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Before ‘Big Eyes’ and ‘Mr. Turner,’ Ten Best Movie Portraits of Tortured Artists

Before 'Big Eyes' and 'Mr. Turner,' Ten Best Movie Portraits of Tortured Artists

Anyone who has watched a biopic about a renowned painter or sculptor knows that their talent rarely extends to maintaining healthy personal relationships – especially where romance is concerned. Or they allow themselves to be used and sometimes abused for the sake of their livelihood.

This month offers two prime examples of beyond-the canvas peeks at painters with a spotty track record with the opposite sex.

Opening on Dec. 19 is Mr. Turner,” which focuses on the later years of the British landscape specialist J.M.W. Turner who died in 1851. As played by a perfectly cast Timothy Spall, this cantankerous genius — given to emitting loud grunts and growls — never married. Instead, he took two widows as mistresses. He treated the first with utter disinterest and vehemently denied that he fathered her two daughters. Then there is his devoted housekeeper, who he uses as a convenient sexual outlet whenever the urge strikes.  Eventually, Turner would find a soulmate with his second lover, the landlady who ran the seaside inn where he would stay while seeking picturesque inspiration.

Big Eyes arrives Dec. 25, with Amy Adams as the demure Margaret Keane, the creator of the kitschy large-eyed waif portraits that were all the rage in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The film reveals the artist as victim. She allows herself to be coerced by her second husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), into letting him take the credit for her work  – he says her art won’t be taken seriously if people think a woman did it. This con artist who harbored anger issues tried to continue to manipulate Margaret and claim her paintings as his own even after they divorced in 1965. A 1986 lawsuit that resulted in a courtroom paint-off between the former spouses legally clarified the issue once and for all.

Oddly enough, “Mr. Turner” and “Big Eyes” seem positively upbeat compared to past depictions of artists. Cinema has often presented such visually creative types as outsiders or outcasts who pour their souls into their art while their private lives languish. Such emotionally charged roles often attract awards attention. And, more often than not, there is a clash of the sexes at the heart of many of these stories.

Herewith, our selection of ten best big-screen artist portraits, predecessors to “Mr. Turner” and “Big Eyes. They all expose what suffering can lie beneath all that genius. And, as a warning, each comes with a downer rating ranked from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most traumatic.

1. “Moulin Rouge” (1952). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer, nominated for a best-actor Oscar) was inspired by the lively Paris cabaret scene in the late 1800s to devise a unique style of painting that reflected the often lurid goings-on. But with a disability that compromises his height, he finds himself more of an observer of the amorous proceedings around him even as the female dancers and singers flirt with him. A double-crossing street walker breaks his heart and, later, he botches his one chance at true love. Ultimately, Toulouse-Lautrec’s one abiding passion proves to be his art. Points for director John Huston’s playful color palette inspired by the artist. Downer factor:  8

2. “Lust for Life” (1956). The life of troubled Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas, nominated for a best-actor Oscar) who tried to take up religion as a vocation and later was a social activist. He turned to painting after being shunned by a woman he loved and a prostitute, who considered him too poor. As he struggles to perfect his technique, Van Gogh finds support from his sympathetic brother, Theo, and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, winner of a supporting Oscar), whose robust personality clashes with his own self-doubts. The film ends with his suicide, though some now believe that Van Gogh was murdered. Downer factor: 9

3. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965). There is plenty of speculation about Michelangelo’s sexuality, based on poems he wrote to men as well as his affectionate odes to a female poet. But this film starring Charlton Heston as the great 16th-century Italian artist focuses on probably his most challenging and contentious relationship: The one he shared with Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), who commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Despite outbreaks of war, blindness caused by paint poisoning, the threat that artist Raphael will be brought in to complete his work, nothing can keep Michelangelo from completing his masterwork after four long years. Downer factor: 3

