The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Photos from the secret world of Hollywood

December 5, 2008 |  6:54 pm

Mary Ellen Mark is one of the great photographers of her generation, having spent years chronicling political turmoil and burning social issues, both here at home and in faraway lands. But she has also spent the past 40 years on Hollywood film sets, going behind the scenes to capture our most glamorous stars and filmmakers, at work on their follies and masterpieces. Her work now has been collected in a wonderful new book, "Seen Behind the Scene: Forty Years of Photographing on Set," published by Phaidon Press. If you're here in L.A., you can see some of the best images from the book at the Fahey/Klein Gallery, where they'll be on display through Jan. 17.

091_apocalypse_now_brando_3 There's no way for me to do the photos justice, except to say that they give you an inkling of the strangely magical experience of being on a movie set, an exotic land where artists are coddled, cajoled and allowed to let their imagination run wild. The great thing about Mark is that she clearly has a knack for knowing who the real artists are, having spent a lot of her time on the sets of such iconoclasts as Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Forman, Tim Burton and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

The book is also enlivened by some wonderful reminiscences by various actors, screenwriters and filmmakers. Buck Henry tells a beautiful story about visiting his first movie set as a boy, populated by nice ladies and a very tall, handsome man -- the director -- only revealing at the very end that it was the set of "The Maltese Falcon." Danny DeVito recalls being on a ledge above a steep canyon, on his first film, when the safety moorings broke and the camera plunged 300 feet into the bedrock of a river, where it was dragged back up to the set by a team of horses and -- miracle of miracles -- after a meticulous cleaning, kept working just fine. Sam Mendes pays tribute to the great cinematographer Conrad Hall, acknowledging that he, in large part, decided to direct "Road to Perdition" simply to "see how he would light those rainy streets, those lonely interiors and lonely people."   

But of course it's the images that resonate the most: Fellini riding a child's bike around in circles on "Amarcord"; Coppola soaked to the bone in a driving rain on "Apocalypse Now"; Dustin Hoffman making faces at a somber Laurence Olivier on "Marathon Man"; Donald Sutherland naked in a bathtub on "Days of the Locust"; Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel playfully French kissing Candice Bergen on "Carnal Knowledge"; Marlon Brando with a giant beetle on his bald head on "Apocalypse Now"; John Schlesinger holding hands with Bubbles the Elephant on "Honky Tonk Freeway" and Gonzales Inarritu showing Brad Pitt how to react to a gunshot on "Babel."

It's all enchanting stuff -- find the book or see the exhibit. As Tim Burton writes in Mark's book: "Making films is the most amazing juxtaposition of images, ideas and emotions, all colliding together every day. You might be watching a group of apes standing around the craft service table, having coffee and discussing their weekend plans. Or you might find yourself alone, deep in thought, on a pink boat in a chocolate river, surrounded by dozens of Oompa-Loompa puppets. There is the magical world of the set and equally magical world where the set ends -- the lights and camera equipment, the grips and electricians climbing over the sets and rafters like pirates on a ship."

Photo of Marlon Brando by Mary Ellen Mark