Currently in rotation on HBO (as well as HBO2, HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand) are three fascinating new documentaries featuring LGBT subject and filmmakers.
The first is “Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures,” the first comprehensive look at the life and times of the controversial gay artist (1946-1989). Directed by the acclaimed team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Inside Deep Throat” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), the film draws on Mapplethorpe’s archives, along with dozens of interviews and rediscovered audio interviews with the artist himself. The documentary examines the fascinating interplay between his personal and professional lives and adeptly captures the broader public dialogues about sex, art and money.
The documentary opens with curators from the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles Museum County Museum of Art preparing to mount landmark Mapplethorpe retrospectives. Their comments on the frequently sexually explicit photographs are delightful and informative, and it would be wonderful to hear how the late artist would respond to their readings of his works.
The movie then turns to Mapplethorpe’s childhood in the Floral Park neighborhood of Queens, where he drew pictures of the saints for the parish priest, a friend of the Catholic family. Sensing that he was different and wanting to a pursue a career as an artist, Mapplethorpe graduated high school at the age of 16 and enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. By the late 1960s, he was taking Polaroid photographs of friends and lovers and relentlessly promoting his art.
Through sensitive interviews and incisive editing, Bailey and Barbato skillfully capture the amazing energy that Mapplethorpe poured into both his photographs and his career. They show Mapplethorpe at both work and play, documenting the joyous rise of the gay and leather scenes in Manhattan, the emergence of photography as both high art and high commerce, and the grueling work of artist and models in the studio.
Before his death in 1989, Mapplethorpe helped organize “The Perfect Moment,” an amazing retrospective of his work that included self-portraits, explicit scenes of male S&M activity, flowers, nude children and celebrity photographs, along with poems by rocker Patti Smith, his ex-girlfriend.
As “Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures” deftly details, this touring exhibition of his works sparked nationwide protests and secured Mapplethorpe’s artistic and political legacy. While the film includes sexually explicit images and is not for the whole family, the documentary is a masterful portrait of a man who changed the way we look at photography, sexuality and the business of art. Bailey and Barbato have created a fine film that is worthy of their monumental subject.
Working on a very different scale, openly gay filmmaker Jacob Bernstein explores his late mother’s life in “Everything is Copy — Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted.” The son of Ephron and journalist Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame), Bernstein turns his camera to the central mystery of his mother’s life: How could the woman who so relentlessly (and joyfully) turned her own life, and the lives of family and friends, into fodder for her fiction, essays and movies remain silent about the most profound crisis in her life, her diagnosis with a rare blood disorder that lead to her death in 2012?
Combining frank and revealing interviews with his own family members and his mother’s friends and colleagues, scenes from her famous movies, televised interviews with Charlie Rose and Dick Cavett, family photos and dramatic readings of Ephron’s essays, Bernstein deftly crafts a warm portrait of his mother that doesn’t shy away room some of the less pleasant aspects of her personality. He tracks her pioneering career from the mailroom of Newsweek magazine to a reporting stint at the New York Post, and from writing for the country’s leading news outlets and literary magazine to success (and multiple Academy Award nominations) as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood.
Throughout her career, Ephron ruthlessly mined her life for material. Most famously, she turned her bitter divorce from Carl Bernstein into “Heartburn,” the 1983 novel and 1986 movie. Writer and director Bernstein thoughtfully explores the way his mother balanced personal loyalty and professional ambition in her work and sensitively examines how she juggled family and career.
Working with co-director Nick Hooker, Jacob Bernstein has created a portrait of his mother that is both tender and tough, and that bodes well for the career of this fledgling director.
Less successful is the documentary “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper.” Directed by Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), the movie is most effective when it chronicles Vanderbilt’s fascinating life and shows her working in her studio at age 91. Vanderbilt has lived her tempestuous life firmly in the public eye, from the lurid 1934 custody battle between her mother and her aunt (including rumors of lesbian relationships), though her four stormy marriages, to her work as designer, author and artist. The historical vignettes are charming, informative and visually clever, especially when Garbus shows actual photographs morphing into their imaginative painted recreations in Vanderbilt’s studio.
The movie is least effective during the long contemporary interview scenes. Garbus lets openly gay television journalist Cooper (who also served as executive producer) interview his mother, and their conversations often seem stilted and stale. The release of the documentary coincides with the release of a volume of letters between mother and son, and it seems likely that the book is more insightful than these onscreen conversations.