an unsung Hollywood hero. He consistently does excellent work in films such as "The Truman Show" and "Apollo 13" but rarely cleans up at awards time. Now he's in the running for Best Actor, and Harden is up for Best Supporting Actress, although the Oscar oddsmakers aren't on their sides.

Pollock once said: "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through."

The same could be said of a director and his subject, and Harris lets Pollock come through.

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