Jean-Luc Godard is credited with calling the history of cinema “boys photographing girls,” and Shannah Laumeister’s documentary Bert Stern: Original Madman considers the life of one boy who photographed many, many girls in his decades-long career. The most famous was Marilyn Monroe, toward the end of her life, and Stern’s description of himself as “just a kid who wanted to make out with her” is a recurring theme in his weary recollections of his own, much longer life: so many pretty girls that he wants to snog but settles for photographing instead. Granted, there was plenty of sex to be had while the girl-crazy Stern was a big shot in the mid-20th-century publishing world—advertising legend Jerry Della Femina declares Stern “the original mad man,” providing the film with a crucial marketing hook—but the movie is much more interesting when it examines Stern’s Crumb–like relationships with the women in his life, including director Laumeister. Notably, Stern’s skill at seeing “the woman in the little girl” results in his creation of the iconic Lolita poster, thus opening those particular floodgates. Bert Stern: Original Madman is a sometimes uncomfortably intimate portrait of a man who seems unsure if he has a place left in the culture he helped to shape.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2013