When Marcia Gay Harden got the news that she’d been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Jackson Pollock’s strong-willed, supportive wife Lee Krasner in “Pollock,” the Sony Pictures Classics release opening across the country in March, she was alone in a Denver hotel room, in the middle of a promotional tour for the picture. That evening she flew to Dallas, the next leg on her journey, and was immediately surrounded by family and friends (she’s a Texas native). “It was great to share it with them like that,” Harden enthused in an interview the following day. But she added: “I haven’t shared it with my husband or my daughter yet.” (They were back in Venice Beach, where Harden lives, awaiting her return.) She had, however, been able to get in touch with Ed Harris, the film’s director and star, who’d also won a nomination as Best Actor. “Ed was his usual Marlboro Man,” she laughed. “He’s just so calm, and takes it all in stride.”
The same description certainly wouldn’t apply to the alternately introverted and explosive Pollock who, as Harden noted, “put American abstract painting on the map” before his death in a horrifying car crash in 1956. Harris, Harden explained, had gotten interested in doing a film biography of the artist a decade ago, when his father suggested the idea simply because the two men looked so much alike. It took ten years to make the project a reality, at the end of which the actor took over helming duties as well as the leading role simply because by that time he knew more about the subject than anyone he might have approached, and had developed a strong personal vision about it.
Harden’s involvement came late in the game, when Harris invited her to try out for the Krasner role. She’d worked with the actor in the New York stage production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” in 1995, and was attracted by the possibility of doing so again. She described the three auditions which followed as “really works in process. We really worked on them [Pollock and Krasner] and their relationship. It was really a good way to audition, because it’s more of what I think the experience of auditioning should be, which is more exploratory, not a presentation. You’re in the room with the director, so you may as well work, and he may as well direct you. That’s what we did.”
Once she had landed the part, Harden was faced with the challenge of doing justice to the memory of an actual person, and initially thought, as she put it, “I owe it to her to ‘get it right.'” But as she studied printed recollections, looked at videos and talked to Kasner’s relatives, Harden came to a sobering conclusion. “You realize that not even her own family had the same idea of who Lee Krasner was,” she observed. “None of us are one definition. I had to cull from all the things people were saying about her and find the things that I felt were most true, and finally it was focused through the prism of Ed’s film. That’s what she was going to be, and she was going to live in my body and my voice and my face.”
Harden continued: “A lot of my problems with her involved paring down–she’s simpler and more direct and more didactic [than I am], and she enjoys putting people in the hot seat a little bit, and as her niece ended up telling me, she’s ‘strongly matter-of-fact.’ ‘Strongly’ says one thing, but ‘matter-of-fact’ says another. So I had to put those ideas together and find her.”
The outcome was a portrait of Kasner as a complicated figure, a painter herself who recognized the genius in Pollock–a troubled soul who today would certainly be diagnosed as a manic depressive (a condition hardly helped by his heavy drinking)–and who devoted herself to promoting him, protecting him, and providing him with the opportunity to work. “She made it possible for him to find that space within himself and in his life where he could paint,” Harden said. “She was still working, but she had lost her voice in her great nurturing of him. If you’re in awe of someone, it’s very hard to find what you have to say and what you have to offer. It was easier [for her] to market him than to work on herself.” But, Harden went on, she didn’t think that Krasner felt sorry for herself in her wifely role: “She was the woman behind Jackson Pollock, and I think she loved that power, to be that person, the keeper of the gates.”
Harden is especially proud of the fact that “Pollock” depicts the painter and his spouse without oversimplification or easy tears, and credits Harris for that. “The language in the film was, more often than not, subtle and not cliched,” she observed. “And to be specific with it and make it perfectly in character was a task–it took thought. Sentimentality and cliche are shortcuts, and it would be smart–or more common–that a first-time director would take those shortcuts. And I’m so glad that Ed didn’t.” As a result, Harden feels, the picture captures a real sense of the many layers in the Pollock-Krasner relationship. “They were complicated,” she declared, “and I love that about characters. Jackson and Lee weren’t cuddly, they weren’t a Hallmark couple, they weren’t warm and fuzzy, but they were friends, they were buddies. I think they were supportive of each other and interested in each other’s art, and I think initially they had a good life together.”
The coupling of Harris and Harden, while not as combustible as Pollock and Krasner’s eventually became, sets off cinematic sparks of its own, and while the odds may be long against their sharing Oscars as well as screen time come March 25, they certainly deserve to.