“The Collaboration” is a show about the two-year-long working relationship between two of the most important artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The show is finishing its run with the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre and I suggest that if you have an interest either in fame or American art that you get yourself down to this show.
Andy Warhol is played by the quietly attractive and talented film star, Paul Bettany (“Master and Commander” and “Margin Call”) and Jean-Michel Basquiat is played by the energetic and charismatic rising star Jeremy Pope. The play was written by Anthony McCarten, who also wrote “The Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so this is a writer attracted to the theme of how fame can destroy those who embrace it.
The play centers upon the Warhol/Basquiat collaboration that unfolded in the early 1980s in Manhattan. Much like the artistic rivalries described by Sebastian Smee in his book “The Art of Rivalry,” we see an older, more established artist who is stuck, frozen and blocked confronted with a younger, freer artist who is on the rise. The art world witnessed this with Matisse vs. Picasso, Lucian Freud vs. Francis Bacon and more recently with de Kooning vs. Pollock.
The older one rises to the very top of his domain, then gets frozen, isolated, hesitant, self-doubting on his Mount Olympus. Then comes the next rising star happy to dethrone the king.
In the case of Warhol, he actually gave up painting altogether until Basquiat came along to unfreeze him. The play unfolds on many levels at once. First, there are the obvious differences in personality between Warhol and Basquiat and the question of how they will cooperate with each other. Warhol was this odd, schizoid, freakish looking homosexual with a white wig who once famously appeared on The Merv Griffin Show at the height of his fame and brought Edie Sedgwick with him to do all the talking.
Paul Bettany does a remarkable job of portraying Warhol in all his quirkiness, cleverness, and shyness. Warhol was a man of endless ambition and business savvy, wonderfully demonstrated in a scene where a distraught girlfriend of Basquiat’s arrives needing money for an abortion and Andy cajoles her into selling one of her Basquiat works for half price. Many Warhol quotes have made it into the English lexicon like “Someday everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” and “The truly great art is business art. Business is the greatest art there is.”
On the other hand, Basquiat displayed his own tortured death wish with paintings of skulls and with cocaine and heroin use. Any psychoanalyst who looks at a Basquiat painting will immediately see that this is probably the work of an ambulatory schizophrenic. When we are trained in administering and analyzing projective techniques, we learn that often patients who sketch the insides of a head or body parts are showing lack of boundaries and signs of a latent schizophrenic process. Basquiat’s mother was schizophrenic and Basquiat demonstrated plenty of magical thinking when he kept repeating “my paintings can heal people that look at them.”
But in the end, after all the individual analysis, I felt this play’s underlying message was the way it served as a warning of the dangers of fame. Basquiat was dead by 27 of a heroin overdose and Warhol was shot by an angry fan. The list of those who were killed by fame are many. Jackson Pollock died at the age of 44 in a car crash and let’s not forget Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy. To be famous means you are a serious target of both love and hate and the joyride of fame can end with a crash.
There was an interesting line at the beginning of the play where Basquiat is questioning why Warhol chooses corporate logos to duplicate. Andy Warhol explains that he likes brands and that the greatest paintings eventually become a brand and when this occurs the artist will inevitably get trapped inside his own brand and this can kill him. He explains that is why he gave up painting. The theme of a creation killing its creator is the plot of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” where the doctor’s creation hunts him down and tries to kill him.
The final scene of this play was chilling. It was simply a tape of the Sotheby auction which sold one of the paintings produced by this collaboration and the bidding went like this. “Let’s start the bidding at $50 million. Do I hear $55 million. Yes. Do I hear $75 million? Yes, the caller on the phone offers $75 million. Do I hear $90 Million? Yes, I have $90 million. Now do I hear $98 million. Going once, Going twice. Sold for $98 million.” Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Sold for $98 million.”
It’s a shame neither of the two creators of this work were alive to spend the money.
As a sport psychologist, I work with many world-renowned athletes, and I have seen how the media, money and adoring fans eventually make them feel like caged animals who long for freedom. I recall how one of my patients recently went on vacation and when I asked him how it was, he said: “It was impossible to go for a swim in the pool. So many people taking photos of me is embarrassing.”
After the play ended, I got to ask Paul Bettany how he manages his fame and if he thought fame was a danger to him. He first said that he knows that fame comes and goes. “I have come to realize that when I have made a good movie and my star is on the rise, my jokes are laughed at in parties, but when my career is slumping these same jokes are met with silence.” He also said that it is essential to have close family around you and this inoculates you from the dangers of fame. Well put.
So if you have an interest in the dangers and the glory of fame, make it to the Samuel J. Theatre on Broadway before the end of this run in order to see two master craftsmen teach you something about these matters.