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Movie Review

Before there was ‘Mad Men’ there was ‘Bert Stern’

Bert Stern photographs Suzie Parker, from the film “Original Madman.”

First Run Features

Bert Stern photographs Suzie Parker, from the film “Original Madman.”

Bert Stern loved beautiful women. So did his camera. Consequently, many beautiful women loved him, including Shannah Laumeister, his current girlfriend and director of “Bert Stern: Original Madman,” an effusive, sad, visually gorgeous, and illuminating portrait of the artist. If only Laumeister kept herself out of the picture a bit more, it might have been a masterpiece.

Though Bert Stern loved women, what really started him on his road to excess, and a kind of wisdom, was vodka. Smirnoff, of all things; he took a photo of a gentleman poised with a glass of it in the desert at dawn and it started a revolution in advertising and, incidentally, set the stage for the hit AMC series, “Mad Men.” For, as the title of the film says, Stern was the original mad man.

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But by the ’60s, he was also clinically mad. A workaholic, he shot ads and celebrities, made a documentary (when Spike Lee saw Stern’s “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” he begged off making another film about the Newport Jazz Festival – no way could he improve on it), and ran an image empire. In addition he was a womanizer and an “uxorious” (as his shrink puts it) husband of ballerina Allegra Kent. So, to keep up with it all, he took amphetamines. Then the voices started telling him to do things and . . .

That’s not even Act 1. Now in his 80s, Stern has allowed himself to be filmed and interviewed by Laumeister, who was 13 when he first took some pictures of her in 1983, 17 when he took some more shots and they began a relationship, and is now 43. His recollections, told with wit and melancholy, are illustrated by images of his life, many shot by his own hand, that pass in montages as sleek as the pages of a glossy magazine. There’s enough here for a dozen movies, but some details stick out. Like how Stern’s shooting style is imitated in Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” or how much he resembled the young Stanley Kubrick, his pal in New York, who would later assign him to take the now iconic shot of Sue Lyons promoting “Lolita.” And then there are his two photo shoots with Marilyn Monroe, now known as “The Last Sitting,” which years later would become the subject of a book, a show, and a court case.

But the ’60s did him in. Stern has spent the last several decades regrouping, and the results have been mixed. Recently he tried to duplicate his Monroe success with Lindsay Lohan, and though the pictures proved a tabloid sensation, they were widely dismissed as tawdry and exploitative.

And his photos of Laumeister seem – uninspired. Though they have been together for 30 years, their December/May romance doesn’t have the pizazz that ignites Stern’s photos of, say, Allegra Kent. And like a thumb that strays into the camera lens, Laumeister insists on examining the banalities of their ménage. A minor flaw, though, in this portfolio of images that frame what we were then and are today.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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