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Arts + Culture Movies Tom Dolby weaves life history into 'The Artist's Wife'

Tom Dolby weaves life history into ‘The Artist’s Wife’

The SF-born director folds his family story into a tale of dementia, art, and marriage.

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In the winter of his life, the world-famous artist is preparing for what might be his last big show. Something is wrong, but only his wife is really aware of it. Always mercurial, he has become unpredictable and sometimes downright nasty. His memory has become a hall of mirrors with gaps and misremembrances.

The artist suffers from Alzheimer’s. For the spouse who has been his decades-long support, the ground beneath their feet is suddenly quicksand, but she also senses opportunity. If she is ever to broker a reconciliation between her husband and his long-estranged daughter, the time is now. Dealing with his illness also awakens in her long-dormant ambition. She is a talented painter, too, but gave it up to devote herself full-time to her husband and his work.

That is the set-up for Tom Dolby’s latest drama, The Artist’s Wife—which opens Fri/25 at the Roxie and CFI Smith Rafael virtual cinemas–starring Lena Olin as the titular wife, Claire Smythson, and Bruce Dern as her celebrated husband Robert. Dolby, a longtime producer whose projects have included Call Me By Your Name and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, helms his second feature after making his writing/directing debut six years ago with Last Weekend, starring Patricia Clarkson as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family. 

The initial inspiration for Dolby’s latest work came from his observation of how often throughout history women artists—like Lee Krasner (Mrs. Jackson Pollock), Elaine De Kooning, and Camille Claudel (muse to Auguste Rodin)—have had their own work overshadowed by their more famous partners or quit practicing altogether.  

“It’s so often the female partner that has to put her career on hold or at least slow down in her career to support her husband,” Dolby says. “How sad that is and how difficult that is.

“I have always noticed it certainly through stories like Jackson Pollock’s. I think of the film Hitchcock, too. I was really struck by Alfred Hitchcock’s wife, Alma. She was a screenwriter in her own right, and very talented. She was responsible for the success of many of his films, including Psycho.

He adds, “To me, the thing that’s fascinating is can two creative people coexist in a relationship? There’s always imbalance in any relationship, but women bear a lot of that in a very traditional sense.”

Those power dynamics in artistic relationships provided Dolby’s original inspiration, a decade before he shot The Artist’s Wife. A novelist before he ventured into filmmaking, he originally conceived of the story as a book, but his career changed, and so did the lives around him. His father, Ray, the inventor of the Dolby noise reduction system and the founder of Dolby Laboratories, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The younger Dolby witnessed his dad’s struggles with the disease and his mother Dagmar’s care for him. It changed the nature of the tale he wanted to tell.

Dolby recognized that The Artist’s Wife was not a story he could tell on his own, and collaborated on the screenplay with Nicole Brending, and his partner at Water’s End Productions, Abdi Nazemian. He credits them with helping shape and expand the scenario. 

“There are little moments here and there that were inspired by my parents’ experience, but all the stuff about (Robert’s daughter) Angela and the stuff about Stefanie Powers and her character (Italian artist) Ada Lisi, I have to give a lot of credit to, to my co-writer Abdi.

“He came up with all that and sort of provided an engine for the plot, because we didn’t want dementia to be the engine. We wanted it to be something more. And Claire rediscovering her creativity, while it’s a very worthy topic, even that, in and of itself, is not really enough of a plot to keep a movie going.

“I loved this idea of reconnecting with the past and that takes shape in terms of reconnecting with Angela.”

Dolby was raised in San Francisco and currently resides in Los Angeles, but he used to live in New York, in the Hamptons. That is where he was when his father received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and where he first started work on The Artist’s Wife. The place seeped into the bones of the story, which is set in East Hampton in winter.

“I was really drawn to the metaphor of the whiteness and the blankness,” Dolby says. “You have the snow-covered landscape. Then there are the white canvasses that he’s painting and there is this house that is a white box that they are living in.

“It was a very emotional process shooting this. There were some days when I was tearing up a little bit… (The film) is not autobiographical in any traditional sense, but it becomes a bit of a tribute (to my parents). I just love that the film is reaching people now and I think helping them. So many people have reached out and said they can relate to what Claire’s going through.”

The Artist’s Wife opens Fri/25 at the Roxie and CFI Smith Rafael virtual cinemas.

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