Film Review: Bert Stern: Original Mad Man

Bert Stern

The photographer Bert Stern claims that the only truly great portrait of a movie star was the famously stark 1929 Edward Steichen image of Garbo with her hair severely pulled back, revealing that immortal face. He set about to do the same for Marilyn Monroe on a Vogue commission and, especially with the winsome yet haunting nude poses shot shortly before her death in her last sitting, achieved his goal.

Bert Stern: Original Mad Man, a terrific, jaw-droppingly candid documentary made by his longtime lover, Shanna Laumeister, covers this heady episode, which took place in a champagne-soaked hotel suite, in depth, but also reveals that Stern, born in 1929, was so much more than Monroe’s greatest, most intimate photographer. One of the absolute original Mad Men, he made his name in the 1950s with a remarkable series of Smirnoff vodka ads—notably one taken in front of the pyramids—which not only revolutionized ad imaging, but also turned the world into vodka drinkers. Coming from humble, non-artistic Jewish origins, at his height he ran a bustling studio that was a nonstop creative assembly line of photo and commercial film shoots.

Stern’s energy extended itself beyond work to his subjects—namely, three generations of the world’s most beautiful women, a number of whom, adorer of all things female that he was and is, he successfully bedded. Monroe, Loren, Bardot, Twiggy, Streisand, Jean Shrimpton, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Kate Moss are all present and accounted for, in lusciously refulgent, definitive moments. His deep, tempestuous personal relationships included a long, messy marriage to the great prima ballerina Allegra Kent, with whom he was obsessed and had two daughters, and who is also interviewed here, with incredibly honest results.

“Trouble always found me,” Stern ruefully remarks, and it is true that, to fuel his non-stop energy, he became addicted to amphetamines, which effectively destroyed his career for years. He lost everything, except his precious body of work (namely the negatives), and was able to make a successful comeback in more recent years, as with the controversial, self-plagiarizing session in which he tried to recreate the Monroe sitting with Lindsay Lohan. That Monroe shoot continues to haunt him, and not only for its iconic immortality; stolen negatives resurfaced decades later which Stern had to pay to get back, a case which provides some drama to the doc.

“I never wanted to be in front of the camera,” Stern tells Laumeister. “You turned the tables on me.” Perhaps only someone as intimate with him as she could have produced such a remarkable warts-and-all portrait of an artist, surely one of the most searingly honest ever filmed. Admittedly never a great candidate for marriage, his longtime involvement with a pair of twin sisters, a reality the much younger Laumeister seems to accept with equanimity, is revealed here, as is Laumeister‘s own largely sexless muse-mentor relationship with Stern. His troubled relationship with a largely estranged daughter is featured, as opposed to his closer one with her sister, the mother of his beloved granddaughters. When the neglected daughter openly wonders why Dad has been so absent from her life, the answer seems all too sadly apparent: Unlike her sister, she is not physically beautiful.

Great artists are rarely, if ever, easy, and the question is always how much can be forgiven. But when one is faced with the staggering evidence of Stern’s work—not to mention the pioneering documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), a film still so radiantly powerful that Spike Lee refused to revisit the fest with a proposed new doc of his own—that question, if not moot, becomes at least muted.


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