Wednesday, May 24, 2000

KIESEWETTER: 'Dirty Pictures' producer persevered




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        As soon as Michael Manheim read about the Contemporary Arts Center acquittal on obscenity charges in 1990, it hit him: This could make a good movie.

        “I picked up The New York Times, saw the headline, and I said to myself, "Oh boy!'” he says.

        “I tend to know very fast. It was an instantaneous reaction coming from instinct,” says the Emmy-winning producer of Roe Vs. Wade.

        Mr. Manheim was one of the first to call CAC Director Dennis Barrie after he and the center were found innocent of obscenity charges for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. Ten years later, the Cincinnati story is dramatized in Mr. Manheim's Dirty Pictures, which premieres Saturday (9 p.m., Showtime).

        The Cincinnati controversy touched too many hot buttons for Mr. Manheim to pass up: What is art? Should anything be censored? Should there be any limits to the First Amendment?

        “The shock value of these pictures honestly has nothing to do with why I'm interested in telling this story,” says Mr. Manheim, who shows all the controversial Mapplethorpe photos in the film.

        “This is not just about those seven photographs. It's about free speech. The reason I've had the passion to tell this story, for as long as I've had, is because I think it's a good story ... It's about something that is central to who we are as a nation, which is the First Amendment.

        “Whatever he (Mr. Mapplethorpe) wants to take a picture of, he ought be able to take a picture of it. And if you don't want to go see it, you don't have to go see it.

        “But to say he can't do it, or it can't be shown, that is not how it works in this country. And it is these hard examples, these tough examples, that remind us, and further define, and ask us to think about what these freedoms are about. It's not the easy ones."

        Dirty Pictures has been anything but easy to make. For 10 years, Mr. Manheim has struggled to get his vision on film. He took it to HBO shortly after the verdict. He pitched it to Showtime in 1994, where it took six years to become a reality.

        Over the years, Ilene Chaiken's script evolved from a First Amendment battle into the personal strife of Mr. Barrie, his wife, sons and friends. Although it is told through Mr. Barrie (James Woods), the man in the eye of the storm, the film also gives a fair shake to Monty Lobb (former Citizens for Community Values president) and to Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis.

        “Part of what interested me about this story is that you have two sides equally convinced that they're standing on moral high ground,” Mr. Manheim says. “It was important to me to make certain that we were not telling just one side of this story.”

        Mr. Manheim also includes sound bites from a multiplicity of voices: conservatives William F. Buckley Jr., Pat Buchanan, Sen. Jesse Helms and former President George Bush; liberals U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and ACLU President Nadine Strossen; author Salman Rushdie; and National Endowment for the Arts chairman John Frohmeyer.

        “These are issues that have national repercussions. From the beginning, I wanted to include real people with various points of view, who one way or another intersect with the issues or people involved in this story,” he says.

        Mr. Manheim also was fascinated that regular people — eight jurors and a museum director — were accidental heroes. His previous films have featured the final U.S. soldiers to leave Vietnam (Last Flight Out), and the woman whose abortion case ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court (Roe Vs. Wade).

        “A jury of just ordinary people was put in the position of having to decide "Is it art or is it obscene?' which is not an easy thing to wrestle with. And some of these pictures are not easy pictures to look at,” he says.

        With great dramatic license, Dirty Pictures shows eight Cincinnati jurors deliberating in scenes interspersed through the film. (Unfortunately, the movie does not dramatize jurors reaching their 7-1 consensus.)

        “To me,” says Mr. Barrie in an interview, “the real heroes of this story, and this film, are the jurors who have to wrestle with some pretty difficult issues. They went through the same thing I did, all the family pressure. For some of them, it wasn't an easy decision to make.”

        In Mr. Manheim's eyes, Mr. Barrie is no less a hero.

        “He didn't go seeking celebrity in this situation. He found himself in a situation where he had brought this art show to Cincinnati, and somebody tried to tell him that he couldn't do it ... and he found himself defending the First Amendment,” Mr. Manheim says.

        “I'm always drawn to tell stories about accidental heroes ... who had events thrust upon them, and had to determine how they were going to respond,” Mr. Manheim says.

        He also praises Showtime for “the guts to tell this story. These are pictures (by Mr. Mapplethorpe) that a lot of other networks wouldn't show.”

        To Mr. Woods, the Emmy-winning actor, the hero of Dirty Pictures is the man who produced it.

        “I never expected to work on Showtime, or any other TV entity, because I've been doing so many feature films. Then this came up, and I thought, "Boy, this is great. You wouldn't see many movies about this kind of thing.'

        “Michael Manheim was a bulldog about this project,” Mr. Woods says. “It took him 10 years to carry it off. Enough can't be said about that kind of tenacity.”

John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.

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