Rainbow Rant: Review of 'Mapplethorpe'

Joy Ellison
Robert Mapplethorpe

“Mapplethorpe,” the new biopic about queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, will likely not receive the same attention as the Oscar-winning film “Bohemian Rhapsody.” However, both films portray queer identity in much the same way: badly.

Homophobia on the silver screen is less tolerated than ever before. Why, then, are studios turning out biopics about queer men that dishonor their legacies? How, pray tell, are these films so well-received?

Hollywood filmmakers are unable to let go of homophobic tropes. Instead, they've created new ones that play better in 2019. Here are five simple steps for a homophobic film that will succeed in an era when homophobia is no longer popular.

Step 1: Choose a male artist. Women need not apply. In film, there are few female queer or trans historical figures, and mostly just fictional lesbians in period clothing. The male artist in “Mapplethorpe” is, of course, Robert Mapplethorpe, played by Matt Smith. Smith, of course, is straight. I presume that in all of L.A., no gay white man with cheekbones could be found. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that a gay actor would have saved “Mapplethorpe” or films like it.

Step 2: Find a woman and treat her badly. Homosexuality, according to contemporary Hollywood, is a tragic, overwhelming urge that compels men to mistreat women. In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddie Mercury is unfaithful to Mary Austin. In “Mapplethorpe,” it's Patti Smith who is portrayed as a pathetic, money-grubbing, hopelessly heterosexual nag. Mapplethorpe cheats on her, and writers seem to believe that she had it coming. It's a bold move to engage in such willful inaccuracy when Patti Smith detailed her complex relationship with Mapplethorpe in her bestselling memoir,Just Kids. In fact, that's the boldest move this film makes.

Step 3: Turn the artist into an isolated, cruel genius. Like Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mapplethorpe is portrayed as mercurial, prideful and without meaningful connections. In real life, Mapplethorpe's art was possible because of his relationships with others. Smith and Mapplethorpe nurtured each other's artistic careers and enjoyed a nuanced and often sexual friendship that endured after Mapplethorpe came into his queer identity. Mapplethorpe's relationships with other queer men, including his patron and lover Sam Wagstaff, were also vital to his work. The trope of the lonely genius obliterates the complexity of queer relationships, sexual and otherwise.

The closest the film comes to portraying Mapplethorpe with complexity is in its gloss of the artist's well-known and ugly racism. By showing Mapplethorpe calling a Black gay man “boy,” the film tries to approach this topic. However, it fails to illicit any emotional reaction that might cause viewers to reconsider their understanding of Mapplethorpe.

Step 4: Show that lonely genius having a lot of sex. Wanton sexuality, tragically and predictably, will be his undoing.

Step 5: At the end of the movie, show the artist dying of AIDS. Enough said.

I'm tired of watching movies like these, but a new biopic about Elton John is coming out soon. Hollywood will have to find a different way to end the movie, as Sir Elton is still alive, but the film will probably follow the rest of the steps I've outlined. If not, I'll buy the popcorn.