A favorite standby genre in movies is the biopic, with its inherently linear storytelling and restaging of known events, bringing historical figures to life. Hollywood also loves stories about artists, and painting being visual and kinetic, it's no surprise there are quite a few film biographies of world-famous painters. They tend to be misunderstood in their lifetimes, long suffering for their art, and burdened with self-destructive behavior; an actor's dream.
One of the first major painter biopics, and still one of the best, has newly arrived on DVD: John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge. Apart from the title, it has nothing to do with Baz Luhrmann's hyperedited 2001 mishmash of anachronistic pop ballads, farce and melodrama that was so amazingly popular to some and nothing but annoying to others. Huston's film is a straight biopic of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the diminutive 19th-century contemporary of Cézanne and Renoir who found inspiration mostly at the Parisian race tracks and dance halls he frequented. His best-known work was done at the Moulin Rouge, some of it even used at the time as posters advertising the establishment to pay off his large bar tabs, but seldom respected in society circles as worthy of attention.
José Ferrer (Lawrence of Arabia, Cyrano de Bergerac) stars as Toulouse-Lautrec, the talented artist made insecure and alcoholic by his grotesque appearance as two accidents in his youth shattered the bones in his legs and stopped them (but not the rest of his body) from growing. Ferrer is perfect as the witty and withered man, driven to create beauty and driven to drink--to defend himself publicly and medicate himself privately. The film is uncompromising in portraying his depression and degradation. Well, uncompromising for Eisenhower-era Hollywood. The look of the film is painstakingly colored like Henri's work, and while not as inherently impressive today, when advanced filters and computerized post-production can stylize the look of a film easily, the cinematography was cutting-edge in 1952.
Unlike some of the other studio-system artist biopics, like Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) or Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony & the Ecstasy (1965), Huston's Moulin Rouge stands the test of time. The films made after the '70s had fewer creative limits on exposing the darkness and sexuality of their subjects. From Vincent & Theo (1990) to Surviving Picasso (1996), from Basquiat (1996) and Pollock (2000) to Frida (2002), the gloves were off. Even so, more than a half-century later, Huston's Moulin Rouge measures up well against these more contemporary cinematic portraits.