Creation myths

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996

The starving artist in his garrett. The mad poet. The passionate dancer. Hollywood would be foolish to pass over these cliches as raw material for movies, and Hollywood hasn't.

And sometimes the resulting movies are not cliches or they are cliches that are common cultural currency. Here are the great films about artists.

"The Life of Emile Zola" (1937), directed by William Dieterle, gives us the life of the 19th century novelist and social crusader who became the conscience of France. Actor Paul Muni (the Robert DeNiro of his day) gives Zola a fierce integrity.

"Moulin Rouge" (1952), directed by John Huston, is so crammed with period flavor, boisterous action and colorful characters from Montmarte in Paris of a century ago that the story of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec threatens to be overwhelmed. Jose Ferrer, in a poignant performance as the artist, keeps it on track.

"Lust for Life" (1956), directed by Vincent Minnelli, gives Vincent Van Gogh's life the full Hollywood treatment with Kirk Douglas seemingly possessed by demons, making his canvas catch fire, etc. Anthony Quinn is well cast as the barbaric Gaugin.

"Isadora" (1968), directed by Karel Reisz, casts Vanessa Redgrave perfectly as a woman who flouted the rules of society and prevailed. She is Isadora Duncan, the flamboyant dancer whose "eurythmics" ushered in modern dance.

"Savage Messiah" (1972}, directed by Ken Russell, one of Russell's more restrained artist bios, captures the passion of young sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska who was killed heartbreakingly young in the trenches of World War I. Scott Antony is the artist and a young Helen Mirren is his vampy nude model.

"Lenny" (1974), directed by Bob Fosse, is a fine tribute to the "hipster saint" Lenny Bruce, who dared to include sex, religion, and politics in his nightclub comedy routine during the buttoned-down Eisenhower years and paid the price. Dustin Hoffman captures Bruce's impetuousness perfectly.

"An Angel at My Table" (1990), directed by Jane Campion, is about the ugly duckling girl who endured eight years mistakenly committed for mental illness yet emerged to become one of New Zealand's most beloved novelists, Janet Frame. Kerry Fox, playing Frame, blooms from insecure wretch to full-blooded woman before our eyes.

"Vincent and Theo" (1990), directed by Robert Altman, takes the trouble to get its facts straight without compromising narrative in its account of the bond between the artist Vincent Van Gogh and his troubled brother Theo, who believed in Vincent's greatness so thoroughly he sacrificed his own well being.

"Impromptu" (1991), directed by James Lapine, illustrates like few other movies the devil-may-care insouciance of artists in a playful account of a circle of friends in France that included novelist George Sand (Judy Davis), painter Eugene Delacroix (Ralph Brown) and composers Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) and Franz Liszt (Julian Sands). Sophisticated fun all the way.

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