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“The Bigger Splash” of 2019’s Pride

An indelible portrait of a gay artist; a town turned rainbow

David Hockney in Jack Hazan’s “A Bigger Splash.”
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How did I live so long without seeing Jack Hazan’s documentary portrait of the artist David Hockney, “A Bigger Splash?” First released in 1973, it is a free-wheeling, richly rewarding and almost shockingly intimate portrait of the artist in his youthful heyday, proudly out at a time when being gay in the UK was a criminal offense and working on the painting “Portrait of an Artist” (Pool with Two Figures),” which broke the record for sales by a living artist when it sold for $90.3 million last fall at Christie’s. The film has been gorgeously restored — it actually looks like a Hockney, itself — and is enjoying a theatrical and DVD release through Metrograph.

When I met the affable, charmingly down to earth Hazan at the Ludlow Hotel, we quickly bonded over our shared opinion of another film, “Last Tango in Paris,” which I had seen the night before as part of a 100th anniversary tribute to critic Pauline Kael, whose legendary rave about it first put the controversial film on the map. Hazan said that he was making “A Bigger Splash” when the film came out, which he loved, and its improvisatory nature encouraged him in the similar work he was doing.

“I thought, ‘I’m really on to something,’” he recalled. “But then I saw it a few years ago and was disappointed by how terrible it was, all that Trotsky dogma and the Brando character was just an asshole — you don’t want to know him. At the time, it seemed revealing, but now... I was really turned off and thought, ‘How could I have been so wrong?’”

If nothing else, “A Bigger Splash” is truly revealing, not only in the startling-for-its-time-and-even-now casual and copious use of male frontal nudity, but its exposure of the artist in most intimate moments, both working alone and in the company of his nearest and dearest. I told Hazan that he very well may have invented the concept of reality TV, and he replied, “It was 45 years ago, and it did not conform to any genre which people were not ready for. It was in the New York Film Festival, and I had all these interviews lined up, but every one of them got suddenly cancelled after they saw the film. Very shocking and disappointing to me. The gay thing they didn’t want to know about and, during the Q&A after my screening, all I got was someone complaining about the car horns on the soundtrack!

“In 1981, a guy named Mike Kaplan distributed it in a very small way, one theater here in New York and another in LA. I think it was shown in the theater where they have the Academy Awards and five people showed up. It has to be presented properly, and I believe the print was fading. I supervised the restoration this time around. We pulled the negative from the National Film Registry, which was damaged here and there, and scanned every frame, four or five seconds per frame!”

Hazan lost touch with Hockney over the years but saw him at his retrospective at the Tate Gallery two years ago: “He jokingly said, ‘You should have told me you were breaking up with your wife, and I would have come to film it!’ At the time, he was very upset by the film because he had no idea there was a narrative to it and that was his breakup [with younger boyfriend, Peter Schlesinger, leaving him for another]. He was completely wiped out when he saw it. I had warned him, ‘You might be upset with this thing,’ and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ He had no idea because when you make a film you film it out of sequence.

“As his relationship with Peter [the model in that $90 million painting] was collapsing, there were all these other couples around them, whose marriages were also collapsing. That was supposed to be the idea. He had no problem with the nudity, but the film just disappeared for a while and he had the negative. The turning point was when he sent Ossie Clark [Hockney intimate and renowned fashion designer] to see it. Ossie was never particularly nice to me, only sometimes. He was a typical queen, but he said to me, ‘This film is truer than the truth. What more do you want?’

“Then David went to his artist friend, Shirley Goldfarb, the wife of painter Gregory Masurovsky… She told him, ‘It’s the greatest film on an artist ever made.’ So then his friend, who’s in my movie, Henry Geldzahler [Mayor Ed Koch’s Cultural Affairs commissioner] had a look and gave it his approval, so David had to accept the fact that the film should be released. He realized that there was no way he could stop it, it was shown at Cannes, and was a huge success with the European press.”

Besides Hockney, the other star to emerge from the film is Celia Birtwell, his friend and muse, the subject of his famed portrait of her with Clark, her husband, with whom she collaborated, “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy.” A side pleasure of his movie is footage he shot of their fashion show, rife with glorious rainbow-hued garments and wonderfully louche-looking models moving to rock music who, then, led elegantly with their shoulders and swan necks rather than today’s horsey stomping legs and booty sashays.

Hazan said, “I saw her at David’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery two years ago. She looked at me and said, ‘Do I know you?’ And I said ‘You should.’ When she found out who I was, she wasn’t particularly nice to me. I think she feels I exploited her and made lots of money from the film. It wasn’t true because, if anything, it stopped my career. People thought, ‘This is really weird. Let’s see what else he’s gonna do, and I couldn’t get work as a mainstream director.”

I responded, “She should get down on her knees and thank you, because she comes across as the most delicious, beautifully pre-Raphaelite, creatively gifted Everywoman. I’m gay but I wanna fuck her!”

Hazan agreed, “I made her look fantastic. I should tell you, she doesn’t look as pretty now as she did then, but then we’re all older [chuckles].”

