Robert Mapplethorpe shot flowers, children, celebs (Warhol, Capote, the young Arnold Schwarzenegger) and himself in high-contrast black-and-white that commanded attention. But what made him infamous and iconic were his portraits of nudes, often reduced to body parts (a hand, a torso, a black penis enveloped in white hands) and often in BDSM positions that increasingly reflected his queer-world obsessions. A year after Mapplethorpe’s death, a retrospective of his work at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was charged with obscenity simply for displaying his so-called “dirty pictures,” creating a debate that shook the art world and sparked a cultural war that is still raging.
It was quite a life. But you’d never know it from the pallid imitation offered by Ondi Timoner and cowriter Mikko Alanne. Their Mapplethorpe (played by British actor Matt Smith, known to millions as one of the most-recent incarnations of the Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise) feels like an outline for a movie that no one actually made. Mapplethorpe’s scenes with his reproving father (Mark Moses, Mad Men’s Duck Phillips) have the generic blandness of a TV movie. The hot volatility of Mapplethorpe’s 1960’s affair with punk warrior Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón, too sweet by half) — they lived together in delicious sin in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel — lacks even the slow boil of Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury and Lucy Boynton’s Mary Austin in Bohemian Rhapsody. Turn to Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids, for the real deal. Timoner’s movie basically says Mapplethorpe was straight, and then he wasn’t — before moving on to the next scene.
And the scenes keep coming. Sandy Daley (Tina Benko) gives our boy his first camera — cut to the photos. David Croland (Thomas Philip O’Neill) plays a model who cements Mapplethorpe’s gay identity — cut to the sex. Sam Wagstaff (the excellent John Benjamin Hickey) is the rich, older benefactor who offers the possibility of love and stability — cut to Mapplethorpe betraying Wagstaff with a stable of studs, including Milton (McKinley Belcher III), a black model who grows to resent the way Mapplethorpe objectifies him in and out of bed — cut to those photos of bare asses and hard-ons.
What’s missing are the moments in between that actually make up a life and give it emotional resonance. Without that connective tissue, Mapplethorpe emerges as a cypher who’d treat his adoring kid brother (Brandon Sklenar) like dirt and have unprotected sex with men long after he received his HIV diagnosis. Is it possible for a fame-whoring dick like Mapplethorpe to produce lasting art? You bet. But the tension between creative talent and moral compromise — a rich theme for a film — is never explored by Timoner, who forgets or willfully ignores the factors that tie the two together. The up-for-anything Smith is hamstrung by a script that refuses to take the leaps that he does. And so Mapplethorpe, for all its surface daring, leaves us with a void where its tormented soul should be.