Hearing acclaimed photographer Bert Stern recount his attempt to bed Marilyn Monroe should be captivating, if admittedly lurid, stuff. And yet, there’s something about the octogenarian womanizer’s languorous tone that makes even sensational tabloid fodder sound banal.
The artist’s anecdotes, not to mention his brilliance, are tempered in Shannah Laumeister’s problematic portrait of a man who produced countless recognizable images but struggled with addictions to drugs and women.
“Bert Stern: Original Mad Man” has the familiar troubled-artist trajectory. He grew up poor in Brooklyn, propelled himself to fame but was ultimately undone by vices, especially a taste for amphetamines. Kicking that bad habit, the photographer has enjoyed a bit of a comeback later in life.
His career was kickstarted by Smirnoff Vodka ad photos. At a time when advertising was generally prosaic — a housewife holding a bar of soap, maybe — Stern injected high concept art into the ad industry. From there, he went on to direct an acclaimed documentary, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” work for Vogue, capture Twiggy, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren and shoot the iconic poster for Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” featuring actress Sue Lyon in heart-rimmed shades, mouth around a lollipop. Stern also photographed Monroe’s “Last Sitting,” images taken months before her death featuring the nude bombshell stretched across a bed.
Even as Stern’s star was on the rise, his personal life was a mess, likely because, as the photographer admits, making photographs and making love were closely related in his mind. He tended to start relationships with his subjects, even during his two marriages. His second wife, ballerina and Balanchine muse Allegra Kent, was the love of his life, he says somewhat dispassionately. But drugs and infidelity destroyed their union. (For her part, Kent unsentimentally refers to Stern as the sperm donor for her three children.)
Although Stern appears in front of the camera, there is some sense that he is directing the film. His uninterested tone is by far the most prominent voice, and even though he recounts sordid or personal tales of sex and love, the film never feels especially intimate.
Laumeister, four decades Stern’s junior, turns out to be the photographer’s muse and mentee, which explains why Stern might remain in control. It also becomes clear over the course of the film that the pair have some kind of relationship, although Stern says frankly that Kent and Monroe were the only women to ever interest him.
Once Laumeister introduces herself to the audience, she attempts to find a balance as both director and supporting player, but it doesn’t work. Full disclosure of their history seems necessary, but seeing Stern’s nude portraits of the director feels more like navel-gazing, both literally and figuratively.
Even the soundtrack, which includes a lot of sultry saxophone music, starts to sound kind of icky, especially after an interviewee says that Stern was the perfect person for the “Lolita” assignment because “he could see the woman in the little girl.”
It’s perplexing that a man famous for his passion for art and women comes across with such a muted demeanor on camera. His seeming indifference is infectious. His lows never seem sad enough to make the film a tragedy, and his comeback isn’t decisive enough to make the documentary triumphant.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity and language. 89 minutes.