Best Supporting Artists

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956)

Artists in films tend to act as shorthand for oversensitive loners, just as lawyers in films are shorthand for unscrupulous money-grubbers and people with British accents are shorthand for oleaginous bad guys. Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, Ed Harris as Pollock, Salma Hayek as Kahlo, Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh: each presents the artist’s work as an inevitable byproduct of a life lived at maximum intensity.

Actors seem to enjoy playing artists because it’s the stuff of Oscars: lots of shouty scenes, gruff sex, and jittery tics. (It may also be because of an insecurity about the validity of their own status as artists: making artists behave like actors has, in its own way, a kind of symbiotic effect). “Vincent!” bellows Anthony Quinn. “Paul!” yelps Kirk Douglas, embracing him like it’s 1888. The best is Anthony Hopkins’ Picasso (Surviving Picasso), who capers around like a high camp sex dwarf.

Is it that the idea of being an artist is so alien to everyday experience that it can only be expressed through an actorly language reserved for reclusive mathematicians, effete eccentrics and serial killers? Perhaps this is too harsh. The truth is that the process of making art is often not very exciting to watch. Even Pollock, whose hoary myth would suggest some sort of high-kicking John Wayne, comes across like your boring uncle at Christmas in Hans Namuth’s 1950 film, painstakingly describing his technique with all the panache of Ben Affleck reading the ingredients on a packet of dried plums. Maybe what’s needed is a greater willingness to go completely off-script, acknowledge that the artistic process of necessity involves lots of sitting around, and go hog wild. Better yet, go Wild Hogs: how about John Travolta as Cy Twombly? Martin Lawrence as Martin Puryear? Tim Allen as Jasper Johns? Suggestions welcome.


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