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Brushes With Greatness

With the critically acclaimed ‘Before Night Falls’, Julian Schnabel, bad boy of the ’80s art world, has transformed himself into an arthouse heavy-weight. So what makes this renaissance man run?

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On the face of it, you’d have every reason to resent Julian Schnabel. As the artist who made a king’s ransom by reworking broken crockery shards into colorful painted canvases, he remains, in the reductive popular view, the grinning face of the 1980s Manhattan art boom: Gordon Gekko with a palette knife. He wears pajamas in public. He drops names like they were Steinways off a skyscraper. He’s a pre-eminent pillar of New York’s downtown hipoisie. He once boasted, ”I’m as close to Picasso as you’re going to get in this f—ing life.”

As if such cubist hubris weren’t annoying enough, Schnabel decided a while back that he wanted to be a movie director — and he’s turned out to be preposterously good at it. His first film, 1996’s Basquiat, memorialized an artistic contemporary — painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 — and was met with surprised approval by critics. Now comes Before Night Falls, a piercing, phantasmagorical portrait of the life, loves, struggles, and death of exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, and Schnabel, at 49, seems to have it all: we’re-not-worthy reviews, major prizes at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, a Golden Globe nod for lead actor Javier Bardem (see page 47), a shot at an Oscar, and (oh, this must be sweet) unalloyed artistic respect. And his paintings still sell in the six-figure range. Infuriating, no?

Here’s the catch and the capper: If he’s easy to hate in theory, Julian Schnabel is impossible to dislike in person. For a voracious force of nature, he’s a mensch. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Dec. 18 U.S. premiere of Before Night Falls. Le tout chic Manhattan has overflowed into the Chelsea West Cinemas: willowy women with the slouch of wealth, black-clad men with unusual eyewear, Al Pacino haggling for seats, extreme air-kissing on all fronts. Someone yells ”Ari!” and three guys turn around. It’s a bit ironic when you consider that the subject of the movie they’re about to see died in 1990 by his own hand a few miles from the theater, sick, broke, and forgotten. But then Schnabel takes the mike, hulking and blithe, and mutters, ”So, nu, what’s going on here?” He introduces a few key players — his wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia (the film’s executive producer, she also plays Arenas’ mother), star Bardem, producer Jon Kilik, and Arenas’ friend and executor Lázaro Gómez Carriles — then says, ”I guess that’s it. I’m gonna sit on the floor with my daughter Stella.” He’s easily the least pretentious person in the room.

How does a controversially successful artist become an uncontroversially successful moviemaker? Why is showmanship considered tacky in a painter but admirable in a director? What, if anything, does that say about the inherent snobbery of the art world?

Don’t expect answers from Schnabel: These are exactly the sort of career-spanning topics that make him look for the exits. ”It sounds like you did some homework,” the director says in the course of an interview a few days after the premiere. ”Which is kind of … unnecessary. You gotta not care what people say, and you have to just do what you have to do.” Schnabel’s puzzlement feels honest: His knack for living in the moment is clearly both a useful defense mechanism and a key source of his charm.