• Golden Globe Awards

Out of the Archives, 2000: Ed Harris on Jackson Pollock

Ed Harris, twice Golden Globe winner and five-time nominee for his acting, spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press several times, in 1996, 1998, 1999 and in 2000, about Pollock, his directorial debut, where he portrayed painter Jackson Pollock.  Marcia Gay Harden played artist Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, and Amy Madigan, Harris’ wife, played art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Harris would go on to direct the western Appaloosa (2008). His latest movie role as an actor is Rear Admiral in Top Gun: Maverick (2022) with Tom Cruise.
The actor said that he first became interested in the abstract painter Jackson Pollock in 1986, then spent more than ten years developing the film Pollock: “I do love his paintings, but I didn’t really know much about him.  My father was working in the bookstore at the Chicago Art Institute, and for my birthday in 1986 he sent me a book by Jeffrey Potter called To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock, which has a picture of the artist on the cover, because he had seen a certain resemblance between him and me.  Then on my following birthday in 1987 my dad sent me another book, Jackson Pollock: A Biography by Deborah Solomon, suggesting that I should read it, ‘it seems like he had a pretty interesting life, maybe you would like to make a film about him.’ We have the rights to the 1991 Pulitzer Price winning biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, published in 1989, that’s serving as our source material. So, the more I read about Pollock, the more I became fascinated with him, not only because of his art, but also because of the kind of man he was.”
Harris explained why he became involved in this passion project and pursued it for many years, becoming the director as well as the star: “I was looking for something interesting to sink my teeth into as an actor, a complex character, an exciting individual; and since Pollock was also an important figure in the history of modern art, that added another dimension. My relationship with Pollock did not start from being in awe of him or holding him up on some pedestal, but from discovering him from the ground up, his struggles as a human being and as a creative individual trying to develop and to pursue his art and ultimately create something that was non-derivative of the work that had come before. It was vey important to him to find his own way of making art, make his own statement, create his own form of expression; and that’s one thing that he accomplished. He wasn’t a very happy camper but he did make a break-through in the art world, and I was curious to discover where did that come from. I hadn’t planned on directing this film most of the years that I was working on it, but I realized that I had become so intimate with the material, with my feelings about Pollock and the world that he inhabited, that I didn’t want to hand it over to someone else’s vision. I hadn’t ever thought about directing before, but I took a deep breath and went for it; it was a great experience, very difficult, but ultimately very rewarding.”
Steven Naifeh, co-author of An American Saga, said that they heard stories from several people that Pollock was gay, in a time when that sexual preference was not accepted, but to Harris that was not important in his exploration of the artist: “That aspect of Pollack’s sexuality, especially in the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, is much conjecture. To me it’s much more about the need that he had to be loved, to love, to be close to someone; it doesn’t matter if it’s a woman, a dog, or a tree. The guy was a lonely, frightened, insecure individual, who had some brilliance in him, being able to express himself on canvas with paints. What fascinates me about him is his struggle as an artist to find a mode of expression that is honest and reflects a truth coming out of him. There’s an instinct inside me that I know this man, I feel his pain and his hope, also his total fear of being alive. And he was a great painter, he was unbelievable, he and some other people changed the course of modern art, so he was very influential.”
Harris discovered a connection between the tormented soul of the artist and the troubled human being: “If you’re a painter or an actor, a sculptor or a musician or a poet, and the only solace you have, the only place where you feel whole and complete is in your work, either when you’re painting, writing, or acting, that’s what gives you your identity, your sense of love, hope, and passion. If you don’t have a relationship with anybody that’s as deep, if your friends and family don’t compare in importance to your art, then suddenly that art is recognized as something great and you become a celebrity, you’re put up here and your art is floating away, you get separated from your art. After a while it’s devastating, and if you have a predilection for alcohol or drugs or whatever it might be, you feel like, ‘I need something here because I’m getting stripped bare and it’s terrifying.’”
This is how Harris interpreted the reasons behind Pollock’s womanizing, his drinking, and his self-destructive behavior: “As a person he was desperate for approval, he had low self-esteem, he was a scared young man; and when he got the recognition in Life Magazine, he mistook that for love. People would come to visit him, they were praising and buying his work, he had some money, he was an important painter; but he was as empty as he’d ever felt and realized that fame was not nurturing him or helping him, that somehow it was false and a lie that he had set up for himself. So that bewildered him and confused him, and when some of his contemporaries began to take potshots at him, as a sensitive guy he was offended and hurt by it. With all the years that he spent in therapy, he was not a reflective guy, who asks himself ‘Why do I feel this way?’ He couldn’t figure it out, and by the end of his life, for the last couple of years, he was in immense pain emotionally with nowhere to turn, so he went further and further down into a very dark, deep, scary place.”
The actor/director had his own experience with alcohol addiction, so he was able to understand that aspect of Pollock’s problems: “He was very aware that he had a problem with alcohol, although he denied it most of the time, ‘I can turn it on and off whenever I want.’  He might have gone once to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) for about five minutes, but he never went back. In terms of researching the pain involved with abusive personalities and addiction, I’ve had my own experiences with alcohol in my life, enough to know that it can be very problematic, and I’m aware of the self-loathing that it can bring, the emotional distress and pain, as well as the desire to use it to escape feelings, fears, relationships.  So I felt like I knew that to an extent.  I had never gone as deep into it as Pollock had, obviously, or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, but it was not foreign territory to me.”