The notion certainly sounds promising: James Woods starring in a movie about the controversy provoked by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s most sexually explicit pictures. With his dead-stare eyeballs, sunken cheeks, and rotting-evil leer, Woods is like a walking Mapplethorpe photo; the actor often seems ready to pull a bullwhip out of his back pocket (or somewhere more intimate) and give a few welt-raising flicks to colleagues and audiences alike. This most testy and vituperative of actors comes alive when he portrays extreme emotions like rage, lust, and looniness — that’s why his most satisfying film performance remains that of the wack-job journalist in Oliver Stone’s Salvador.
Beware, however, whenever Woods calms down. Dirty Pictures, Showtime’s titillatingly titled but artistically timid TV movie, is unfortunately more similar in style to that other James Woods, the pursed-lipped deep-thinker who likes to boast about his high IQ and who made alcoholism seem dull, not insidious, in the 1989 TV movie My Name Is Bill W. It’s this wet Woods who weighs down Dirty Pictures, but, to be fair, he’s only doing the bidding of the terribly high-minded liberal script, which focuses on the problems that occurred in 1990 when the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center tried to show Mapplethorpe’s work. The pics included carefully composed portraits of everything from flowers to men engaged in sadomasochistic play. It was the latter images that got Dennis Barrie, the real-life director of the CCAC, played by Woods, hauled before a court on obscenity charges. The idea, as conceived by County Sheriff Simon Leis (Coach’s Craig T. Nelson), was not only to shut down the exhibit, but to put Barrie behind bars.
Dirty Pictures is written by Ilene Chaiken, doubtless the only person who worked on both Twin Peaks and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and is directed by Frank Pierson, a feature-film vet whose TV credits reach all the way back to Route 66 in the ’60s; he also directed Woods as Roy Cohn in the wooden HBO biopic, Citizen Cohn, in 1992. Chaiken and Pierson drain Dirty Pictures of engaging drama by denying the opposition any believability; they present Barrie’s persecutors as hostile idiots and hopeless prudes. Even the jury, which read the obscenity laws closely enough to eventually find Barrie not guilty, is portrayed as a group of sniggering louts. (The exception is Sheriff Leis, whom Nelson plays with admirable evenhandedness.) Indeed, one of the few interesting figures in Dirty Pictures is Monty Lobb (Matt North), the leader of a conservative group, People for Community Values, who articulates his contempt for Mapplethorpe’s S&M themes and gets off the best line to Woods’ Barrie: ”You are a stench in the nostril of God!”
The director further hobbles the movie’s pace by interrupting the narrative with commentator interviews ranging from conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. to novelist Salman Rushdie to humorist Fran Lebowitz, all of whose opinions, while occasionally eloquent, are also entirely predictable.
Look: Anyone who has pay-cable and is interested in a film called Dirty Pictures is likely to be in favor of Mapplethorpe’s freedom of expression. There was no need to cast the film as an argument for the First Amendment. On the other hand, there’s also scant need — aside from permitting Diana Scarwid to give a terrific performance as Barrie’s rattled, bitter wife — to show us so many scenes of the ways in which Barrie’s home life was marred by the trial. While the Barries no doubt endured all the calumny dramatized here — obscene phone calls, a bully pounding on one of their sons — this is the stuff of TV-movie cliches.
Will viewers come away with renewed respect for Mapplethorpe’s artistic intentions? Maybe. But they might also feel the way the jury does here: condescended to, as if we aren’t capable of grappling with disturbing images without an art expert guiding us through them like a therapist. The smartest thing said in Dirty Pictures is Rushdie’s interview quote: ”Real life is tempestuous and…full of aberration and…disturbance. This is everyone’s commonplace occurrence…and if they say it isn’t, they’re lying.” From this idea, great novels — from Madame Bovary to name-your-favorite-Philip Roth — have been written. It has not, however, inspired a great TV movie. C