Ed Harris’ decade-long quest to play Jackson Pollock in a biopic of the tormented, tipsy American painter’s life had a feeling of inevitability about it. Harris is nearly a dead-ringer for the mid-life Pollock, and Pollock’s life seems to fit so well into the live-fast-die-oddly mold so favored in Hollywood artist biographies. The movie is a tantalizing combination of subject and artist.
That’s the biggest strength of Pollock, the new film in which Harris directed himself to an Academy Award nomination. He gives that rare kind of performance in which the actor seems so suited to play the part that we can’t tell where one begins and the other ends.
Pollock purists may quibble over certain aspects of the boorish painter’s life that are left unexamined. But it’s pretty clear Harris gives a definitive interpretation of the man—as well as what’s likely the best performance in his mostly wonderful career. In everything from the stare of manic intensity while Pollock drips his masterpieces to the way this consciously self-important man avoids eye contact whenever possible, Harris shades and outlines the artist in every scene, and it’s tremendous fun to watch an actor trying this hard.
The film itself is harder to examine. Pollock’s truncated, sloppy, incomplete life is simply a difficult source from which to cull a satisfying film. Harris and screenwriters Susan Emshwiller and Barbara Turner do an admirable job of selecting samples and poignant moments from Pollock’s life, but in the end, that’s all they are. The film is a collection of powerful scenes that come together in something very close to a cohesive story. That they barely fail is no shame.
Harris’ best storytelling decision is to mostly avoid the intellectualization of Pollock’s art—and the sentimentalization that would undoubtedly follow. As played by Harris, Pollock is a blue-collar worker whose vocation happens to be painting. There’s not much standing around and talking about what Pollock means to the world, and when there is, Harris’ hollow look shows just how unromantic this film is determined to be.
Pollock’s demons—alcoholism, severe depression, a childlike temperament including tantrums and massive self-doubt—are elucidated at length, but when he’s in the studio, Harris plays Pollock as a master craftsman. Aside from their uncanny physical resemblance, Harris and Pollock have a common method of expression in completely different art forms; Harris has mastered the instinctual, submerged expression that characterizes Pollock’s art.
The painting scenes are the most satisfying in the film. Set to Jeff Beal’s clever Copland-influenced original score, we feel a common energy with Pollock’s intense gaze at the work he’s creating. When he accidentally discovers the drip method that made his reputation (a discovery of dubious historical accuracy, but which makes a fine film moment), we’re at his side, watching the artistic light go on.
While Harris is the heart of the film, Marcia Gay Harden is the nerve center. As Lee Krasner, Pollock’s intelligent and protective wife and fellow painter, Harden is a mother and a colleague to her unstable husband. Harden’s performance, complete with a clipped Brooklyn accent and a Bettie Page hairdo, is that of another confident actor taking a juicy part and making every correct choice with it.
In order to cram everything into two fast-moving hours, Harris was forced to forego mention of the potpourri of childhood influences on Pollock’s art, and the more abusive later years of his relationship with Krasner are only skimmed. But their early years together in Manhattan and their subsequent move to the rural East Hamptons (where Harris actually filmed inside the couple’s old house) are told with episodic grace and excitement.
In subtle tones, Harris reveals Pollock’s twin obsessions: his painting, and his worry that he was actually the artistic phony so many thought him to be. Watching Harris work so hard in this imperfect film is not unlike viewing a Pollock. Both are the products of talented artists completely sure of themselves, yet still terribly concerned about what others think. Pollock convincingly relates the beauty and tragedy of a life in art; what the overall picture means is still open to interpretation.
Pollock (R) HHH Directed by Ed Harris. Starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, and Amy Madigan.