POLLOCK directed by Ed Harris, written by Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller from the book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh, produced by Harris, Fred Berner and John Kilik, with Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Val Kilmer and Jeffrey Tambor. 122 minutes. An Alliance-Atlantis release. Opens Friday (March 16). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 91. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
ed harris is one of the best ac- tors in American movies. I just want to say that up front. Pollock, a biography of the American painter Jackson Pollock, has been Harris's dream project for several years, which means he gets to do all those things that no one ever hires him to do.
He plays the tortured artist to the hilt, so intense that in a better movie the effects team would add lightning bolts shooting from his furrowed brow.
Harris's specialty is the darkness beneath the blue-eyed charm. Let's not forget that his breakthrough roles came in two films released almost simultaneously, as astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff and an American mercenary in the political thriller Under Fire. The two movies combined create a cubist portrait of American can-do energy.
But in Pollock he runs up against an insurmountable problem. The creative process is internal, and therefore invisible. So, like most great-artist biopics, Pollock turns into a drama about personal problems, in this case the painter's irascibility; he was insecure, alcoholic and destructive.
We also get to watch him drip a great deal of paint onto big canvases.
Pollock is less the story of a great artist than that of an abusive drunk surrounded by effete types who natter on about art. If you didn't get enough of the many accents of Val Kilmer in The Saint, wait till you see him as Willem de Kooning.
There's a great performance in the film by Marcia Gay Harden (Miller's Crossing) as Lee Krasner, Pollock's champion and lover, who subordinated her own artistic career to his genius. Endowing her with a flat-footed walk, an outer-borough accent and a tenacious fury, Harden is an alarming blend of nag, agent and tank. If Krasner was like this, she must have scared the hell out of Pollock's chief patron, Peggy Guggenheim, played here by Amy Madigan.
The problem with the film isn't that the protagonist is unpleasant. A great artist needn't be a nice person. Rather, Harris's Pollock is an unsatisfactory protagonist because he's devoid of self-awareness, a Peter Pan sunk deep in the gin and knocking over the furniture.