Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Daniel Sutherland's "Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake"

Daniel E. Sutherland is Distinguished Professor of History, University of Arkansas. The recipient of more than fifty awards, honors, and grants, he is best known for his acclaimed series of books chronicling nineteenth-century America.

Here Sutherland dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake:
Actually, it is not pure speculation on my part to consider the lead roles in a movie biography of James Whistler. I was a consultant for the script and will appear as one of several “talking heads” in a film documentary about the artist, James McNeill Whistler and the Case for Beauty, to be broadcast on PBS this fall (probably September). Our producer was lucky enough to snag Angelica Huston as narrator and Kevin Kline as the voice of Whistler. (Vanessa Redgrave was to have supplied the voice of Anna Whistler, his mother, but had to bow out for contractual reasons). As for Kline, he will not appear on screen, and is now a bit long in the tooth to play the young Whistler, but I think he would still be perfect as an aging Whistler (he is now 66 years old, Whistler died at age 69).

So who to play the young and middle-age artist? No one else but Johnny Depp. Although himself 50, Depp still possesses a youthfulness that would allow him to look twenty or thirty, which is when Whistler first rose to fame. I did not write my book with Depp in mind—or anyone else for that matter—but he could easily project the devil-may-care swagger of a Victorian dandy that Whistler perfected (minus the inebriated swaying and slurred speech of Captain Jack Sparrow). The shape of Depp’s face also fits Whistler, so that with the addition of a mustache and tuff of hair beneath his lower lip, he would provide a very passable likeness. He is a bit taller than Whistler (5’10” to the more diminutive “Jimmy,” at 5’3”), but he has the same slender, athletic build. Most important would be Depp’s attitude. He has the soul of a bohemian, as did Whistler. He is a musician and, as I understand it, likes to paint and collects art. He would appreciate the artistic drive for perfection in Whistler, and be able to convey that persona on screen in a dynamically sensitive way. Depp seems to share Whistler’s innate feeling for art and his passion for “creating beautiful things.”

As for others in my cast, the next most important roles would be the women in Whistler’s life, most importantly his mother Anna, but also two of his mistress-models and his wife. His small, delicate mother would have to be played by someone like Sally Fields, who did an admirable job as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln. Whistler’s first important model, a redheaded Irish girl named Joanna Hiffernan, could be portrayed wonderfully by Nicole Kidman, a redheaded Australian, but she may be too far on the wrong side of twenty. Keira Knightley is probably a better bet. His next most important model, Maud Franklin, was not as conventionally lovely as Jo, and might be captured very nicely by Hilary Swank. Finally Julianne Moore would be perfect for Whistler’s eventual wife, whom he did not marry until in his mid-fifties. Lights! Camera! Action!
Visit Daniel Sutherland's faculty webpage, and learn more about Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake.

--Marshal Zeringue