“Mapplethorpe” Tries to Capture an Uncompromising Gay Artist on Film

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Mapplethorpe film

A biopic examining the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe arrived in cinemas this weekend. In it, female director Ondi Timoner avoids making the same mistakes as some recent gay biopics. But at the same time, she invents some new ones.

While 2017’s Tom of Finland docudrama was sanctioned and funded in part by the country’s government, it was also missing much of the imagery that made him famous. For a man who made his reputation drawing male anatomy, almost none of his subjects were depicted including what made them male.

Conversely, Oscar winner Bohemian Rhapsody blurs the lines between gay, bisexual and rock star in a colorful whirl of cinematography and epic music. Just the same, the film runs short on facts and long on hagiography.

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Timoner’s Tale

Timoner’s Mapplethorpe puts the human penis front and center, just as the artist would have wanted. There are innumerable shots — his and hers — that linger long enough onscreen to declare the audacity of their artistry.

That’s great, because gay men (and women who enjoy seeing men naked) have had to groan through Hollywood’s breast fixation since cinema began. Straight men get a feast of flesh. Gays get fleeting glimpses of male nudity in dim light at a safe distance, if anything at all. Let’s be clear: the penis is not just what titillates them — it’s core to masculinity. Bare breasts telegraph what makes a character adult, female and desirable. But for males, the cinematic equivalent has typically been bulging muscles, a tricked out ride, or a bigger, louder gun.

Kudos to Timoner, but there’s a bigger problem at work here. It’s the same one that made Tom of Finland a snoozefest and Bohemian Rhapsody a two-hour commercial for Queen’s greatest hits. Who walks out of theaters saying they feel like they spent two hours with that person? With Malcolm X, there’s a sense of meeting the man, warts and all. Likewise Mozart in Amadeus, or comedian Andy Kaufman in Man in the Moon.

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Not So Rough

But Matt Smith (renowned for playing Prince Philip in The Crown series) delivers a detached and conventional performance, and Marianne Rendón provides a Disneyfied portrayal of punk rock poet Patti Smith. Something about their hardscrabble beginnings leaves you thinking you should be able to smell these people from the other end of a subway car — not that you could see them in a commercial for Subway. As the film progresses, she disappears overnight and Mapplethorpe’s character is reduced to what he does, not who he was or how he felt about it.

Guessing the answers to those questions could leave you wrong. But not trying to answer them tells you no more about a person than what they left in a DayPlanner.

It’s absolutely certain that sexuality played a large role in each of the lives of Freddie Mercury, Robert Mapplethorpe and the artist behind Tom of Finland, Touko Valio Laaksonen. But while each film admits that the central character liked gay sex, none of them seem to create a three-dimensional image of what makes them human.

Complexity and contradiction are the stuff of real life. That Mapplethorpe saw equal beauty in flowers and fetish is part of his story, but … just the tip.

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Last modified: August 14, 2019