The Line King: Al Hirschfeld

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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CV was hooked on the theater in New York at a very young age in the latter part of the 1940s. By then, Al Hirschfeld had been doing show biz caricatures for New York newspapers for over twenty years. Seeing the current week’s Hirschfeld on the front page of "Section 2" of the New York Times was an integral part of the excitement, glamor, and magic of the theater. Hirschfeld’s career, spanning an amazing seventy years, is nicely explored in this 1996 documentary by Susan Warms Dryfoos.

Hirschfeld looks himself like a prime candidate for caricature, with his long white beard and bushy black eyebrows and he has, indeed, done a good many self portraits. He originally wanted to be a sculptor, he tells us: "Sculpture is a drawing you fall over in the dark." While he has drawn people from all parts of show business and politics, too, it is his documentation of all those decades of Broadway history that endear him to lovers of the theater.

It would be easy to underrate the man’s work and relegate it to a category called "caricature." For while it certainly is that, Hirschfeld’s caricatures transcend the genre and are incontestably great art. His ability to find just the right line, just the right composition is impeccable. The way he captures a personality in those few lines is as magical as the theater experience itself. In the film, Jules Feiffer likens Hirschfeld’s portraits to Astaire’s dancing: "effortless grace, wit, lighter than air quality."

CV loves Hirschfeld’s work best when he draws dancers, for that lighter than air quality is carried into these portraits of artists of motion and he captures the very essence of dance movement. It is also fascinating to watch the development of the work over the years: it gets simpler and more direct, Hirschfeld’s skill honed to remove anything extraneous and give us with the most graceful of lines extraordinarily perceptive insights into the hearts of his glamorous subjects.

The film uses extended commentary by Hirschfeld himself, brief interviews, family home movies, current videotapes, a lot of the drawings, and film clips of many of the shows he has drawn, along with soundtrack material. CV especially enjoyed seeing the evolution on the page of a drawing of Jason Robards, Jr. in Longs Days’ Journey Into Night.

It all flies by and charms with the lightness of its subject who is neither falsely modest nor noticeably vain. If you like the theater, you are assured a good time. If art is your interest, you will not be disappointed either.

Those watching the televised version on PBS should be forewarned that the original 87 minute film was cut for television by about a third.

Arthur Lazere

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