The Passion of O' Keeffe
by Robert Nott - 8.27.2009
Photo credit: IPTTC
How do you dramatize a success story? That's what actress Joan Allen asked herself after she agreed to co-produce and act in the made-for-television biopic Georgia O'Keeffe, which focuses on the roughly 20 years that O'Keeffe was involved with her mentor, lover, and husband, Alfred Stieglitz (Jeremy Irons). The film, directed by Bob Balaban and written by Michael Cristofer, was produced with the cooperation of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and shot entirely in New Mexico last year. The O'Keeffe Museum hosts a screening of the film on Friday, Aug. 28, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center with pre- and post-screening receptions at the museum; all proceeds benefit the O'Keeffe. Allen plans to attend the screening.
(The picture airs on the Lifetime network on Sept. 19.)
Allen liked the fact that the script played up O'Keeffe's fragility and imperfections. "What I found intriguing about her is that she was known as this extremely stoic, strong woman of esert, but she had this whole other life where she was quite vulnerable," Allen said in a phone interview from New York City, where she lives. "She seemed to have both sides: incredible strength and great endurance, painting in freezing weather and walking miles and miles in hot weather, but when Stieglitz hurt her, or her mother died, she took to her bed for quite a while; she couldn't get up. I am fascinated by that dichotomy."
Husband and wife producers Joshua D. Maurer and Alixandre Witlin conceived the idea for the project several years ago, after a visit to the O'Keeffe Museum. "I said, 'The life of Georgia O'Keeffe would make a good movie. We should make this happen,'" Maurer recalled by phone from Los Angeles. "And Alex said to me, 'Who would play Georgia?' I said, 'Joan!' I called her right there on my cell phone and pitched it to her, and she said, 'Fantastic.'"
The project was originally designed for HBO — "until they decided not to make it," Maurer said. Aside from the main actors (inne Daly as an always exuberant Mabel Dodge Luhan), most of the cast and crew hailed from New Mexico. The interior of the old St. Vincent Hospital downtown doubled for New York City apartments and galleries, and a scene set in Lake George, in upstate New York, was shot at the United World College in Las Vegas. "New Mexico is a character in this story," Witlin said. "We couldn't shoot it anywhere else."
The company spent three days filming at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiú, the site of O'Keeffe's home and the subject of many of her paintings. Maurer said that it was the first movie shot there since O'Keeffe's death in 1987. "That made for a better script and a better project. I mean, for an actress to film in the very location where the historical events took place ..."
The film opens with a quotation from one of O'Keeffe's letters to Stieglitz: "Words and I — are not good friends at all ..." Allen said that she connects to that idea. "I understand what Georgia was saying. I use words other people have written, which in some ways is the same thing. It's much harder for me to stand up and give an after-dinner speech as Joan than it is to deliver lines that have been given to me to play as a character. O'Keeffe was not that verbal. She was like, 'Let's get down to work; let's just do it!' I can relate to that. I don't like to talk about the craft of acting and how it all works. I just like to do it."
The film wastes no time in throwing O'Keeffe and Stieglitz together in a New York gallery where he displays her work. It covers their mutual passion for art and photography, their budding love for each other, and the angst and torment that accompanied a relationship between two very strong-minded individuals who wanted to do things their own ways. Though O'Keeffe began her affair with Stieglitz while he was still married, she was none too pleased when he took arts patroness Dorothy Norman (nicely played by Santa Fe actress Jenny Gabrielle in the movie) as his lover.
"There was turmoil," Allen said. "Even though they shared a very similar artistic sense, they were two very different kinds of people. Georgia was a woman from Wisconsin who loved to walk into the middle of a raging dust storm in the middle of the desert, and Stieglitz was very much a New Yorker — a hypochondriac, sort of like Woody Allen, a man who never wanted to leave the city, except to go to Lake George. And for all his talk of modernism and art speak, I think he had a very old-fashioned sense of what a woman is, and he needed a woman to take care of him. The concept of having a mistress was part of his family [history], but she was not going to stand by and let another woman do that to her; it was humiliating."
It was 1929 when O'Keeffe first found solace in New Mexico, staying and working here most of the time without Stieglitz until his death in 1946, when she became a permanent resident. "I think New Mexico completely spoke to her," Allen said. "It's a very inspiring place — I can see how it can captivate. As a film actor, wherever I've been on location, I'm always ready at the end to come home, and I don't care where I am. But one location I was really sad to leave was New Mexico."
Allen has often played feisty, independent-thinking women who try to maintain their moral center amid swirls of misconduct or despite topsy-turvy turns of events (The Ice Storm, Pleasantville, and Off the Map come to mind). She has also played a few real-life characters, including Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's Nixon. "I wouldn't say there's more pressure to get it right [with historical figures] but more responsibility to try to do it close to what I think that woman might be like," she said. "I feel an obligation to that. I would hope that if O'Keeffe saw my work she'd go, 'That's OK. That's OK. She got close enough.'"
As the film closes, it is clear that O'Keeffe is going to be guided by her own moral and artistic compass. She was less concerned about how others saw her and more in touch with the need to be happy with herself, Allen said — and that inner artistic and emotional is what fuels the film. "I hope it conveys a woman who lived a passionate life: passion for her work, passion for the man she loved, passion for nature, and a woman who had a very strong sense of self and did what she needed to do in order to realize her gift."
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