Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe

On DVD: 
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Running Time: 
89 minutes

There are many pitfalls to making a biopic, especially when the subject is an artist.  It would be easy to focus too much on the artist at work while giving short shrift to the artist’s personal life and relationships.  Of course, it’s also tempting to go too far in the opposite direction, which is exactly what screenwriter Michael Cristofer and director Bob Balaban do in Georgia O’Keeffe, an often shallow tale that focuses too much on O’Keefe’s tumultuous relationship with Alfred Stieglitz and nowhere near enough on her painting or the surroundings, both in New York and New Mexico that so drove much of her work.  Georgia O’Keeffe is much more a melodramatic tale of a troubled marriage than it is a portrait of America’s most famous female artist.  Since it was originally a Lifetime television movie, time constraint was assuredly an issue (runtime is a measly 89 minutes) and there may have been a misguided pander to the female target audience, but I am thoroughly disappointed in how flat and shockingly dull this film is, especially when it has such a vibrant and fascinating subject in O’Keeffe.

The first half of Georgia O’Keeffe is set in Manhattan, where O’Keefe’s first meeting with Stieglitz is a witty confrontation over his display of her work without her permission.  Stieglitz convinces her of the rightness of his exhibit and takes her under his wing, giving her a place to work and live.  They begin a relationship and he eventually leaves his wife.  The eventual marriage between Stieglitz and O’Keefe is troubled.  There are financial issues, O’Keefe wants children when Stieglitz flatly doesn’t, and Stieglitz is unfaithful.  Through all this, we don’t see what drives O’Keefe to paint: how she chooses her subjects or technique.  Many of her New York paintings convey a real sense of claustrophobia, but we don’t even see those paintings here, let alone learn what O’Keefe was thinking.  We at least could have had more than three minutes of O’Keefe actually painting, and much of that was only shown to lead up to a meltdown.  When we switch to New Mexico for the second half of the film, we do get a sense that O’Keefe’s world has opened up and become brighter but with the exception of noticeably lighter cinematography, most of it is in the told, not shown vein.  It’s frustrating that the film skims over the surface of O’Keeffe’s life—and only a portion of her life, at that—giving such a superficial view of a rich and complex woman.  It seems the only part of her life that mattered to writer Cristofer was that part affected by Stieglitz, and she was so much more than that. 

Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons are both excellent in their roles.  Allen infuses her ambitious and seeking O’Keefe with strength and vulnerability in equal measure.  Her outer reserve carefully masks inner fears and sadness, so when that composure cracks, it is all the more meaningful.  As the artistically frustrated and selfish Stieglitz, Irons runs the gamut from sincere to calculating, loving to dismissive.   They both rise far above the cliché-ridden script (Irons even survives, mostly unscathed, Stieglitz’s overwrought breakdown), with a fun assist from Tyne Daly as Bohemian art patron Mabel Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan.

Georgia O’Keefe translates beautifully on DVD with crisp colors and nuanced shadows.  The New Mexico scenes look spectacular and the audio is clean throughout.  The one extra is a ten minute “Portrait of an Artist: The Making of Georgia O’Keefe,” a vapid featurette combining interviews and clips.

This is a well-acted but poorly scripted and paced glimpse at Georgia O’Keefe’s marriage to Alfred Stieglitz filled with hackneyed dialogue better suited to a soap opera than a biopic about such a multi-faceted talented artist.   Joan Allen, Jeremy Irons, and especially Georgia O'Keeffe deserved much better.

Review by Michelle St. James