Robert Mapplethorpe Biopic Starring James Franco Set to Lens Before Patti Smith's "Just Kids"
“Mapplethorpe” will follow the photographer’s life from his rise in the 1970s until his death at age 42 in 1989 from complications arising from AIDS. Mapplethorpe was as famous for his calmly explicit homoerotic nude males and provocative depictions of sadomasochistic sex as for his stark black-and-white portraits of such celebrities as Deborah Harry, Andy Warhol, Isabella Rossellini, William Burroughs, Grace Jones, and his onetime soulmate Patti Smith.
The film is being produced by director Ondi Timoner’s Interloper Films and the actress-producer Eliza Dushku’s Boston Diva Productions. It was Dushku who in 2009 secured the rights and full cooperation from the Mapplethorpe estate to make the film. “The Mapplethorpe Foundation was impressed by Ondi Timoner’s vision for the project and her strengths as an artist,” Michael Ward Stout, president of the foundation, said at the time. Back then the film was titled “The Perfect Moment” after Mapplethorpe’s traveling 1989 solo exhibit, which became a cause célèbre in the censorship wars over public funding for art.
Franco is often regarded as a restless polymath (or gadabout hyphenate), but playing Mapplethorpe will lend some thematic consistency to his career as an actor. His decisions to play Harvey Milk’s boyfriend Scott Smith in “Milk” (2008), Allen Ginsberg during the 1957 obscenity trial over his eponymous poem in “Howl” (2010), and now Mapplethorpe probably has less to do with any interest he has in playing gay men than in portraying figures whose rights and freedoms were threatened by self-appointed moral guardians. They’re also too juicy and iconic roles for any ambitious actor in his early thirties to turn down.
Which begs the question, is Patti Smith too juicy and iconic a role for Dushku to turn down?
“Mapplethorpe” will be the first fiction film to be directed by Timoner, who is the only filmmaker to have twice won the Sundance festival Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Film. In 2004 she won it for “Dig!,” which tracked the love-hate relatonship of the alternative bands the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre over the course of seven years. She won it again for 2009’s “We Live in Public,” a study of the dotcom billionaire Josh Harris, whose radical experiments in Big Brotherdom led to his breakdown following a spell in which he imposed 24-hour Internet surveillance upon himself and his then girlfriend.
Timoner has also made films about an African-American woman trapped in the prison system, cults and mind control, climate change, and the discovery of thousands of copper tins containing unclaimed human remains at Oregon State Hospital.
Hers isn’t the only Mapplethorpe film in the works. Patti Smith is currently adapting her bestselling book “Just Kids” with dramatist John Logan, who wrote the screenplays for “The Aviator,” “Hugo,” and the upcoming “Lincoln.” Smith’s tender memoir covers the period in the late 1960s when, as Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review, she and Mapplethorpe “were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown.”
Little has been heard of this project lately, but if audiences can handle two Linda Lovelace biopics, it can surely handle two about an artist who broke sexual taboos in his own highly individualistic way.