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Bert Stern: Original Madman

2012 | 85 min | Not rated | 1.85:1

Bert Stern: Original Madman


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Theatrical release date

 03 April, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Bert Stern: Original Madman


Bert Stern: Original Madman Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, May 3, 2013

The Bert Stern that we know is the legendary advertising and celebrity photographer, a man with a singular eye for feminine beauty and unforgettable composition, building his career on iconic pictures, most notably of Marilyn Monroe just before she passed away in 1962. The Bert Stern of the “Original Madman” documentary is an older gentleman with limited patience, allowing his longtime infatuation, director Shannah Laumeister, to track his life and career, interviewing the subject seemingly whenever she could find five minutes of his undivided attention. Candid but cold, “Bert Stern: Original Madman” remains a riveting sit, granted front-row access to an obsessive mind and a startling artistic visionary.

Taking a traditional documentary route, “Original Madman” starts with the photographer’s origins in New York City, where the young man strived to avoid a life of mundane stability to make his way as a creative force. Rising in the ranks as an art director for general-interest magazines, Stern eventually received an opportunity to test his skills as a photographer, eventually leading the charge on a marketing revolution with his distinct eye for challenging imagery, yanking stiffness and wholesomeness out of the industry. There was also a movie, the 1959 classic “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a documentary on the Newport Jazz Festival that only deepened outside appreciation for Stern’s work.

“Original Madman” is loosely structured, following Stern’s lead as an uncomfortable subject, unprepared to inspect his own history after a career spent mingling in the lives of others. Laumeister doesn’t push Stern to confession, instead setting a casual mood of conversation in numerous locations, playing on the comfort of their extended relationship as photographer and longstanding muse (their 40 year age gap is noted repeatedly, thought the pair is cagey about their romantic connection), which allows the director to pull out blunt commentary on Stern’s battle with unfulfilling marriages, lustful intentions, and professional disappointments. The subject is aloof but aware, playing the role of a friend to Laumeister, giving his fixation the time of day when few others could dream of the same treatment.

Understanding Bert Stern means confronting his obsession with women. It’s a nuclear heterosexuality that’s defined his life, pouring out in the potency of his photographs, which highlight sensual curves, nudity, and natural beauty. Capturing the likes of Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, Stern’s greatest subject is perhaps Marilyn Monroe, finding two sessions with the then 36-year-old bombshell making up “The Last Sitting,” an unforgettable collection of pictures that display’s Monroe’s raw sexuality and stinging vulnerability. The photos turned Stern into a legend, though this particular accomplishment would eventually come to haunt him in later years, with a situation of theft and a 2008 recreation with Lindsay Lohan as Marilyn chipping away at the sanctity of his career.

There’s darkness to uncover, exploring faulty marriages and estranged children, along with extensive coverage of Stern’s methamphetamine addiction in the 1960s and ‘70s, which nearly destroyed his life and reputation. “Original Madman” isn’t consumed with the dark side of Stern, though it’s clear from the documentary that he’s a frosty man often in command of warm-blooded photography, preferring to let his vivid, forthright work speak for him. There are also a few amusing highlights, including time spent with fellow “Look” magazine employee Stanley Kubrick, with Stern reminiscing about the famous director’s propensity for cruelty and the discipline of his genius. The pair would reunite in the 1960s when Stern was commissioned to take pictures of “Lolita” star Sue Lyon for publicity purposes, warned to keep away from overt sexual imagery. Well, we all know how that turned out.

“Bert Stern: Original Madman” isn’t complete, missing gaps in time and personality that would be valuable to complete a definitive portrait of the man. The documentary feels as though it’s all Laumeister could squeeze out of artist before he tired of her company. Although erratic, the picture maintains a basic understanding of Stern’s peculiarities and urges, while bringing his photographic accomplishments into clear view.

Director: Shannah Laumeister

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