Double Exposure - The Story of Margaret Bourke-White

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Highlights of a Life: Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White

Nov 5, 2002
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Much potential for drama....

Cons:... but all the events feel very rushed.

The Bottom Line: Not a terrible TV movie, but the subject is too large for it to fit in 94 minutes.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

TV-movies, possibly even more than feature films, can suffer from a number of flaws. TV-movies made for network television (ABC, CBS, etc.) have a lot of hurdles to conquer -- obviously, the networks have to play it safe when it comes to language and controversial content. Also, the networks have to deal with commercial breaks. And finally, unless the plan is to make a mini-series, a TV-movie can’t last much longer than 90 minutes, not including the adverts.

Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White, made in 1989 for Turner Network Television (TNT), has even more trouble to contend with, because it is a biopic of a famous photographer for Life Magazine. All of the best (and even the worst) biopics are generally very long. Malcolm X is three and a half hours. Lawrence of Arabia is closer to four. Yet Double Exposure’s running time on my videotape is all of 94 minutes. Who can effectively portray a sweeping life in such a short time? Obviously not the director of this tele-play.

The character of Margaret Bourke-White certainly sounds interesting. As played by Farrah Fawcett, Bourke-White was a woman who, growing up before the Depression, was fascinated by photography. This wouldn’t be so shocking nowadays, but back in the old days, the fact that Margaret was a woman certainly meant that there were some odd looks and furrowed brows at the notion that a woman would want to be a professional photographer. Why isn’t she a mother and a wife like everyone else????

She soon gets herself hired by Fortune Magazine, and takes photos of all sorts of places, and is very creative in capturing these images. There’s one shot of her shooting an object at an industrial plant (it’s been a few weeks, so I forget exactly what it was), and she gets her shot, by balancing on the edge of a steel platform, with her assistant holding her by the straps of her suspenders. One slip, and she’d fall to her death!

A few years later, the makers of Fortune Magazine debut Life Magazine, and she, for a time, becomes their star photographer. Throughout the film, she gets involved in a trip to Russia, and later on, gets involved in the Second World War by photographing the horrors of the Nazi regime.

Margaret is also part of a romance with a writer, Erskine Caldwell (Fredric Forrest). The two team up for a book that Caldwell is writing, essentially about the black experience in the South. The two clash over styles and responsibilities and the like, but, of course, being a movie, romance rears its pretty head, and the two begin a steamy and public romance.

There are many hints of what this film could have been if it was allowed to be as sweeping as a good, strong biopic. For me, the most interesting is the notion that Bourke-White was more fascinated with the aesthetic of the photo, than with the reality it captures. There’s a telling shot very early on, when Bourke-White is just a gal with a camera, when she takes a photo of a black preacher on concrete steps. There are a bunch of pigeons flying about, and we see a brief cut of Bourke-White tossing seeds to the ground, so the pigeons can hang about and fly to the ground. This, of course, adds texture to the picture, but is not as “genuine” or as “spontaneous” as it may appear to be -- there’s an art, an artifice, to the picture.

Throughout the movie, we get glimpses of her attempts to make a perfect picture, even at the expense of raw reality. There’s a nice moment when she takes a picture of a long lineup of black people waiting for a bus. She actually dares to change people’s positions, and even takes a child of one mother and gives it to another, because it looks better that way to her. A comment from one of her hangers-on asks the question whether she even thanks these people for helping her out, or for even caring about these people other than as objects for her art. Certainly, her trip to Nazi Germany, where she sees some genuine horror, would have given us a glimpse as to whether her attitude toward her subjects changed, if the film had allowed any emotional connection between this and her earlier photographic endeavors.

The problem with this movie is that it just jumps from one scene to another without a lot of emotional depth. Even worse, at the end, the film just stops. The final minute is a voiceover dealing with the rest of her life, when it should be another couple of hours actually showing us this stuff. All we’ve got to see is Part One, but the conclusion won’t be aired next week or any other time! The movie tries so hard to tell us all the important details of her life in such a quick time, that we don’t get a clear emotional thread to this story. There’s all kinds of issues that are brought up in this film, but nothing is worked at in depth, and nothing is completed in a satisfactory fashion.

Farrah Fawcett, perhaps, may not be the first person we would think of as a lead for a biopic, but I certainly had no issue with her, or her performance. Perhaps there are better actresses out there, but this was a TV film, and Fawcett was quite prolific in these things during the 80’s, so surely she was a wise choice for the time. The movie’s tone tried to lean toward the melodramatic trashy romantic feel, and Fawcett has the looks and the sex appeal for that sort of thing. As well, her character is also an independent woman. This combination definitely would have worked, if the film was better structured, and longer and in depth.

Double Exposure could have been a very good movie, as a serious biopic or a trashy romantic melodrama (or even as both at the same time), but all we get are highlights, visual clips, sound bites, of a life. We don’t get the truth, only the facts, and that’s not enough.


Recommend this product? No


Viewing Format: VHS


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