Sunday, May 21, 2000

TV movie brings back chilling memories

Former CAC director reflects on Showtime's version of the Mapplethorpe controversy

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

James Woods portrays Dennis Barrie, former Contemporary Arts Center director.
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        Angry protesters were shouting in the street outside the museum: “Say no to Simon Leis! Say no to the art police!” A chill went through Dennis Barrie, the former Contemporary Arts Center director, as he watched Showtime film Dirty Pictures.

        The made-for-TV movie is about the obscenity charges against the Cincinnati museum in 1990 for displaying Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs. It premieres Saturday.

        “The scene is very powerful, and very vivid,” said Mr. Barrie, who watched Showtime make the film in Toronto last winter. “It was kind of overwhelming.”

        Mr. Barrie knew the chanting demonstrators were a bunch of extras for a movie that producer Michael Manheim (Roe Vs. Wade)has been trying to make for 10 years.


Craig T. Nelson portrays Simon Leis.
  Here's a who's who of real Cincinnati people for Dirty Pictures, Showtime's docudrama about the 1990 Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center obscenity indictments and trial:
  • CAC Director Dennie Barrie: James Woods
  • Dianne Barrie: Diana Scarwid
  • Kevin Barrie (son): Stephen Joffe
  • Ian Barrie (son): Michael Seater
  • Sheriff Simon Leis: Craig T. Nelson
  • Assistant city prosecutor Melanie Reising: Marnie McPhail
  • Assistant city prosecutor Frank H. Prouty Jr.: Leon Pownall
  • Attorney H. Louis Sirkin: David Huband
  • Attorney Marc D. Mezibov: Judah Katz
  • Municipal Court Judge David Albanese: R.D. Reid
  • Citizens for Community Values President Monty Lobb: Matt North
  • Cincinnati Police Officer Donald Ruberg: Frank Moore
  • Cincinnati Post reporter Jerry Stein: Lawrence Bayne
        Mr. Barrie knew he was in Canada, not Cincinnati. He knew the man portraying Sheriff Simon Leis was Craig T. Nelson, TV's former Coach.

        But it was real enough for him. In a very surreal experience, he watched Emmy-winner James Woods portray his life in the center of the controversy.

        For exhibiting Mr. Mapplethorpe's show, The Perfect Moment, Mr. Barrie and the CAC were indicted on April 7, 1990, for pandering obscenity and illegal use of a child in nudity-related material. They were acquitted on all charges six months later.

        Witnessing the filming, with the actual Mapplethorpe photos, was “very emotional for me. The story came back in a powerful way,” said Mr. Barrie, 53, who has worked in Cleveland since leaving the CAC in 1993.

        Dirty Pictures dramatizes — sometimes with great license — the CAC's First Amendment battle with Mr. Leis, city prosecutors and the conservative Citizens for Community Values (called “People for Community Values” in the film).

        The film mixes news footage of protests outside the CAC and Hamilton County Courthouse with re-creations staged in Toronto. It also includes actual video of President George Bush, Sen. Jesse Helms commentator Pat Buchanan, and WKRQ-FM morning team (Jim Fox, Pam Rahal and John “JB” Brown) discussing the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

        Like Reds, the film includes comments about the case from prominent figures on both sides of the issue: commentator William F. Buckley Jr.; congressman Barney Frank; author Salman Rushdie; ACLU president Nadine Strossen; actress Susan Sarandon; and Jesse McBride, who was photographed naked as a child by Mr. Mapplethorpe.

  • What: Dirty Pictures
  • When: 9 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Showtime
        All 175 Mapplethorpe photos — including the seven named in indictments — are shown in the two-hour movie, which has been rated NC-17 (no children).

        The film opens with these words on the screen:

        “Dirty Pictures portrays the true story of perhaps the most controversial art exhibition in U.S. history. In order to accurately present this story, it is essential that the Mapplethorpe photographs that caused this national debate be seen in their entirety.”

        Throughout his 10-year quest to make the movie, Mr. Manheim insisted that all of The Perfect Moment appear on film. He praised Showtime for “the guts to tell this story.”