4. “Camille Claudel” (1988). The tragic tale of a barely known 19th-century French woman (Isabelle Adjani, nominated for a best-actress Oscar) is driven to become a sculptor even though such ambitions by a female were frowned upon by society. She also has the bad luck to be drawn into an affair with Auguste Rodin (Gerard Depardieu), a notorious womanizer best known for his statue of “The Thinker.”  She was his muse, his collaborator and, for a time, his mistress. After being rejected by him, an obsessed Claudel falls into a state of madness.  Downer factor:  10
5. “Carrington” (1995). An account of one of the stranger and most convoluted relationships found in this genre involves a female painter and a male author who were associates of Britain’s Bloomsbury Group, an enclave of Bohemian artists in the early part of the 20th century. Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) is an English artist who falls deeply in love with writer Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce). He returns her affection but not sexually. They end up sharing living quarters while she marries and has numerous affairs, and he eventually becomes involved with a man. After Strachey dies after an illness, Carrington realizes she can’t live without him and kills herself. Downer factor: 6 
6. “Surviving Picasso” (1996). And you thought Pablo Picasso’s art was complicated. Cubism is nothing compared to this raging bull’s rocky love life. Told from the point of view of his much younger mistress and mother of two of his children, would-be painter Francois Gilot (Natasha McElhone), the Merchant-Ivory production starring Anthony Hopkins focuses on the Spanish painter’s relentless philandering and heartless treatment of women, including his wife and neurotic fellow artist Dora Marr (Julianne Moore). Downer factor: 4
7. “Basquiat” (1996). The brief, brilliant career of street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) ended at age 27 after a heroin overdose in 1988. But much like one of his mentors, Andy Warhol (David Bowie), his deliberately primitive art that was influenced by his graffiti was a collage of visual art and public image. Basquiat could be infuriating, such as when he enrages his girlfriend by painting over one of her canvases, but could be equally disarming as well. But although artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel, a contemporary of his subject, captures the glammy ambience surrounding the self-destructive Basquiat, he fails to fill in much of the emotional blanks of his lead character.  That just might be the point.  Downer factor: 6
8. “Pollock” (2000). Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings were partly a reflection of his chaotic personality. As portrayed by Ed Harris (a best-actor Oscar nominee), who also directed, the gruff abstract expressionist had a huge drinking problem and a possible bipolar disorder that fueled his abusive nature. Before he found success in the late 1940s, he married fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, supporting Oscar winner), who became his manager and often indulged his erratic behavior. Despite acceptance of his work, he continued to drink, blaming it on Krasner’s lack of desire to have a baby. He eventually had an affair with abstract artist Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connelly), who survived the car crash that would kill Pollock in 1955.  Downer factor: 10
9. “Frida” (2002).  This fractious yet enduring romance between fiery Mexican artists Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek, a best-actress Oscar nominee) and Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) is vibrantly recounted by director Julie Taymor, who cleverly incorporates Kahlo’s surreal works into the film as part of the narrative. The two married painters survive health and professional setbacks, numerous affairs (including hers with one of his female paramours and his with her sister), alcoholism and Kahlo’s bizarre tryst with their exiled house guest Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). They divorce after her Russian detour but remarry after she loses her toes and later her leg to gangrene. Downer factor: 2
10. “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (2003). The mostly fictionalized back story of 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer’s famous work of the same title features Scarlett Johansson as shy servant girl Griet, who catches the eye of her master (Colin Firth).  As she cleans his studio, he teaches her about light, color and mixing paint. A rich patron also notices Griet and asks if she can work for him. Instead, Vermeer agrees to do a portrait of her. Vermeer’s wife, Catharina, senses something is going on between the husband and the girl, and lashes out. In a scene of great intimacy, the artist himself pierces Griet’s ear so she can wear a pearl earring borrowed from his unknowing spouse. Upset by this action, the girl runs off and ends up making love with the butcher’s son. Eventually she is banished by Vermeer’s wife. Downer factor: 3.

What are your favorite film portraits of artists?

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