Biopics about artists, from Van Gogh the ear slicer to Basquiat the heroin casualty, invariably show painting as a bleeding art. Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist who galvanized the art world, sure fits the profile. And Ed Harris, who plays Pollock and makes his debut as a director — doing both jobs superbly, by the way — is angst incarnate. Pollock was an angry, abusive alcoholic. He died, at forty-four, in a 1956 car wreck that may have been a suicide, and in telling his story, screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller often paint themselves into a box of cliches.
Pollock’s bad behavior is richly cataloged, whether he is seething with jealousy over peers like Willem de Kooning (Val Kilmer) or peeing into the elegant Manhattan fireplace of his benefactor Peggy Guggenheim (a fine, feisty turn from Amy Madigan, Mrs. Harris offscreen). As an actor, Harris is matched by Marcia Gay Harden, who gives a fireball performance as Lee Krasner, the painter who put her career on hold to marry Pollock and harness his energy to his work. It helps that she gets him away from Greenwich Village temptations and into a distraction-free studio on Long Island. Harden even survives dialogue like, “You’ve done it. You’ve cracked it wide open!” when Pollock devises a technique of splashing paint on canvas that had early critics calling him Jack the Dripper.
Harris brings an energy to these action-painting scenes that is pure and exhilarating. He spent ten years in preparation for this film, and it shows. This is a towering performance of bruising inspiration. Harris flies highest as a director when he stops cataloging biographical details and catches the glorious frenzy of Pollock’s art. Sit back and behold.