A few minutes into Ondi Timoner’s biopic Mapplethorpe, about controversial homoerotic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, I began wondering if this would be another Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s still tough to get the overrated Queen biopic out of mind, especially following the recent Oscars, and I worried that Timoner would tackle Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality with the same judgmental distance. While the two films do share some common stumbles, embracing who the man was and how it influenced his art is definitely not one of them.
Ex-Doctor Who Matt Smith sets aside his English accent for a dubious Brooklyn one, but is otherwise excellent as Mapplethorpe, who rose to prominence as a boundary-crossing photographer of sexually-explicit images throughout the ’70s and ’80s. But when we first meet him he’s just another lost soul wandering the New York streets, with hardly enough money to afford a trip to the museum. It’s then that he happens to encounter punk rock icon Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), who would become his longtime friend, roommate, lover, and muse. Their domesticity in the Chelsea Hotel, where many a celeb-of-the-moment would plant roots, was a combustible mix of radiant joy and depressing lows, finding happiness in one another’s company but always struggling to make rent.
It’s as Mapplethorpe begins to realize and express his homosexual urges that his art, initially homoerotic drawings, began to blossom when he was gifted his first camera. As someone who grew up confined by his family’s strict conservative beliefs, his photos became an expression of freedom, and he broke the chains of societal norms as often as possible. Drawing visual inspiration from the male figure, Mapplethorpe blurred the lines between artistry and perversion. His work would encompass everything from photos of well-known celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Andy Warhol, to erect penises in champagne glasses, to naked men putting various objects in certain body orifices. All tastefully done, mind you.
Timoner, a documentarian who has often focused her attention on artists who relished in pushing the envelope, establishes Mapplethorpe as someone with an ever-present chip on his shoulder. As his fame grew, Mapplethorpe grows into a jerk to everyone around him, almost as if he’s trying to make up for the years of poverty and restriction. He was an egomaniac who took pleasure in fomenting chaos on the art scene that he saw as embodying the conservative values he was forced to live under for too long. And yet he never quite grasped why his imagery was so often rejected by some of the higher-end galleries. He saw beauty in the photos he was taking and challenged others to see the same, and when they didn’t he couldn’t understand why. So he took the frustration out on others.
While there were always people around him who claimed to love him and who he claimed to love, Mapplethorpe is never shown actually doing anything for them to earn that love. In particular, his relationship with longtime partner and companion Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) is seen as transactional and one-sided. Events and acquaintances from Mapplethorpe’s life are dropped into place in clunky and dull fashion, with few fleshed out with any substantial detail. Unfortunately, the more we learn of Mapplethorpe (who later on is revealed to be spreading HIV knowingly), the less time we want to spend with him. He develops a strange fascination with seducing, photographing, and humiliating muscular black men, a fetish which is never really explained and just comes out of nowhere.
It’s a waste of a terrifically seductive performance by Smith, who captures Mapplethorpe’s enigmatic presence and arrogance. A dead ringer for the rabble-rousing photographer, Smith’s dark eyes catch you in their grip and never let go. You want to watch him, even as you wish he were in a better movie about someone worthy of our admiration for more than his work.
Disappointing on a local level is a brief synopsis of Mapplethorpe’s 1989 art show at DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, which was canceled due to fears that its graphic imagery (which included a bullwhip inserted into a man’s anus) would trigger a loss of funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. The controversy, which all took place in the year Mapplethorpe died, sparked concerns over censorship and the funding of controversial exhibits by taxpayers. Honestly, an entire movie about that particular scandal might have resonated more than what Mapplethorpe ultimately provided.