Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Hidden Gem: Basquiat
Painter turned director Julian Schnabel made an auspicious debut with this 1996 film that announced Jeffrey Wight’s career as a reliable character actor.
Basquiat, as the title implies, retells the life and career of pop/graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat, of course, became one of the most important painters of the latter half of the 20th century. The artist also had a long association with Andy Warhol (played here by David Bowie), and even dated Madonna (they allegedly broke up because she landed on the cover of People, and he felt he was more talented than her) before his sudden death in 1988.
Over the course of the film (and the artist’s career), he struggles in his relationships with women, with a racist art world, and with heroin addiction. Warhol manages to anchor Basquiat’s fragile ego and self-destructive tendencies, though after Warhol’s own death in 1987, the inevitable downward spiral begins.
Both Wright and Bowie give splendid performances here, with the latter channeling Warhol’s aloof disposition and (as revealed in The Andy Warhol Diaries), his own mix of insecurity and calculating penchant for publicity. It probably helps that Warhol and Bowie were friends in real life; the actor even wears one of Warhol’s personal wigs. Wright, similarly, should have snagged an Oscar nomination for his work. For that matter, so should Bowie.
Schnabel’s sense as a visualist shows here, photographing the movie in bright colors akin to the works of Basquiat. He also has an uncanny sense for actors: Christopher Walken, Courtney Love, Tatum O’Neal, Parker Posey, and Gary Oldman all turn up in the film, all in memorable turns.
Much as with The Andy Warhol Diaries, Basquiat pulls back the veil on a man gifted with artistic genius, and the inherent insecurity that talent brings. If a genius brain burns white-hot, how can said genius ever not get burned? No wonder so many artists turn to substance and self-destruction. How else could they get a moment of peace?
We recommend Basquiat for its remarkable performances, and for its astute observations about the mind of a great artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat painted in abstract figures, with bright colors and integrated language and numbers to his work. After seeing this movie, we have some idea as to why.
Streams on Amazon.