Film Review: Bert Stern — Original Madman

By Gerald Peary

Bert Stern: Original Madman, streaming on Amazon Prime

David Hemmings’ s sexist swine fashion photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) might well have been based on America’s Bert Stern, who also would lie on top of his models while photographing them and happily continue their cozy relationship in bed. Stern, now in his 80s, has been girl-crazy all his life, and, like most compulsive womanizers, he’s bedded a lot of them. And he even married once, Balanchine’s prima ballerina, Allegra Kent, because, he explains, he thought she’d be a perfect mother for him to have some kids. (They are long divorced. Kent, interviewed, says she “rescued” the children from him. They are now grown. One daughter adores him, calls herself “a daddy’s girl.” Another is estranged, and a son never appears in the movie.)

With his large, blue eyes and Maileresque charm, Stern is often forgiven for his tiresome discretions, including callous cheating on his wife and girlfriends. Nobody is easier on him than Shannah Laumeister, the 43-year-old filmmaker and, four decades his junior, his long-time squeeze. He mostly gets a pass in Bert Stern: Original Madman, Laumeister’s easygoing documentary portrait of her aging boyfriend, allowing him to tell the story of his earlier life with bemusement and little regret and with lots of screen time for him to brag about his randy exploits. For instance, we get the moment by moment of his famous photographic session with Marilyn Monroe, just weeks before her death. You know, where Bert boldly locked the door, and Marilyn slipped down to her underwear. Where Bert sat next to her on the bed. And . . .

Wait a minute! What about Bert Stern, the artist? He deserves credit for bringing fashion photography into the modernist moment in the late 1950s and early 1960s with his slick conceptual work for Smirnoff Vodka and other fancy clients. And his photos on the set of Lolita for his pal Stanley Kubrick are classic. Stern’s the guy who put Sue Lyon into those heart-shaped sunglasses and stuck a red lollipop into her mouth for the famous poster. But he’s no Avedon or Penn, his renowned compatriots. In fact, his greatest artistic achievement isn’t a photograph. It’s a movie, his one and only: the masterful Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959), Stern’s sublime documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and perhaps the first concert film.

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.

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