Sundance: Robert Mapplethorpe Doc Duo Talk About Controversial Artist's Legacy

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the reality duo behind 'RuPaul's Drag Race' and 'Million Dollar Listing,' explain why their subject was the precursor to Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Though Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are best known in Hollywood for their reality hits like RuPaul's Drag Race and the various incarnations of Million Dollar Listing, the duo also have a thriving career as documentarians.

This year at Sundance, they will unveil their latest film, HBO documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, during its world premiere Jan. 22.

The late photographer, who died in 1989 of AIDS-related complications, was one of the most controversial artists of his day, generating the kind of headlines that would make Lady Gaga or a Kardashian salivate. In fact, Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images spawned the so-called culture wars that still wage and prompted a national debate over the public funding of boundary-pushing artwork.

“I think a lot of what he did and a lot of the choices he made was about positioning his work so it would be visible and enjoyed but also that it would make him a star,” said Bailey. “I think to produce good work was not sufficient and he needed to position it, he needed to hustle. He worked very hard on his own stardom, which isn’t a negative comment about him at all.”

Mapplethorpe put together his final exhibit, which was housed at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and featured such explosive images as a self-portrait with a whip inserted in his anus and a close up of an erect penis, when he was dying.

“He was very deliberate knowing that [the exhibit] was probably a time bomb and that time bomb would establish his fame, notoriety and ultimately make sure he was looked at as an artist,” Barbato explained.“So the stardom of Mapplethorpe and the work of Mapplethorpe are very fortunately linked, and I think that is what makes him especially ‘Hollywood.’” 

The pair, whose previous films include Inside Deep Throat, The Eyes of Patty Faye and both the doc and narrative adaptation of Party Monster, were unable to entice Mapplethorpe’s one-time girlfriend Patti Smith to appear on camera for interviews. However, they had access to a series of rediscovered interviews. 

“For whatever reason, she wasn’t available. But it was OK,” said Bailey. “We had so many rich archival material with her that we used, and I don’t think she would have said anything more than she’s already said in the past.”

Smith recounted much of her relationship with Mapplethorpe and their days together in New York City’s East Village in the best-selling memoir Just Kids.

As for his influence outside of photography, Mapplethorpe shaped the images and work of everyone from Madonna to more recently David Bowie.

“Mapplethorpe was exactly the same as Madonna -- very strategic in who he collaborated with -- Madonna and Mapplethorpe being both very singular artists but very good collaborators,” Bailey added. “The other parallel I see at the moment is David Bowie’s [final album] Blackstar. Again, it’s knowing they were going to die and what could they leave behind. Having turned their lives into art, how can they turn their deaths into art, and I think Mapplethorpe and Bowie both did that.”

In recent years, Los Angeles has become the epicenter for Mapplethorpe’s work. His collection is shared between the Getty Museum and LACMA. David Geffen and Elton John are fans. If Mapplethorpe was still alive today, both Bailey and Barbato think he would have migrated to Los Angeles.

“Had he lived I think he would have probably become a filmmaker,” Barbato said. “Leading ladies would love him. He knew how to treat talent, so he would have thrived in Hollywood."