This rather large question is posed by Hartley Neel to his son Andrew early on in the latter’s film about his artist grandmother, Alice Neel. Leaning into the camera, Hartley asks: "why are you sitting there with that camera making a movie?"
No simple answer. The true artist, painter, writer, filmmaker, is driven to create and if they're lucky and find their creative identity early, as did Alice, the result is a lifetime of output.
A second question comes at the end of the film, and is asked by Andrew's mother. The two questions neatly bracket the film, and are posed, clearly at different times, by each parent. "The interesting thing about this story is that she became famous, so it was worth it. Just the slightest twist and she could never have been much heard of, and then what, it would never have been worth it?" Again, no simple answer.
The film offers an answer of sorts as it takes us through Alice's earliest beginnings, a disastrous marriage, numerous romantic liaisons and her later life as a single mother. It is a compilation of stills, vintage footage and interviews with admiring artists and art historians. The core of the film, however, is devoted to multiple interviews with Alice Neel's two sons, Richard and Hartley.
Youthful happiness for the Neel boys clearly was a sometime thing as they coped with their mother's bohemian life style and her continuing commitment to painting. They share with the viewers memories of Hartley's father, filmmaker Sam Brody, who was apparently introduced into the otherwise peaceful household. (The fate of Richard’s father is left unexplained). Drawing on these very youthful memories, they painfully describe a number of incidents of physical abuse by Sam toward Alice and young Richard.
In an effort to be even-handed to the grandfather he was never allowed to meet, and who died 20 years ago, Andrew Neel interviews an old friend of Alice’s, writer Phil Bonosky. He describes Sam as a considerable intellectual and an early and ardent supporter of Alice's work.
These were lean years for Alice and her sons, but she shared her ménage with Sam Brody for 12-15 years. He left in 1955 when the boys were teenagers. Years later, when the feminist movement took notice and the art community, where she always had an underground reputation, began to promote her, Alice slowly knit together a rather romanticized version of her life. Alice as victim artist took hold in the public's imagination and Sam Brody lost control of his life.
I remember a rather sad moment in the 70's when Sam first heard himself described as a sometime abuser, and, oh yes, her "Russian Lover." Sam never thought he abused Richard and since he was born in London, raised in Paris, and had never been to Russia.... He called Alice and tried to get her to stop; there was no stopping her. The publicity machine had got her and she was having the time of her life!
Was it all worth it? To Alice, and now the Neel family, the answer is pretty clear. To Sam in his final years, and for the Brody family now, the answer may well be more complicated. The painful word "abuser" has come to have such terrible connotations.
I was Sam Brody's wife for 30 years. We had a child together. He never struck me or our son in all those years. Sam and Alice were complicated people, but he and Alice were friends until she died in 1984. Three years later, in a terrible accident in the house we shared, he died.
As I've said elsewhere, is it fair to continue to attack this man when he can't fight back?