Among playwrights and screenwriters, the New Zealander Anthony McCarten is a sort of People magazine profiler. He writes respectfully about the interior lives of celebrities, although unlike People writers, he more or less fabricates everything he needs for high drama. Perhaps most notably, he suggested in his screenplay for the absurd Winston Churchill drama Darkest Hour that Churchill was a man of the people who took his cues from fellow riders of the London Underground. If there is anything less likely than Winston Churchill consulting hoi polloi for suggestions on crafting rhetoric, it is Winston Churchill riding the Tube.
McCarten went on to write a completely imaginary account of a summit between Benedict and Francis entitled The Two Popes, in which the former (played by Anthony Hopkins) was the snarling personification of all things conservative and the latter (Jonathan Pryce) was the beatific face of tolerant liberalism. His other credits include a successful biopic of Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody) and an unsuccessful one of Whitney Houston (this winter’s flop Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody).
McCarten’s current production The Collaboration has won a sort of triple crown of theater: major stagings in London (at the Young Vic last year), on Broadway (at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 11), and a movie adaptation, which was shot last fall in Boston. This time, McCarten’s subject is Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom McCarten positions as standing at opposite poles of the art world. A poster promoting a joint exhibition in 1985 depicted the two in boxing gloves. All three productions star Paul Bettany as Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Basquiat, and all three are directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah.
According to McCarten, Basquiat was impassioned, driven, political, childlike, aching to get his hands on his brushes, and animated by a mystical belief in the power of art to keep people alive, whereas Warhol was superficial, frivolous, ironical, almost completely detached from the act of painting, and content to exist in a world that essentially lacks any deep meaning. Basquiat wanted us to plunge into his paintings; Warhol wanted us to reject depth and focus only on the surface. Both men are equally careless about money, but the punch line of the show is an auction, years later, in which a painting we are meant to believe is the one being created onstage sells for $98 million.
McCarten isn’t wrong to think a play about the two men makes for a solid platform to discuss differing approaches to art, but the show lacks conflict or narrative drive, and, fundamentally, the two men are more alike than different. Both were notable mainly not for their talents, which in each case were unremarkable, but for how they turned their personalities into value. Each was a towering master of the dark arts of marketing.
McCarten, to his credit, is aware of this problem, or void. Both his protagonists refer to it. Even Basquiat, whom Pope irritatingly and misleadingly portrays as an addle-pated, open-mouthed man-child, has a Warhol-ish canniness about where value comes from in their world:
In the old days, of Rembrandt, you know, and, and, and Da Vinci, you know, who I think is probably my favorite painter, art was . . . well it was something everyone looked at, you know, and said, “Well I couldn’t do that.” It automatically got respect for that reason, you know. But contemporary art, you look at it and everyone just says, “I could do that. I didn’t, but I could.” And they’re right. So the value now has to come from, you know, the market . . . the market, you know, telling people what’s good, what’s valuable, what’s investable. So we got Michael, my friend Michael Stewart, who is just as good as I am, out there on the streets right now, probably getting hassled by the cops for like the thousandth time.
Basquiat was the son of a well-heeled Brooklyn accountant—it was necessary for marketing reasons for him to pretend to be “marginalized.” He barely knew Stewart. Yet, it is necessary for the marketing of a Broadway play about race to steer the conversation toward police brutality, and Stewart died in police custody after being abused by cops.
As amusingly portrayed by Bettany with a floppy gray wig, Warhol is a likable, undemanding presence. Bettany is intent on playing the defining art-world figure of his generation (I didn’t say artist of his generation) as something other than a legendary one. His Warhol is a quizzical, diffident, disarmingly neurotic figure who drops cynical, campy one-liners in the manner of many another downtown party boy. He doesn’t seem to think of himself as what he was by 1984, when the play takes place, which was the reigning tastemaker within the most elevated precincts of the culture. His offhand quips give the play a breezy charm.
Each of the two acts has a theme: the first is the debate, the second is the pain. In the first act, as the gallery owner Bruno Bischofsberger (Erik Jensen) tries to convince Warhol of the talents of Basquiat, Warhol isn’t sold, but he notes cannily that Basquiat’s reputation for being a heroin user—not to mention being a rent boy, and both of these in an age when AIDS was running rampant—is inflating the value of his work on the suspicion that he may die young. Basquiat did indeed perish at twenty-seven, and his sales skyrocketed. “He had everything but talent” was the verdict of Hilton Kramer.
Much the same critique applied to Warhol, though. Just how much are we supposed to care about the imagined conversation of two born hucksters, or con men? Attempting to deepen the material, McCarten directs his energy in the second act towards making us feel the two men’s suffering. Both were dead within four years.
Warhol, having been shot and nearly killed by a feminist in 1968, is coaxed into removing his shirt to reveal a lattice of deep scars. What did his pain have to do with his art, though? Not much. As for Basquiat, in Stewart’s honor, he made a graffiti-style painting, Defacement (1983), that today would presumably be worth tens of millions if sold. McCarten even suggests that the death of Basquiat himself was perhaps collateral damage from the slaying of Stewart; Basquiat died of a heroin overdose, and where is a black man in a world of injustice supposed to turn if not to heroin?
As someone who used to work at People, I can reveal that we loved to do this: to try to add some purpose or lesson to a chaotic celebrity life. Rarely did we writers worry ourselves too much about whether the theme we were imposing was strictly true to life; contrary evidence was discarded. If a reader-pleasing case could be made, we made it. The market has its demands. McCarten understands this perfectly.