Directed by Ondi Timoner
Samuel Goldwyn Films

Reviewed by Hank Trout

Patti Smith: “What will become of the world when no trace of you remains?”

Robert Mapplethorpe: “I think there’ll be some traces.”

Traces, indeed, in the form of some of the most exquisite, mesmerizing photographs ever taken. Whether portraits of celebrities (Warhol, Schwarzenegger, Hockney, as well as men who became celebrities because Mapplethorpe photographed them), or still life photos of flowers, or photos of hardcore bondage and S&M scenes, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are at once intensely beautiful and (in some instances) deeply disturbing.

Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS-related causes on March 9, 1989, at the age of forty-two, was one of the most polarizing artists of the twentieth century, producing a range of work from fine art still life photographs that have hung in major galleries (the Whitney in New York, for instance) to extreme fetish photos for the gay leather/S&M magazine Drummer (his first magazine cover photo assignment was for the legendary editor Jack Fritscher at this publication in 1975).

Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

In director Ondi Timoner’s film, Mapplethorpe, the photographer (played by Matt Smith) comes across as a supremely confident (to some, arrogant) and self-aware artist. Dancing barefoot with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon) in their room at the Chelsea Hotel or cruising the piers and leather bars at night in New York, Mapplethorpe grows from a shy vulnerability into swaggering self-confidence. When Mapplethorpe’s patron, art collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), asks him, “Are you afraid of dying?” he responds, “Only before I’m famous.”

Mapplethorpe began his photography career when a friend gave him a Polaroid camera. With it, he spent hours photographing Smith, other friends and tricks, and inanimate objects. “In church, I found God; when Sandy gave me the camera, it led me straight to the Devil,” he remarks in the film. Once he and Wagstaff became lovers, Sam birthday-gifted him with a very expensive camera, which he put to use creating startling images (e.g., a bullwhip handle inserted into his anus). With the new, better camera, his photographs became more sophisticated and artfully composed, particularly his photos celebrating (some have said “fetishizing”) the African-American model Milton Moore (played by McKinley Belcher III). Even as he weakened from the ravages of AIDS-related OIs, Mapplethorpe continued making photographs. His final words (in the screenplay at least) come as he lies in a hospital bed: “Take the picture.”

Timoner’s screenplay is neatly divided into sections labeled by the year, from 1972 until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. With archival movie and television footage spliced in, it captures the grittiness of 1970s and ’80s New York City and the giddy excitement of the city’s thriving art scene. The acting is more than competent, particularly Matt Smith—it’s difficult to take your eyes off him, as he seems to become more beautiful and more interesting as the film goes on.

Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Finally, the film contains a couple dozen shots of Mapplethorpe’s work in all its stark, gasp-inducing beauty spliced into the narrative. Even if the film consisted of nothing but shots of Mapplethorpe’s photos, especially the ones used in the end credits, I could still recommend this film very highly. Better than any book or screenplay, Mapplethorpe’s photos form the true portrait of the artist.

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.