W A S H I N G T O N P O S TMovies
Muse of the Weird: A Sublime Painting
By Hal Hinson
Washington Post staff writer
The principal discovery made by 'Painting the Town, Andrew Behar's documentary about New York City painter/party crasher/cabdriver Richard Osterweil, is that its subject's story may be too big, too complex, too improbable and confounding to be presented as fact.
0sterweil's curious adventures among the rich and famous are the of great fiction. And of legend. As a character' he is richer, more fascinating and inscrutable than any other figure, fictional or otherwise, that I saw onscreen last year. His peculiarity is magnificent, his Proustian eccentricity sublime. He's the crown prince of weird.
With the release of this engrossing, out-of-nowhere film, it's impossible to imagine how Osterweil could fail to become some kind of star in his own right-perhaps on the order of Tiny Tim. During the day, he lounges around like a cross between Noel Coward and Rupert Pupkin (the De Niro character in "The King of Comedy"), jotting entries in his diary, reading, painting and planning the night's agenda- that is, planning which party to crash or whether he'll need his friends to pose as paparazzi to flashlight his entrance (fooling everyone into thinking he's a star), or whether to adopt an accent or disguise (to pass himself off as an obscure Old World count or Wron).
Surrounded by hundreds of his own paintings--they have the flat, pop veneer of Alex Katz-- his filmmaking guests as if he were a mega-star diva, regaling them with anecdotes from his life as a cabby, coat-cliecker and celebrity voyeur in such a way his perfectly sick obsession with fame seems to make perfect sense.
Osterweil is the high priest of the cult of personality. He's talked to Walter Cronkite (whom he picked up in his cab outside Saks) and Princess Grace (who seemed to be pitiably lonely), and attended the funerals of Andy Warhol and Chairman Mao. Once, he crashed a funeral waring long raincoat, kerchief and lipstick and was mistaken for Greta Garbo, And all this while maintaining a food budget of $6 a day.
The sheer chutzpah of the man is monumental; he even has the gall to complain about the food at the parties he crashes. He went to Roy Cohn's funeral, he says, "just to make sure he's really dead." But he doesn't want people to misinterpret his interest in these events or think he's ghoulish. "I see them as events," he explains. "Each one marks the end of a life that is a part of history, and by being there I have become a part of that whole thing, a part of history. It's being a witness to history." Plus he adds, "They have a great food at these things."
His life he adds is dedicated to art. All these other things, "the parties, the funerals and spying on people, that's my hobby." One of his main subjects, he tells us, is the wealthy Mrs. Samual Peabody, to whom he's dedicated a series of portraits. He first saw Judy, as he calls her, when he was following Margaret Trudeau and the Princess Ali Khan, "Here she was, this iconic beauty, just standing there with such animation and such a sweetness and charm about her face...that I just stopped, stunned, and said,"who is that? What is that? WHY is that?"...And I knew that something had changed; that I saw someone and that there was a before and an after. And that nothing would ever be the same."
If anything, "Painting the Town," at 80 minutes, is too brief. When Osterweil forwards his tale about crashing the wedding of Phyllis George with the observation that the Tavern on the Green is a "notably wonderful place to crash a party," you don't care about the Shrivers and the Cronkites he rubs elbows with, you want to know more about him. An oddball like this is worth a truckload of Jackie O's. Back to the home page.