Film Review: The Incomparable Rose Hartman
THE INCOMPARABLE ROSE HARTMAN (2017) DIR. OTIS MAAS
By Belle McIntyre
To paraphrase one of the talking heads in this very Manhattan-centric and hugely entertaining documentary: “What a piece of work is Rose”. This is truly a warts and all portrait of one of New York city’s more ubiquitous characters who has been on the scene since the 1970’s. She has chronicled the rarified worlds of celebrity and fashion from Andy Warhol to Carolina Herrera as a freelance photographer. And this is her moment. She is finally the focus, on the other side of the camera. And her story is certainly one worth telling.
She is totally self-created and seemingly without any help from the kindness of strangers. She grew up in a working class family on the lower east side. Her handsome father, whom she adored, left when she was young and it seems to have left an indelible scar. Her mother was chilly and distant and she never seems to have bonded with her. But her mother was obsessed with fashion and young Rose was exposed to those images in magazines at an early age which must have provided her a measure of escape from her modest reality. As an adult, her path as an English teacher fell by the wayside as the scene in Manhattan in the 1980’s was too potent a lure for her to resist.
These were the thrilling decadent, heady days of disco and Pop Art. Andy Warhol’sFactory and Studio 54 were at the epicenter of all of this fabulous madness. Everyone wanted to be there but admission was tough. People would sell their souls to be there and be a part of the scene. Mark Beinecke was the guardian of the door and he ruled absolutely. Admission was typically granted based on social status, celebrity, style, money, beauty, and power. Rose, with nothing in particular to distinguish her from the crowd of regular supplicants, managed to gain the attention and forge a relationship with the keeper of the gate and regular access. It was there that she took some of her most iconic and fabulous photographs - most notably one of Bianca Jagger on a white horse in the nightclub.
It is not clear where the idea of being a photographer came from. Perhaps she just wanted to record the glamour of the moment. But that became the guiding focus of her life from that time forward. Along with that transition, she re-invented herself. The persona which she has crafted is a far remove from her background. She developed an extremely theatrical and carefully articulated manner of speaking which implied privilege and commanded respect. Her speaking voice is modulated and well-suited to her provocative pronouncements and sotto voce asides. She dressed in a funky downtown style and her main transportation was a bicycle. She was everywhere.
The interviews from friends and professional colleagues which include Carolina Herrera, Patrick McMullen, Andrea Blanch, Simon Doonan and Mark Beinecke reveal a character of such relentless ambition and unwavering determination who would say and do anything to gain access without regard for propriety. Her friends tell stories of brazen tactics she would regularly employ to crash parties to which she was not invited. They describe a person so pushy and demanding that she will either embarrass, infuriate or flabbergast nearly everyone at some point. Yet she prevails.
Success has not softened her rough edges as illustrated by Rose chastising a guest at a book signing in Paris to stop talking on her cell phone. Either in spite of, or because of, her temperament, she has managed to be in the right place at the right time and capture the moments in particularly spontaneous images. She has produced a gorgeous body of work which chronicles the glamor and celebrity of the time and has published three large coffee table books of those images. It is impressive.
What a brave and tenacious director is Otis Maas. The film opens with his subject mercilessly berating him as the camera is rolling. Their relationship seems to be typically combative. Yet he perseveres for the five years it took to make the film. He has made a very compelling picture of the unique and complex person behind the pictures. It might also have been accurately called “The Unstoppable Rose Hartman” as she continues unabated with the same tenacity and drive which have gotten her to this point at an age somewhere past 80.