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Published: Friday, April 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

'Bert Stein': Portrait of a Mad Man who's a madman

If you don't know the name, you know the pictures: Bert Stern is the man who photographed a ton of the iconic images of the '50s and '60s, from Marilyn Monroe's last session to Liz and Dick on the set of "Cleopatra" to Louis Armstrong playing trumpet.
If your memory stretches far enough, you'll also recognize some of the innovative work Stern did in advertising. His conceptual campaigns for big-scale print magazines helped usher in a new era of creativity on Madison Avenue.
All of this is recalled in "Bert Stern: Original Madman," a documentary about this peculiar character. The title is meant to evoke the TV series "Mad Men," and Stern was indeed around during the era of the show, but the longer you watch the movie, the more you sense how the other sense of "madman" may also be accurate.
Stern grew up in Brooklyn and got involved in design and photography in large part because it put him into proximity of attractive women. He admits this early in the film, and it seems sort of charming at first. After a while -- well, you'll see.
The movie offers up many examples of Stern being in the right place at the right time: pals with Stanley Kubrick when they both worked for Look magazine, in line for the Smirnoff vodka campaign just when distiller wanted to radically change its image, on hand to shoot a series of pictures for Kubrick's "Lolita" that definitively caught the film's tone.
The professional side of Stern's life is by far the most interesting, but the movie dwells on the personal, too. Some of his exes (including former ballerina Allegra Kent) weigh in with good humor, recalling Stern's excesses (he cracked up on amphetamines in the 1970s) and his single-mindedness.
The movie's directed by Stern's current companion, the much younger Shannah Laumeister, who is frank about the affectionate but functional nature of their relationship. He also appears to have an ongoing relationship with a pair of twins, an implication that comes across as more odd than erotic.
Stern's persona seems almost infantile at times. If he's learned anything from his past escapades, he doesn't share it, and his wisdom doesn't go much beyond his awareness that while he wanted to "make out" with most of his subjects (including Marilyn, who nixed the move), he's probably better off having captured their indelible image instead.
And a lot of those images are indelible. Maybe it was Stern's childlike manner that got his subjects to relax in front of the camera, because he really did create some amazing portraits, movie stars and vodka bottles alike.
"Bert Stern: Original Madman" HH½
Documentary portrait of Bert Stern, whose photographs from the 1960s and '70s, including the last photo session with Marilyn Monroe, are among the most famous of the era. We learn about Stern's own demons, which aren't as interesting as his professional life, especially given his almost infantile persona.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity.
Showing: Harvard Exit.

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