Say the name Bert Stern to anyone and they will immediately think of the legendary set of photographs he took of Marilyn Monroe in her last sitting just before her death. Behind closed doors without anyone else present he captured her beauty raw and natural in stunning iconic images which still takes one’s breath away even now. But Mr Stern, we learn from this new documentary, also had an inexhaustible ground-breaking body of work spanning several decades where he photographed everything from Smirnoff vodka bottles to Camel cigarettes with the same visionary eye and passion he used with Ms Monroe. He also combined his professional loves with his personal ones that got him into several scrapes including one with a Blonde and an 8″ knife that she wanted to stab him with.
The title of ‘original mad man’ is meant to convey that he was the first real star in a fledgling advertising industry in the 1950’s, but the filmmaker would also have us construe it to be a comment on his erratic personal behaviour too.The sections of the movie about his work are enthralling, and it is easy to appreciate what a sheer genius he was with his singular perception and consummate devotion to getting exactly the right shot, resulting in radical conceptual images and some iconic images. It touched on the early days when he worked at the now defunct ‘Flair Magazine’ with another budding photographer called Stanley Kubrick, and of his time at ‘Vogue’ under the great Diane Vreeland where he ended up being given 10 pages to photograph carte blanche whatever he wanted.
There was also the time in his life when a nasty divorce wiped him out financially and left him broke and but he ingeniously struck on the notion of photographing every single prescription drug for ‘The Pill Book’ the handbook for all Doctors and Pharmacists that sold sold some 17 million copies and made him enough money to buy another big house.
Stern, a very reluctant subject in front of a camera, was less of his bumptious self when he eventually talked about the sessions that made him such a star. His recollection of how he got Marilyn to pose like that for him was both touching and fascinating, and he seemed genuinely shocked at how well it all turned out. For him anyway.
Two other stories stick out too. One is where he relates how he came up with the concept of the infamous movie poster for ‘Lolita’ where he defied the Producers and made Sue Lyon look even younger. The second tale is where he confesses that one of his worst professional mistakes was trying to re-create the Marilyn photographs recently using the ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan. The less said about that debacle, the better.
As intriguing and as complicated as all his many personal relationships with women were, there was too much of that part of his life in the movie and at the expense of showing more of his work. The fact that we were presented with rather convoluted and poorly edited stories about his wife and several of his girlfriends …. and even his lack of compassion for one of his daughters … made the picture too muddied to follow in parts.
A lot of the confusion can be explained by the fact that this rather odd unbalanced movie was shot and directed by 83 year-old Stern’s current amour Shannah Laumeister who is his junior by some 40 years. They had met when Laumeister was just 13 years old and she modeled for him a few years later and then became his Muse. She was far too close to her subject to be objective enough, and a little too keen to keep reminding us of her role in the great man’s life.
All said and done though, even though this is not the definitive movie on Bert Stern that the man deserves, it does at least give us more than a glimpse of a genius whose work revolutionized an industry and is the creator of some stunning photographic images that we will never forget.
Now if only someone could explain to me exactly who those annoying Twins are with whom he has dinner with almost every night …. ….