Perhaps it's a desire to chew the scenery as well as paint it, but the opportunity to portray a famous painter has attracted some of our most acclaimed and talented actors over the years.
We can now add the most famous American woman painter to the list, as "Georgia O'Keeffe," starring Joan Allen in the title role, is out on DVD. Don't hold it against this well-made and superbly acted movie for having its debut on Lifetime last fall, although that cable TV network's interest in airing it may be explained by the film's focus on the turbulent relationship and marriage between O'Keeffe and photographer/impresario Alfred Stieglitz (Jeremy Irons).
"Georgia O'Keeffe" is directed with empathy by Bob Balaban, who may be best known as a veteran character actor (he's appeared in four of Christopher Guest's comedies and had a recurring role as an NBC executive on "Seinfeld"), and written by Michael Cristofer, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright for "The Shadow Box."
Balaban and Cristofer adeptly capture on film what the art historian Wanda Corn wrote, in her authoritative book "The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935," about O'Keeffe: "In an era when few woman artists were professional, and even fewer dared to paint abstractly, O'Keeffe seemed extraordinary. She was an original artist, an unconventional beauty and a person of nonconforming tastes in dress and behavior. Her independence and her professionalism were those of a 'new woman,' though in her severe dress - she wore practical shoes, pulled-back hair, and little or no jewelry or makeup - she was at odds with the women of her generation who became flappers."
Although certain key events in O'Keeffe's life are compressed for the purpose of storytelling, the film focuses on the major developments. It begins in 1916 with the photographer and New York gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz exhibiting her early abstract charcoal drawings in his famous 291 Gallery - alongside works by Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne - without her knowledge or permission. They quickly become friends and then lovers (she was 23 years younger than him), with Stieglitz leaving his wife and daughter to marry O'Keeffe. Balaban concentrates on the constant push-pull in their marriage, caused by Stieglitz's philandering and O'Keeffe's need for independence and freedom. The marriage lasted until Stieglitz's death in 1946.
The film is less successful in analyzing, or helping viewers understand, what was so original about O'Keeffe's paintings. To be sure, Balaban accurately portrays O'Keeffe's fascination with the landscape of New Mexico, where she originally went to get away from her wayward husband, and its influence on her art from the late 1920s through the rest of her life.
(O'Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98.) But, save for one scene, he pays little attention to O'Keeffe's famous paintings of flowers that left most viewers struck by their sensual, erotic nature. The director is much more interested in the historically daring nude photographs Stieglitz took of the posing O'Keeffe that brought an intimate realism to the photographic portrayal of the naked female body, while also cementing O'Keeffe's image as a liberated woman.
This is not to say that "Georgia O'Keeffe" is in any way salacious, but Balaban's search for dramatic events in his subject's life focuses much more on Stieglitz's betrayals and O'Keeffe's reactions to them than anything having to do with art or its creation. The director rarely shows O'Keeffe in the act of painting; indeed, the film spends easily as much time showing her walking through landscapes in woodsy upstate New York and in sun-bleached New Mexico. The point is that painting is solitary, lonely work.
Still, "Georgia O'Keeffe" captures a time and place in American artistic history. Tyne Daly is fun to watch as the flamboyant Greenwich Village hostess Mabel Dodge - a rich, radical Bohemian who befriended and supported avant-garde writers and artists (including O'Keeffe) and provided an escape and haven for them in the 1920s after she moved to New Mexico. There she helped establish the artist colony in Taos and married her fourth husband, a Hopi Indian named Tony Lujan (Robert Mirabal).
Irons is also excellent as the complicated Stieglitz, who both adored O'Keeffe and remained her most ardent supporter and booster for the rest of his life, yet could not stop himself from constantly hurting her and sending her into serious bouts of depression.
Allen, who also served as a producer on "Georgia O'Keeffe," gives what we've come to expect in a Joan Allen performance - always truthful, direct and unpretentious. What comes through in Allen's portrayal is O'Keeffe's fierce independence, blunt honesty and courage to pursue her own artistic vision. If only we could have seen her paint a little more, though the filmmakers' choices probably reflect a belief that watching an artist paint might be only a bit more interesting than watching a writer type.