Mad About Women, by Sarah Brinks
Bert Stern: Original Madman could just as easily have been titled Bert Stern: Serial Womanizer. Director – and personal friend of Stern’s – Shannah Laumeister paints a portrait of the famous photographer through the women he photographed and loved. Overall, I would say that she successfully tells the story that she was interested in telling. However, I think she missed the mark on what was actually the most interesting part of Stern’s story. The subtitle to the film is Original Madman, but the only a small percentage of the film is about his work in advertising and publishing.
Stern is a remarkable photographer who is responsible for many famous images including the Smirnoff ad with the pyramid, the poster for Lolita, and many iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe. Stern’s Smirnoff ad campaigns are said to be the reason American’s started drinking vodka. He took the last published images of Marilyn Monroe before she killed herself (they were published in Vogue the day after her death). He also directed a film called Jazz on a Summer’s Day. According to jazz historians, it is the definitive film on the subject. Here is how one film critic described it, “every frame could also work as a beautiful still image.”
Stern was and is a playboy. Even in his eighties, he still clearly loves women and thinks the world of the fairer sex. Laumeister has known Stern since she was thirteen years old and is likely his closest friend. They have had a photographic, personal, and occasionally sexual relationship for thirty-five years. She seems equally fascinated by the women in his life as he is. Stern discusses his obsession with women and his desire for them. When he photographs them, he feels possessive of them; during the time he photographs them, he feels that they are his, and they continue to be his in the prints he has. He also admits that this attitude has gotten him in trouble over the years. To be fair, he may be quite charming in person and behind the camera, but in the film, maybe because he is a senior citizen now, he gives off a serious dirty-old-man vibe. His wives, some of his lovers, and other people in his life speak about his love of women and philandering. He even admits in an interview that he was so in love with his second wife, a ballerina named Allegra, that he loved her more then his children; he still cheated on her.
Throughout the film you see many, many of his photographs of celebrities (mostly women and in many stages of dress and undress), his ad campaigns, and self-portraits. He had no formal training but a natural eye and desire to take risks and try new things. He was the first photographer to really create an empire of his own. At the height of his career, he was basically working in an assembly line, going from shoot to shoot. This led to a very heavy dependency on amphetamines to keep him going. Stern is hesitant in the film to discuss his history with drugs; he says he doesn’t want to come off a huge “druggy.” The truth is his hesitancy likely comes from the fact that his dependency on drugs cost him his wife, his children, and all his money in the ‘60’s and 70’s. The pain of that must still be difficult for Stern. He began over again after he lost everything by taking photos of pills for The Pill Book, which was inspired by the Physicians’ Desk Reference and sold millions of copies. After that, he made a commercial comeback as well.
Laumeister tries to add some modern intrigue into the film by addressing a lawsuit Stern was involved in surrounding some photos of Marilyn Monroe, which is resolved by then end of the film, not in Stern’s favor. However, it is never fleshed out enough to feel anything more then tacked on. It is also kind of sad to see this man who has had such an incredible career being taken advantage of by selfish criminals.
Stern’s legacy exists in the hundreds of boxes of breath-taking photos in his studio and office. He lived the life of an artist, often with no limits – unspeakable highs, and tragic lows. Stern’s skills with a camera, and ability to evoke truth from his subjects, have made him a genius. His love for women and openness to love and sex that made him a legend also cost him everything he had. Bert Stern: Original Madman is a flawed but intriguing documentary about a flawed and intriguing man.