Clark (1942-1996) himself was equally if not more fascinating. Aside from his phoenix talent that represented the most timelessly fetching, feminine, and elegant side of counterculture fashion (much of Liza Minnelli’s “Cabaret” wardrobe was composed of Clark pieces she personally owned), he had a flamboyant personal life, being promiscuously bisexual and a notorious drug addict, a habit started in childhood when his mother would feed him speed so he could make the long trek to the schools that nurtured his talent. He married and divorced Birtwell, by whom he had two children, became far more wildly gay in his personal life, spun out professionally, and was eventually stabbed to death by a former lover, who only served six year’s jail time on the grounds of “diminished responsibl­ity.”

Hazan recalled, “Ossie was moody, but he did cooperate because I had filmed a show of his earlier for the BBC. He allowed me to come round and film him and Celia in his apartment, which we did over a period of the three years we shot the film. You see him sitting on the bed with her and their child.”

I asked if there are any survivors of the film today, besides Hockney and Birtwell.

“Most of them are gone like artist Patrick Procktor, the narrator, Mo McDermott, and David, the guy the at the beginning of the film. But I believe one of the boys diving in the pool scene is still alive, as is Peter Schlesinger. We tried to get Peter to come for the opening here, but he said he’s on Long Island for the summer and I may go and visit him tomorrow, as I haven’t seen him since 1982.

“He is doing ceramics, no longer painting like in the film. They’re amazing, very impressive, and he is still in the same relationship with Eric Boman for whom he left Hockney. Eric is a photographer, has shot for Vogue, and is very successful. I did try to get him here, but he didn’t want to play ball.”

Hazan followed “A Bigger Splash” with “Rude Boy” (1980), about the experiences of a punk roadie for The Clash: “That was better accepted, their fans loved it but, again, it was confusing as people still didn’t understand the genre. Is it a doc or a feature? Which seems very important to people here in the states. My films were scripted, in a way, and everything was designed to make a point. I would set the dialogue the night before, maybe write a couple of lines for one of the actors — or shall we say, performers. I’d say, ‘Can you ask this question to Celia?,’ and that would maybe prompt something and vice-versa. As I was also the camera operator, I couldn’t have anything too complex, just something to trigger a reaction.”

I told Hazan that, along with being a splendidly intimate and rare portrait of a great artist, I sincerely think it is one of the best gay films ever made, and he replied, “What I’m quite happy about is that after the film came out, David would receive phone calls in the UK from boys who’d somehow gotten his number, crying and saying, ‘So it’s not wrong to be in love with another boy?’

“‘Of course, it’s not,’ he’d say. ‘It’s totally normal.’ At that time, homophobia was considered normal, but we treated this as something normal. I didn’t know how else to do it. And it certainly was normal in Hockney’s milieu. It wasn’t something I invented, I just reflected it.”

As I write this column on the eve of Pride Sunday, I am pallning to join the Reclaim Pride Queer Liberation March. I am both exhilarated and exhausted by the wondrous, seemingly endless celebrations of us that have been going on all month. Highlights included: the Saks Fifth Avenue affair at Edition Hotel (June 4), where Kesha fully expressed her love and support of the LGBTQ community with a mini-concert of her most beloved hits which further enflamed a totally lit crowd; Broadway Bares’ annual strip extravaganza, “Take Off” (June 16), one of their best and sexiest in its 27-year history, which made a point of having two older gays schooling two age-ist twinks on the importance of the Stonewall Uprising, raising a record $2,006,192 for Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS; the New-York Historical Society’s comprehensive gay history exhibit, “Stonewall 50” and uber-fun disco party (June 11), matched by the New York Public Library’s similarly themed “The Library After Hours: Pride” show and fête (June 21), which I particularly loved as it was delightful to see so many queers awe-struck, many for the very first time, by this fecund marble expanse of gay lit we had totally taken over, with young ‘uns spiritedly performing trenchant excerpts from Baldwin, Capote, Woolf, and others in its holdings. Then there was Macy’s free Pride + Joy soiree, which turned two floors of its men’s department into a saturnalia of cocktails, sno-cones, photo ops, vogueing, spirited concertizing by Big Freedia and “Drag Race” Season 10 winner Aquaria, and, of course, shopping, where seemingly every designer had magically transformed the Rainbow motif (which, frankly, I have oft found to be a tad cornball, not to mention busy) into garments with true style and elan.

On June 28, I threw myself for the first time into the gorgeously free-for-all ethos of the Drag March, starting in Tompkins Square, which immediately evoked fond old school memories of the thrilling, loosey-goosey days of Wigstock and the Pride March, itself, when there were less police and commercialism, and nobody had to fucking register to march, f’Chrissakes. The biggest ever, two block-long peacock cortege wound up in front of the Stonewall Bar, of course, where Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys had earlier done their praise-filled bit for us and where tradition demanded the annual singing of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” With the incredible influx of an estimated millions of international tourists here, making not only my Christopher Street neighborhood, but all of New York magnificently looking tres, tres gay, I can only paraphrase the marveling words of our St. Judy in another of her cherished epics, “Meet Me in St. Louis”: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live! Right here in New York City!”

A BIGGER SPLASH | Directed by Jack Hazan | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Canal & Hester Sts.; metrograph.com

Updated 1:00 pm, July 5, 2019
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