Movie Review: “Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful”

Isabella Rossellini states in the Helmut Newton documentary, The Bad & The Beautiful, “Helmut explained… (he) exposes a lot of the man(’s) feelings. You know, I don’t think his comments are about the women as much as his own feeling(s) – I like you, damn you! I like you and why I shouldn’t like you… like, you’re weapon!” Prior to Isabelle’s statement, at the opening of The Bad and The Beautiful, Anna Wintour declares, “I think, of course, a Helmut Newton woman is very strong. She was provocative. She was in charge. She was often tall. She was blonde and she had that strong lipstick…Unmistakably a Helmut Newton woman!” I find both statements definitive in grasping and distilling the essence of Helmut Newton’s messaging and the aesthetics in his photographic work. The body of his work was the playground of the naughty boy.

My first experiences with Helmut Newton’s photographs came with my own amazement at the audacity with which he characterized women. He created these women with a simmering and dominant sexuality that both enticed and punished the viewer’s imagination. He had a way of capturing the women he photographed in powerfully arresting, sexually-charged positions, he portrayed them as menacing and in control. Newton offered a heightened sense of women’s sensuality in his provocatively-charged fantasies, with strongly contrasting objectifications that were both boldly sexual and frightening severe. I vividly remember the first time I saw “Saddle I, Paris.” I remember how I struggled to process it. Later returning to it to digest the obvious and interpret the symbolism he brought to that image and his other photos. I believe my first experience with Helmut’s photos was in Wet Magazine. The photo was curiously unsettling and fetishy–very sexually enticing. I was simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the image, but it left me wanting more.

The hour and a half documentary is devoted to Helmut’s process and his work, with engaging interviews with Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Hanna Schygulla, Nadja Auermann, and Newton’s wife June Brown Newton (a.k.a. photographer Alice Springs). The survey of his images are organized around both the salient interviews mentioned above, and original footage revealing Newton in the creative process. The women who modeled for him reveal their impressions of him in their stories–the human being and the photographer. It begins with his early life, and proceeds to detail his progress to the world-renowned photographer he became. The doc is not exhaustive regarding his and June’s relationship, but there are revealing moments of how it all started for them, and how the relationship grew over the years. More of her story dominates toward the end of the doc.

Anna Wintour offers curious insights into her “naughty boy,” Helmut, when she said,  “I think it was the work of Helmut that gave one the courage because if you were giving an assignment to Helmut you were not obviously (going to) receive a pretty girl on a beach. That’s just not what he was about. You ask Helmut to take on an assignment the way you’d ask an Irving Penn for something Phyllis and I called a “Stopper” in the magazine. Something that people would remember. Hopefully iconic, and maybe, sometimes, disturbing. Certainly thought-provoking. You might consider it brave. I personally considered it necessary. Because I think so much of what we do when we work in fashion is considered attractive and lovely…what Alex Lieberman called “Visions of Loveliness.” But to contrast all of that, you really do need work that talks about the culture at large. Thought-provoking and different, and sometimes upsets people.”

Anna Wintour then sums up Helmut’s value as a Vogue photographer by saying, “Helmut was completely aware. He never locked himself away, the way, as some famous people do when comes great recognition. He was always open to the world. Yes, fashion may change and have moved on, and we became aware of a new generation of designers. I feel because he was such a brilliant photographer because he was such a strong photographer with such a strong intelligent points of view with that amazing wit, his pictures remained the same. The vision remained totally identifiably Helmut. The clothes changed, the girls changed. But the actual image – you could look at an image and you could say that was a Helmut Newton’s photograph, and there aren’t that many photographers of which you can say that.”

The concern over objectification of the female form and messages of misogyny in his work was addressed in a segment with Susan Sontag (writer, filmmaker, political activist) when Helmut was directly confronted with her assessment of his photography. The exchange was intelligent and pointed, but collegial. Of course, it’s possible everything sounds more collegial when spoken in French.

Following that exchange, Isabella Rossellini said, “It was extraordinary that Helmut was accepted by the industry because he was much more ambiguous and frightening than an Avadon or a Penn.” Isabella reflected on the idea of Helmut’s machismo, and how it was emblematic of the men of his generation. He could be seen as a translator or reflection of those basic tenets and beliefs of male attitude in his photographic work. His photographic perspective was also influenced by the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Marianne Faithfull compared his work to German expressionism by the way he approached his imaging. As you will see, Helmut Newton’s work was informed from a pretty specific point of view, but manage to be enticing, provocative, and fraught with conflicting values.

I remember when I met Helmut Newton a few decades ago. My friend Bret was the art director of Plastic Passion. Bret and I met earlier at his house in Santa Monica before we headed to the DTLA warehouse where the underground club was to take place. We arrived in the Esteves’s Bentley–chauffeured by Ramon Estevez. Daniela was in a vinyl corset with shiny buckles and her ensemble was accessorized with a riding crop and black patent leather heels. The other models were already inside the club. They were all clad in fetish gear or even more provocatively in various stages of undress or nudity. The models were placed upon pedestals waiting for the moment when Helmut, Timothy Leary, and the Columbia Pictures executives arrive. The theme for the night’s club was “The Eyes Of Laura Mars,” a film inspired by Helmut’s sensibilities.

There was a beautiful, androgynous black male model along the entry. Bret had placed large black cones (as I had recommended earlier at the apartment) on the model to represent breasts. We all gathered at the front to meet the entourage for the walkthrough. As we arrived near the androgynous model, I was standing by Helmut’s side and I heard him exclaim how marvelous the model’s ample-sized cones were. It was so perfectly a “Helmut Newton” moment. I digress in my review to make a point of how pervasively influential Helmut’s aesthetics were, and how important The Bad and The Beautiful is in documenting his life’s work.

This documentary is an excellent way to explore Newton’s work, and to ponder his beautiful and occasionally disturbing photographic genius. He remained true to his vision until his untimely end at the age of 84 in a car crash near the Chateau Marmont in 2004. As Newton said himself to clarity his approach to his life and his work, “I’m a naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist, but is still a naughty boy.” The Bad and the Beautiful is a tribute to Helmut’s oeuvre, which speaks to us with his impressive and thought-provoking body of photographic work. I, for one, am all in!

“The Bad and the Beautiful” is available by virtual cinema in LA with Laemmle Theatres and Lumiere Cinemas for your viewing pleasure.

Billy Bennight

About Billy Bennight

Billy Bennight is a writer, photographer and wardrobe stylist with expertise and years of experience in these disciplines. His musical youth started as a Punk Rocker and has expanded into exploring many genres of music, with an keen interest in art, fashion, photography and writing. He shoots celebrity events and red carpets for The Photo Access and ZUMA Press. He is a member of the Los Angeles Art Association. His images have been published in The Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair. He's very engaged in life. You can follow him on his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/billybennightartist and on Instagram and Twitter @billybennight
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