        “I was really very skeptical, even given the greater flexibility of cable television, that they would be able to show these photographs on the screen. Everyone I talked to about this basically had the same opinion,” Mr. Barrie said.

        “I was always very impressed that Michael Manheim pressed to show those images, because I felt that was the only way you could really make this story work,” Mr. Barrie said.

        Showtime President Jerry Offsay has acknowledged that some customers could cancel Showtime because of the film.

        “It's not our job to make people feel comfortable. It's our job to do what we think is right and to protect freedom of expression,” Mr. Offsay said.

        Dirty Pictures literally restaged The Perfect Moment exhibit, which included portraits of celebrities and flowers, plus nude images and homoerotic photos. One showed a man with a bullwhip handle in his anus; two others showed children exposing their genitals.

        “It shows the breath of Mapplethorpe's work. That's the important thing,” Mr. Barrie said. “The truth is that the man had an amazing range of quality and beauty to his work.”

        As the Dirty Pictures script had evolved in the past decade, Mr. Barrie's personal life became a bigger piece of the picture. The focus shifted from a defense of freedom of speech to the strife of Mr. Barrie, his wife, Dianne, (played by Diana Scarwid from Pretty Baby, Silkwood) and his friends.

        The original script was “a little politically correct” and “kind of one-sided” in favor of the museum, Mr. Woods said. He demanded a more balanced script, and more humanized characters, as a condition for taking the part.

        “So they focused on the pressure-cooker that Dennis Barrie and his family and relations were in, going through this trial,” Mr. Woods said.

        “He was in a Cuisinart. He was just being chopped and diced the entire film. And the only thing that gives him strength is the courage of his convictions.”

        The bearded Mr. Barrie said he was surprised by the choice of a clean-shaven Mr. Woods for the role. But he was won over watching him as Showtime re-enacted the opening of the exhibit, hours before the indictments were handed down.

        “He's kind of standing by himself, with no words, watching the reaction of people looking at the exhibition,” Mr. Barrie said. “It was so powerful, because he captures the moment of anxiety that certainly went through my mind, wondering what's next. He did a beautiful job.”

        Another major revision in the script was the portrayal of Sheriff Leis. Early drafts made him look like someone from The Dukes of Hazzard.

        “There was sort of a lampoonish quality to the way he was portrayed. You automatically pictured him having a pot-belly and a cigar sticking out of his mouth,” said director Frank Pierson.

        After seeing videotape of Mr. Leis, the character was significantly revised.

        “I was very impressed with Simon Leis, because I saw somebody who truly believed in what he was doing for society. And that it was unfair to make a fool of him, just because of that,” says Mr. Pierson, who directed Mr. Woods in the Emmy-winning Citizen Cohn.

        By accident, Dirty Pictures producers found in Mr. Nelson an actor sympathetic to Mr. Leis.

        “My personal opinion happened to agree with his,” Mr. Nelson said. Mr. Leis “had a diligence that he wanted to uphold, and he felt that responsibility for society, as I think Dennis felt his responsibility for the artistic society.”

        Mr. Barrie praised producers for the even-handed treatment of all characters in Dirty Pictures.

        “While my family and I are central to it, I don't think they dehumanize any of the other characters in it,” he said. “Even some of the people that I would call the opposition are portrayed in human terms.”

        In fact, the final word in the film comes from an actor playing Mr. Lobb, the former CCV president.

        “We didn't lose anything,” said Mr. Lobb (actor Matt North from Ohio University). “Our victory was won long before that trial. Our victory was in the power to bring prosecution.

        “No one wants to come up against what Dennis Barrie did. We sent that message out there ... The First Amendment is all well and good, but somebody has got to protect the good people of this country from filth and degradation. We'll never stop fighting the fight. Someone has to save the moral soul of America.”

        Said Mr. Barrie: “I think it was very important to give the final scene to Monty Lobb. In truth, the situation still exists.”

    'Dirty Pictures' uses plenty of artistic license

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