Bert Stern is an icon. There is no doubt about it. Whether the public knows him best for his portraits of Marilyn Monroe before her untimely death or being responsible for transforming the United States into a vodka drinking country – thanks to his iconic photographs of Smirnoff – is arguable. Well, it’s arguable, depending on what industry you’re talking about. But there is one thing everyone can agree with: Bert Stern had revolutionized both the advertising and pop culture worlds, forever.
We got the opportunity to see an early screening of ‘Bert Stern: Original Mad Man,’ a film that takes a revealing look at the life of the photographer. We get to see how Stern, a Brooklyn native, transforms from a mail room boy into a self-made original Madison Avenue “mad man.”
We witness his meteoric rise as a cultural icon during the Golden Age of Advertising, the height of his success when it looked as he could do no wrong, his dramatic fall from grace, and his reinvention. We get an inside look into all his relationships with the women in his life: a poignant story about his marriage to ballerina Allegra Kent, his humorous tales about photographing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for the film ‘Cleopatra,’ and of course, the personal tale of his last encounter with Marilyn Monroe before her untimely end.
Read our review below.
Look: The look and feel of the film suits the story telling. It opens with an 80-something-year-old Bert Stern asking the director, Shannah Laumeister, what she wants him to say and then dives into a personal story of his entire life. It’s a story told by a friend, to a friend. It puts all his work on display as he tells the story – making it the primary element you pay attention to. It transitions, just as his story does, from black-and-white stills to color to moving picture, cutting into his present day reactions as he tells more poignant stories. His work is always front-and-center. There’s a raw, personal feeling to the film’s look – it’s as though you’re looking into Stern’s memory bank as he tells the story.
Themes: A lot of the story talks about his obsession with women – his love for them and how his attraction to every woman he ever photographed. Something that stood out was how, despite his amazing success in his career, there was always that lingering feeling that he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. When his career collapsed, he focused more on losing the love of his life when his wife asked for a divorce. When his work ‘The Last Sitting’ with Marilyn Monroe had become a massive success, he was more distraught over the loss of a woman ranked second – behind his wife – in his obsession with women. The film ends with a feeling of acceptance, rather than contentedness, about how his life had turned out.
Insights: Bert Stern is really quotable. Half the things he said, whether it be about his career or people he had photographed, had sent the audience bursting in laughter. He had told a tale about having 3 near-death experiences with Dr. Watts (you’ll see when you watch the film), and the big realization that hit him after his last near-death experience was, “I need to make some money.”
We didn’t capture the moment too well in our description, but it was a shining moment in the film!
One thing that stood out to us was his love for photography. You’d think it would have been obvious, but his introspective look in the career choices he made showed how truly he loved what he did. Many people had asked him why he never aspired to be a feature film maker, and the way he compared moving pictures to stills that he shot was inspiring, in a way. He described moving pictures as a story that would end the moment a person walked off the screen, but that same person would be immortalized forever in his photograph.
Verdict: No regrets. Our biggest response to this film was, “About time!” The film first debuted in 2011, so we’re pleased that it is finally hitting theaters this April.
It was an honest look into what had consumed this icon’s life. It was funny, breathtaking, poignant. It helps you appreciate how his work and empire had helped shape a lot of how we see the world today.
This film previously debuted at the 2011 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, the 2011 Telluride Film Festival, and the 2012 Palm Springs Film Festival. It will have a limited release in theaters on April 5, 2013.