In 2018, director Ondi Timoner released Mapplethorpe. The biopic about the photographer and gay provocateur Robert Mapplethorpe starred Matt Smith (Doctor Who) in the lead and opened to an immediately muted and mostly indifferent response. Which is exactly the sort of reaction that would have driven its subject straight to barking up a tree and back. Less than thirty years after his BDSM-saturated work had provoked conservative fury—up to and including congressional hearings about obscenity laws and the national funding of the arts—how did a movie about that same man land with such a dull thud? Was this a case of the world moving on? Or was the movie itself at fault?
Revisiting that question three years later as Timoner drops her Director’s Cut of the film on demand, the answer lands once again, dully and thuddishly, in the latter camp. As Lil Nas X stirs up the Religious Right’s morality circus anew just by getting a little innocent grind on with Beefcake Satan proves, there’s still heat in the queer cannons to disrupt the comfort of mainstream audiences. This movie just hasn’t got the fire-juice to do so. Which is really too bad! Robert Mapplethorpe deserves some damn juice and fire!
The Director’s Cut, I will say up front, is a better movie than the even-flatter 2018 version was. Biopics that stretch across a subject’s entire life are thankfully going the Dodo-way. Still, this film has little insight into Mapplethorpe’s artistic drives (save fame and sex and drugs oh my!). Desperately needed scenes of Mapplethorpe’s childhood have been added in to give us some— any—context toward what drove the photographer to do what he did. Yet the film seems kinda clueless about Mapplethorpe’s motivations, beyond mere petulance and attention-seeking. At least, these scenes offer a whiff of something more. His hard relationship with his father is fleshed out a little bit. And while everybody still comes off as assholes, at least a grain of competitiveness, paternal failure, and Oedipal succession, gives these assholes some texture.
Then again, Mapplethorpe the man often seemed less compelled with texture than he was with stark black-and-whites—the blackest of blacks, people keep exclaiming—so perhaps that’s what the film too has in its aim: A confusion of soul with its artistic rendering. As his Chelsea Hotel cohabitant, filmmaker, and friend Sandy Daley (a charming but under-used Tina Benko) explains, like the paintings of the Masters, a photograph is all about light and object—fooling the eye is a subject unto itself. Maybe Mapplethorpe’s reasons really were all as empty as that. Matt Smith’s pissy portrayal of the man doesn’t give us much beyond surface level. JHis Mapplethorpe is dead-eyed and seethingly unlikeable at every turn, a scarecrow skittering about under a parade of wigs. We’re supposed to believe this man could charm everyone he met out of their pants after five minutes?
Similarly, Mapplethorpe’s much-ballyhooed relationship with singer Patti Smith (as documented and fervently embraced by every hipster worth their weight in subway tokens in her book Just Kids) is given ever slightly less short-shrift here by this Director’s Cut. The two are at least given a few moments of fun and humanity this time around, and Smith (played by Marianne Rendón) even gets to be a person on her own with a career, for at least a second or two. Still the structure reeks. The entire front-half of the film is centered around their relationship. Then, she just goes poof, vanishes, only to be seen briefly at Mapplethorpe’s death-bed decades later. Such might be the truth of a life lived chronologically—people can come and go real quickly—but compelling filmic drama it is not.
I’m not sure how much of my own longstanding read on Mapplethorpe and Smith as vicious star-fuckers with genuine talent it is that I’m projecting onto Timoner’s film. But I’d like to think a sharper, more focused film could excavate more out of the duo than just that. Make human the gimp-masked ciphers. Mapplethorpe’s work remains as exquisitely beautiful and purposefully aggressively repulsive as it was thirty years ago. There’s got to be more there there to it than just a dude who wanted to stare at big dicks and then die young and famous. But this movie—in both versions—still seems to think dicks and death are enough.
Mapplethorpe, The Director’s Cut opens April 2 on Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, Kanopy, FandangoNow, and Vudu.