Mapplthorpe (right) and Patti Smith at Coney Island in 1970.
What a Biopic Does for Robert Mapplethorpe's Legacy

By Jeremy Kinser

Originally published on Advocate.com May 22 2012 4:00 AM ET

James Franco seems determined to lend his quirky charisma to the biopic of every gay or bisexual man who’s ever bucked the system. After acclaimed turns as actor James Dean, Harvey Milk’s lover Scott Smith, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane, plus a cameo in the upcoming movie he directed about the last days of Sal Mineo, next on Franco’s to-do list is nonconformist, censor-defying photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

The busiest man in show business will step in front of the camera to portray the late icon in a long-gestating project to be produced by Eliza Dushku and her brother Nate, a dead ringer for the late photographer and once expected to star in the film. The biography, titled Mapplethorpe, will mark the narrative feature debut of documentarian Ondi Timoner, who won both a $15,000 grant from the Tribeca Film Institute and the blessing of the Mapplethorpe estate to make the film. This chronicle of Mapplethorpe’s life will cover the fruitful period from the 1970s until his death in 1989 at age 42 from complications of AIDS. Mapplethorpe’s short life was nonetheless a tumultuous one.

Curiously, the most notorious and perhaps significant episode in Mapplethorpe’s legacy occurred just months after his death. Republican U.S. senator Jesse Helms, outraged by Mapplethorpe’s more sexually graphic photographs (including a self-portrait of Mapplethorpe with a bullwhip in his anus), sparked a national debate over the government’s funding of explicit art and provoked Congress to impose restrictions on grants by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Proving the adage that good things often come in pairs, a look at the photographer’s early bohemian days is also in the works. A film adaptation of Just Kids, punk icon Patti Smith’s National Book Award–winning recollection of her close friendship with the photographer while the two struggled to make names for themselves (they were roommates, sometimes lovers, and Smith was a frequent model for Mapplethorpe), is in the early stage of development. Smith is writing the screenplay with John Logan, who was Oscar-nominated earlier this year for Hugo.