Women suffer for their art or the lack of it

March 29, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The Charles seems to be turning itself into a clinic this week devoted to the study of female self-destruction under the delusion of artistic expression. That's the theme of both the films it introduces today, the drama "Georgia" and the documentary "Nico Icon."

Both watch as young women, one imagined, one real, come to the conclusion that there's a link between art and suffering and set about to improve their art by suffering. Alas it doesn't work -- it never does.

But Sadie's case may be the saddest because right before her is an image of such cool perfection and artistic fulfilment it drives her nuts. And who is Sadie? Well, the heroine of "Georgia." And why would you call a movie about a woman named Sadie "Georgia"? Well, you'll have to ask Barbara Turner, who wrote and produced the film and mothered the star -- that is, mothered Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Sadie, not Georgia.

Georgia is played by Mare Winningham, in a performance that netted an Academy Award nomination. It was a surprisingly mature selection; someone out there must know what they're doing, "Braveheart" or not. Sadie's all strum, drang, weeping, gnashing and sniffling.

Georgia's is the far tougher performance: She's the successful sibling, the disciplined one, the smart one, the ordered one and the one upon whom ultimately it all comes to turn. Meanwhile, everyone despises her excellence, a familiar enough pathology.

Georgia is some kind of folk-singer -- think, maybe, Joni Mitchell, maybe Bonnie Raitt -- who's fought her way to a superb career and has earned not merely love but money and a beautiful restored farmhouse outside Seattle she calls home where she supports her husband (Ted Levine) and is a wonderful mother to her children. And, essentially, supports and sustains poor Sadie.

Sadie is out of control, a wannabe rocker who can outdrink Joplin and out-dope Nico. She feels the world's pain and it runs from her nerves to her vocal organs without passing through any filter of talent, and the results aren't what she hopes.

She stands on stage bedraggled and wasted, her makeup running, her hair matted and damp; she looks like Piaf after being raped by Alex and his Droogs. And when she throws back her head and wails, nobody gives a damn. She's just not any good.

It infuriates her that the fundamentally bourgeoise Georgia is simply a better artist than she is and still dresses like Martha Stewart, makes school lunches like Beaver's mom and sings like Joan Baez.

There is some respite from Sadie's demons, as delivered by Axel (the Max Perlich who shoots video on "Homicide") as a fundamentally nice young man who tries to save Sadie from her rich self-loathing. But in the end, Sadie must confront her own mediocrity.

"Nico Icon," directed from archival material and interviews by Susanne Ofteringer, chronicles the brief rise and utter fall of Christa Paffgen, who grew up in World War II Berlin (her father was shot by the Gestapo), became a supermodel in the '50s, a singer with Velvet Underground in Andy Warhol's New York in FTC the '60s, a more successful solo artist in the Europe of the '70s and a skag addict with rotted teeth and bloated face in the '80s until her death in 1988.

Along the way she had countless lovers, most of whom will talk to Ofteringer, one world-class bastard, who won't, and a son whom she deserted, then reacquired and ultimately -- is this the ultimate act of degradation or what? -- turned into a skag addict himself.

The archival footage is striking: She was gorgeous, mysterious, somehow unknowable, as if she had no true center ("She had no inner life," confirms interviewee Viva). But even in the most banal of exercises, like commercials for a wine called "Terry" in the late '50s, she reaches out of the grainy film and from beyond her own grave, she takes your breath away.

But more striking is the candor and the sadness with which her ex-lovers and friends, and even her very messed-up kid, discuss her. Remember "Darling," John Schlesinger's tribute to a '60s waif? This is the non-fiction version and it may be better.

The bastard in her life was the French film star Alain Delon, who impregnated her and then abandoned her, and you see his beautiful face and dead eyes still in the mug of his haunted ex-heroin addicted son, now 30 and scabbing out a bitter life in Paris. So nasty was Delon that when Nico dumped the boy, then 2, on the front porch of his mother, the better to pursue her own art, Delon called his mother and told her to choose between the illegitimate offspring and himself.

The mother, the one moral being in this twisted universe, chose the child; as a reward, Delon cut her off financially and hasn't talked to her in close to 25 years. As they say in French, quelle creep!

The movie isn't exactly sad as horrifying. John Cale, an ex-Velvet Undergrounder and former lover, makes the case that Nico was, in fact, a great artist, but he is unpersuasive: What we hear of her work is a monotone, a melodic but unremarkable voice chanting the usual nihilistic pieties of beautiful people who've never worked very hard in their lives.

As an indictment of jet set living by those same people who are too beautiful to work, the movie is a scorcher. Such utter waste. The best thing that ever came out of Nico's life was not her music nor, sadly, her messed up kid, but this biting film.

Girl troubles

'Georgia' Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham

Directed by Ulu Grossbard

Released by Miramax

Rated R (profanity, sexual innuendo)

Sun score ** 1/2

'Nico Icon'

Documentary

Directed by Susan Ofteringer

Released by Roxie Films

Unrated (nudity, profanity)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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