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Bert Stern: Original Mad Man: Film Review

The Bottom Line

Although it contains many fascinating tidbits, this documentary about the photographer who shot Marilyn Monroe's "Last Session" is more impressionistic than enlightening.

Director

Shannah Laumeister

Shannah Laumeister's documentary chronicles the life and career of the famed photographer.

As the new documentary about his life and career well illustrates, it was clearly good to be Bert Stern. The legendary photographer—famed for his iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Twiggy and just about every famous beautiful woman of the last half-century--is the subject of Shannah Laumeister’s film Bert Stern: Original Mad Man.

Its timely title referring to his work on such pioneering ad campaigns as the one for Smirnoff—“He invented vodka,” declares the famous ad man Jerry Della Femina—the film is a highly intimate portrait, made by the woman who Stern first photographed when she was a teenager and who for many years has been his life partner.

The results are eye-opening, if often more than a little uncomfortable. Like many filmmakers who have a close relationship with their subject, Laumeister doesn’t resist the opportunity to frequently insert herself into the proceedings, revealing many inessential details about her own life and displaying a cornucopia of nude photographs of her taken by Stern.

STORY: Marilyn Monroe's Last Nudes Featured in New Book

Stern himself is highly candid about his often troubled life, even if he is clearly uncomfortable about finding himself in the unusual position of being in front of the camera.

“I shot you for 20 years, and you turned around and shot me,” he says sharply to Laumeister at one point.

Not surprisingly, a central theme of Stern’s life is his preoccupation with women, with him constantly announcing his desire to “make out” with his beautiful female subjects. And although he apparently failed to seal the deal with the frequently naked Monroe during their intimate photo sessions held in a suite at the Bel Air Hotel, he apparently cut quite a wide sexual swatch during his career heyday.

He began his career in the mailroom at Look Magazine, where he formed a longtime friendship with their young staff photographer, Stanley Kubrick. The famed director would later hire him to shoot the poster for Lolita, with Stern supplying the immortal image of Sue Lyon sucking a red lollipop while wearing heart-shaped sunglasses.

Stern would later go on to make a movie himself, the 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, originally conceived as a narrative feature. It’s since come to be regarded as a seminal work, with jazz impresario George Wein pointing out that Spike Lee refused his entreaty to make a 50th anniversary update, saying that nobody could top the original.

At the peak of his fame, Stern married the renowned ballet dancer Allegra Kent, but despite his self-proclaimed obsession with her the marriage foundered due to his infidelities and growing addiction to amphetamines. Interviewed for the film, the still stunning Kent bitterly describes Stern, with whom she had three children, as “a sperm donor.”

The film includes many fascinating episodes, such as his lengthy recollections of shooting the sloshed Monroe during what would famously become known as “The Last Session” and his coming up with the idea for a book containing endless photographs of prescription medications. Simply titled The Pill Book, it would go on to sell an astonishing 17 million copies.

More recently, he shot the infamous New York Magazine nude photo spread of Lindsay Lohan made up to look like Marilyn, which actually crashed the magazine’s website. But he admits that it was a mistake, commenting, “I knocked myself off.”

But despite its admittedly intriguing parts, the film ultimately feels too diffuse and self-indulgent to represent a truly incisive portrait of its subject. Although--for male viewers at least--it certainly does make you want to be him.

Opens April 5 (First Run Features)

Production: Magic Films Productions

Director: Shannah Laumeister

Producers: Shannah Laumeister, Gregory McClatchy, Phyllis Stuart

Executive producers: Jeff Werner, Diana Holtzberg, Diane Estelle Vicari

Directors of photography: Shannah Laumeister, Tony Hardmon

Editors: Danny Bresnick, Piri Miller

Composers: Starr Parodi, Jeff Eden Fair

Not rated, 92 min.