From H.R.H. to S & M
On a cold Thursday morning, the filmmaker Ondi Timoner entered the Guggenheim Museum, a large to-go cup in one hand. “Coffee was vital today,” she said, as she pulled off a woollen headband. She had on a tight white jumpsuit, pointy metallic boots, and a gilded belt. Timoner is a director, known for her finely drawn documentaries about difficult, creative men, most recently the comedian Russell Brand. She was in town from Los Angeles for the première of her new film, this one a bio-pic, about another complicated male artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989, at forty-two. The Guggenheim had just mounted a show of some of its Mapplethorpe holdings, and Timoner was there to take a look with Matt Smith, the British actor who plays the title role in “Mapplethorpe.”
Smith was waiting on the fourth floor of the museum, and he and Timoner embraced warmly. The actor had already walked up the spiral, whose walls were lined with the colorful, proto-abstract canvases of the early-twentieth-century Scandinavian painter Hilma af Klint, whom he referred to as “that Swedish lady.” He wore a long black Burberry trenchcoat, flared trousers, and a pendant on a long silver chain, and his manner, like his clothing, was theatrical. In England, Smith became famous for being the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor in the BBC’s long-running series “Dr. Who”; more recently, he has become known in America as a low-key heartthrob, for his role as Prince Philip, on “The Crown.” In “Mapplethorpe,” he exchanges Philip’s buttoned-up comportment for the wilder, chaotic affect of the erotic and creative renegade.
“He wasn’t a warm and fuzzy guy,” Smith said, of Mapplethorpe, as he and Timoner walked into the gallery.
“We both agreed that it should be an unflinching portrait,” Timoner said. “Mapplethorpe had to possess and perfect everyone, so he slept with the person, and photographed the person. It became almost predatorial.”
This was the first time that Smith and Timoner had seen a full installation of Mapplethorpe’s work, and both seemed overwhelmed by its scale. For a museum scene in the movie, a low-budget affair that was shot in nineteen days, they made do with a single white wall, hung with reproductions approved by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. “I asked them if I could keep one, and they were, like, ‘No,’ ” Smith said, and he and Timoner laughed.
In the gallery, the pair took in the photographs—from early images of bohemian downtown life to still-lifes of flowers to S & M-inflected male nudes—identifying first one, then another, as long-lost friends. A picture of Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s close friend and onetime lover, curled up naked by a radiator, was taken at the Bond Street loft where the photographer lived, and where one of the movie’s scenes was shot. “That’s where we climbed out the window,” Timoner said. “That one triangle of light!”
They lingered before an image of two bald men, one black and one white. “Look at those shapes,” Smith said.
“He treated the male form like sculpture,” Timoner said, nodding. A series of self-portraits featured Mapplethorpe performing several extreme gender identities: a butch greaser, a boa-wearing starlet, a made-up, nude waif.
“If he were making these pictures today, with the modern conversation about what it means to be a man, and be a woman, he’d be lauded as being right on point,” Smith said. “I don’t think only gay actors can portray gay characters.” (Smith is straight.) “For me, it was part of the appeal. It’s about taking a creative leap.”
A group of Scottish teen-agers—art students on a trip from Edinburgh—timidly approached Smith for autographs. They were fans of “The Crown.”
“What do you think of Robert Mapplethorpe?” Smith asked, accepting a pen from a tall, pale youth.
“It’s . . . arty,” the kid said.
“Would I be able to get a picture with you?” a dark-haired lad asked.
“Yes, mate, no worries,” Smith said, posing gamely. “Enjoy Mapplethorpe!”
Timoner smiled. “You’re going to turn so many young men . . .”
“On to Robert?” Smith asked.
“On to being gay,” Timoner said. “Like, in touch with their sexuality.”
“And not for the first time!” Smith said, in a twirling-an-invisible-mustache tone. “Not for the first time!” ♦