When Life magazine asked its millions of readers whether Jackson Pollock was the greatest living painter in the United States back in 1949, there wasn't any need to wait around for an answer. Simply by posing the question'and by posing the artist in front of one of his big-as-the-whole-outdoors drip paintings'America's photojournalistic tastemaker had set the Pollock myth in motion. Pollock would continue to do his part, of course, coming on like the last of the cowboys in his T-shirt and jeans, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, painting up a storm but drinking up a storm as well, and then checking out in an automobile crash that may have surpassed James Dean's from the year before. (Pollock had two women in the car with him.) It's said that Tennessee Williams based Streetcar
Not in Ed Harris' admirably restrained Pollock, which wants to show us the man behind the myth'a tortured man who tried to balance the agony of life with the ecstasy of art. "You remind me of a trapped animal," the flamboyant art dealer Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, almost impossible to recognize behind that makeup and hair) says to Pollock after he's capped off a soiree in her penthouse apartment by pissing in the fireplace. Much later in the movie, Pollock will offer his own animal metaphor: "I feel like a clam without a shell." And that's where Harris has pitched his performance, somewhere between fight-or-flight and utter hopelessness. We've seen tortured artists at the movies before, of course, from Michelangelo to Basquiat. And we've seen artists who tortured others, most recently in Surviving Picasso. But rarely have we been presented with such a cold-eyed stare at an artist whose ability to paint seems all wrapped up in his inability to do anything else.
Unlike so many movies about artists, Pollock nails both the art and the art world. Harris has obviously done his homework, and the scenes where he spatters and splatters paint on a canvas are nothing less than thrilling'Pollock as The Last Action-Painting Hero. And though the movie never quite makes the case for Pollock's importance in the history of art, it leaves us with a profound respect for how much effort goes into making something look spontaneous. And for the doubts that can cripple even a great artist (especially a great artist). Pollock is, in part, a love story, with Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, the woman who guided Pollock to fame, if not fortune. And the movie does a wonderful job of portraying a marriage that was based, not just on love and respect, but on the willingness to sacrifice everything for art. As Harden's proud performance indicates, Krasner knew exactly what she was getting into, and she could more than hold her own against Jack the Dripper.
As an actor, Harris is from the School of Brando'virile, intense, with suggestions of tender poetry in there somewhere. He doesn't have the early Brando's implosive power. (Who does?) He's not as dangerous in repose. And his military bearing doesn't seem right for Pollock, who was 4-F'"too neurotic," he tells someone in the movie. But Harris looks a great deal like Pollock, with his skull's-head handsomeness and tight-muscled frame, and the shyness that comes through in all of Harris' performances works for him here. (Pollock was, like so many strong and silent types, profoundly shy.) To their credit, the filmmakers don't try to explain Pollock, although the movie's based on a 934-page biography that explains him to death. Instead, they've done what Pollock always did in his work: let the movie find its own way to get its points across. What we're left with is a strangely calm portrait of a man who, if only when left alone with his dribbles and puddles of paint, was happy as a clam.