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Review: 'Bert Stern: Original Mad Man' doesn't give a full picture

As the photographer who helped revolutionize the advertising industry, Stern makes a curiously lackluster subject himself in a new documentary.

April 18, 2013|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Bert Stern shoots in Egypt, 1955, as seen in the documentary "Bert Stern: Original Mad Man."
Bert Stern shoots in Egypt, 1955, as seen in the documentary "Bert… (Eleanor Mostel/ / First…)

Whether it's signing his photographs and his books, participating in a documentary or talking at all, Bert Stern can barely be bothered. Which is a flaw that "Bert Stern: Original Mad Man" never overcomes.

It's not that Stern didn't take any memorable photographs or lacked for dramatic incident in his life. Quite the contrary. A creator of images who helped revolutionize the use of photography in advertising, he became celebrated for Marilyn Monroe's last sitting as well as the shot that became the celebrated poster for Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita." But in front of the camera the situation changes.

For one thing, as Stern frequently tells us, being photographed himself is something he never wanted. For another, Stern's habitual Night of the Living Dead delivery couldn't be more disconcertingly disconnected. If someone is that bored with their own life, it's not clear why we should bother listening in, no matter what they've accomplished.

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The reason Stern finds himself in front of the camera is also problematical. Director Shannah Laumeister is someone who's had a friend-muse relationship with Stern for decades, having met him when she was 13, calling him up volunteering to model when she was 17 and then being involved over the years in photo sessions that are described as "taboo, kind of insane, kind of brilliant."

Personal filmmaking can get too personal, and this is one of those times.

Now a bad boy in winter, the 83-year-old Stern's solemnly flirtatious on-camera relationship with Laumeister is par for the course for him, or so we come to understand. "Making love and making photographs," Stern says, "are closely connected," and his complete fascination with women is a subject the film comes back to again and again, with not necessarily edifying results.

Always handsome and likely a more dynamic presence when he was younger (though we get no filmed evidence either way), Stern always wanted to be an artist of some sort.

As a young man he started in the mailroom at Look magazine, where he met an equally young Stanley Kubrick, whom he claims to have liked but witheringly dismisses as "like his movies: mean, cruel and finding weaknesses in people."

Stern caught the eye of art director Hershel Bramson, who became his mentor and helped with his transition to creating advertising photography during the storied 1950s and '60s, which is where the film's "Mad Man" subtitle comes from.

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Stern's best-known photograph from this period presents an Egyptian pyramid seen upside down in a martini glass, an image for a series of Smirnoff ads extolling dryness that causes a fellow Madison Avenue veteran to exclaim, "He invented vodka; he put vodka on the map in the United States."

The photographer worked so hard in his heyday that he created what contemporaries remember as an empire. In fact, he worked so hard that he got hooked on intravenous amphetamines, had to be hospitalized and ended up spending four years in Spain trying to bring equilibrium back to his life.

A key player in this period of Stern's life was one of his wives, the woman he considers the love of his life, the George Balanchine protégé and star of the New York City Ballet, Allegra Kent. There is no doubt that Stern was madly in love with her, but the situation was too volatile to endure, and it didn't.

Stern claims that the only other woman he was seriously interested in besides his wife was Marilyn Monroe, whom he shot during several sessions in 1962 just six weeks before she died. Talking about this encounter with someone who shared his passion for creating images is one of the few times that Stern shows any animation on film, but in the final analysis, though the photographs are memorable, the photographer is not.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Bert Stern: Original Mad Man'

MPAA rating: not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: At Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles

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