The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story

By Alan Gordon for FILMbutton

There was once a time when, if you were in show business, the clearest indicator that you’d “arrived” was a drawing of you by Al Hirschfeld in the Sunday New York Times.

Hirschfeld’s drawings were as free, clever, inventive and as full of joy as any great performance, and his style managed to communicate the essence of its subject in a way that was uniquely brilliant and daring.
The Line King (1996), a documentary by Susan W. Dryfoos about Al Hirschfeld, takes us back to those times when great actors acted, great writers wrote and Show Business was as much about Show as about Business.

The Line King covers about 70 years in the life of American Show Business (from the 20’s to the 90’s), with a focus on Broadway, as seen through the eyes and life of artist Al Hirschfeld. In The Line King, we are seeing the development of an artist, as well as his subject, growing magnificent together.

Dryfoos has managed to find footage of (and interview) several of Hirschfeld subjects, influences and acolytes, from Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall to Jason Robarts, Colleen Dewhurst, Carol Channing, Matthew Broderick … (the list goes on, yet magically, we feel they are important parts of Hirschfeld’s life, brief as the appearances are). Dryfoos has also managed to weave Hirschfeld’s personal life into the film in an almost inevitable way.

We meet his wife (2nd wife, actually), Dolly Haas, who was a major theatre star in Germany slightly before Dietrich. In a great line (and there are many of them in the piece), Maria Riva – Dietrich’s daughter – says, “Dietrich could never understand Dolly. She could never understand good people.”

The Hirschfelds travelled in very heady company. Yet, Dolly is plainly his anchor, allowing Al to focus on his art.

And what art! We see what seem like millions of the finest drawings in the 20th century all to make a point or to accompany a voice, or just to glory in their beauty. And at about an hour and ten minutes into the film we finally see the master put together a drawing: First, the pencil sketch; Then the famous line, selecting the best way to take the sketch to final art and surprisingly, the use of a ruler! A revelation!

Dolly died during the film’s shoot, and her departure, late in the film, sucks the air out of the viewer… at least this one. She is such a quiet, vital presence in Hirschfeld’s life, that to be aware of her absence generates a sense of enormous loss.

Susan Dryfoos has made an exquisite movie. Each element, wonderful in itself, merges to make a significant statement. Pacing, design, use of archival sounds and music, and the visuals… oh! The visuals! It is such a pleasure to see a grownup film about by and for grownups.

The Line King celebrates Art and the Artist, Performance and Performers and Life and Living. If any of that strikes a chord with you, see The Line King at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

You won’t be sorry.

Alan has been writing, acting, directing and producing in all media for over 30 years.

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