New to DVD from First Run Features, it is one of the very best nonfiction films of the past year.
The former soda jerk and Korean War vet earned fame and fortune as a conceptual photographer in the Madison Avenue ad game, helping revolutionize the industry in the 1950s and ’60s with his creative thinking and keen eye. “I just push the button,” Stern tells us, completely underestimating his singular talent. “I know when it’s good and I know when it’s bad.”
From the evidence director Shannah Laumeister throws onscreen throughout, it was all good, if not excellent. Stern, who passed away a little more than one month ago at the age of 83, had two loves in life: photography and women, and he purposely blurred the lines between them. To him, little difference existed between making love and taking pictures — he saw to that, as he candidly reveals.
It sure shows in his work, from his now-iconic shots for the Lolita movie poster to a Vogue cover that inadvertently courted controversy for daring to depict a model with her mouth open. Yet the crowning achievement in this category is arguably his famous sessions with sex herself, Marilyn Monroe, taken mere weeks before her fatal overdose. Stern’s own problem with drugs is not glossed over, nor the pain he caused past lovers and wives, and his three children, many of whom participate in interviews for Laumeister’s camera.
Bert Stern: Original Madman exhibits little of its own discernible style, yet it doesn’t need to; Laumeister wisely lets Stern’s shots do the heavy lifting. While it should be noted that the portrait is far from objective, as Laumeister was Stern’s third and final wife, I’m guessing he wouldn’t have subjected himself to such scrutiny otherwise.
The documentary is a fascinating and remarkably frank portrait of an American innovator. His is a story that includes cameos from the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, Elizabeth Taylor, Buster Keaton, Audrey Hepburn and so many other luminaries. Stern made them shine brighter. —Rod Lott