Bert Stern: Original Mad Man
Opens Fri., April 26 at Harvard Exit. Not rated. 89 minutes.
Marilyn Monroe died a half-century ago, and I want nothing more to do with her. Yet thanks to baby boomer necrophilia, people are still making money off her corpse—including photographer Bert Stern, whose famous final session with Monroe was published in Vogue just before her 1962 OD. We get to those images by midpoint in this mediocre doc, directed by Shannah Laumeister, once a Lolita-ish model for Stern in the ’80s. (And, implicitly, then his teenaged lover. Eww.)
The first, more interesting part of Laumeister’s film evokes an era when Stern and his buddy Stanley Kubrick were ambitious young photographers in postwar New York. Stern, now a very self-satisfied 84, was an art director for various magazines (Flair, Look, etc.) and ad campaigns during the ’50s and ’60s. “He invented vodka,” says ad maven Jerry Della Femina of Stern’s work for Smirnoff. “No one drank vodka in America.” And that’s not a bad legacy to have. As legendary copywriter George Lois recalls, “The photographers were [Irving] Penn, [Richard] Avedon, and Stern in my mind.” High praise, but who would say that today? (For a better survey of the Mad Men era, see Doug Pray’s 2009 doc Art & Copy.)
Stern freely confesses to being a lech who wanted to “make out with” (i.e., fuck) all his models. The inevitable montage of his portrait-sitters includes Twiggy, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Candice Bergen, and a more recent Lindsay Lohan—posing as Marilyn for New York magazine. (Exhausted talent, meet exhausted talent.) Laumeister, often in frame to question “her mentor” (in his creepy estimation), deserves credit for letting Stern’s ex-wives and adult children share some fairly damning recollections. Drugs brought Stern low by the early ’70s. Broke and divorced, he began pawing through his old Monroe negatives, and a profitable second career was born. His latest Taschen photo book, a mashup with Norman Mailer’s 1973 Marilyn bio, sells for $69 on Amazon. There’s still a market, as this needless documentary also proves.