You undoubtedly know Al Hirschfeld's work, even if you don't think you do. He's the caricaturist who, for 70 years, created deceptively simple drawings of assorted Broadway and Hollywood performers, most of which appeared in the Arts section of the Sunday New York Times. Hirschfeld's style consisted of sparse swoops and curves that over-accentuated the limbs, teeth and bone-structures of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to David Letterman, with literally thousands of subjects in between. Hirschfeld's joyous life and work is presented in this utterly engaging documentary directed by Susan Warms Dryfoos.
Hirschfeld's career couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Throughout The Line King, he's gentle and jovial, a stone-cold theater fanatic who stumbled upon an unexpected way to present Broadway's most electrifying personalities to people around the world. Hirschfeld seems to know that he was very lucky to have fallen into such a job. But his gift for getting at the heart of a human being through a few strokes of a pen transcended its own apparent effortlessness, turning what could have been an ongoing series of cute conversation pieces into a genuine art form.
Dryfoos traces (no pun intended) the development of that gift through interviews with Hirschfeld, his subjects and his loyal wife and confidant, the former actress Dolly Haas. The loving relationship between Haas and Hirschfeld is a wonderful thing to witness. It's also fun hearing the story behind Hirschfeld's "Nina" obsession. Connoisseurs of his work will know that it became something of a game over the years for Hirschfeld to secretly insert his daughter Nina's name into his drawings, with a number that he scribbled next to his signature telling you how often it appears. (If you've never looked for them before, focus on hairlines and wrinkled clothing. More often than not, you'll locate one or two Ninas.)
At one point, the playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer compares Hirschfeld's work to Fred Astaire's dancing, and that's perfectly fitting. His drawings elegantly convey life and movement. The remarkable thing is just how often he hits the nail right on the head. Katherine Hepburn even laughingly mentions how horrifyingly accurate one drawing of her is, an exceptionally shriveled version of herself.
What stands out the most about The Line King is Hirschfeld's remarkable buoyancy at an advanced age, a sure sign that his work kept him young. There's no doddering, no hemming and hawing in his recollections. In fact, if you didn't see him sitting in front of you, you might think he was 60 years old, as opposed to 95 at the time of filming. His self-effacing sense of humor is apparent throughout the film, and he's something of a character himself. One of the more amusing anecdotes centers around the fact that he fashioned his pictures while sitting in an old-fashioned barber chair, which he considered the last "functional" chair ever made.
That sort of wistfulness for a bygone era is a moving subtext in The Line King. In an odd way, there's a sadness beneath Hirschfeld's journey, a longing for an America that found enjoyment in intelligence and, very often, in intelligent simplicity. We lost more than a great cartoonist when Hirschfeld passed away in 2003. He was one of the final links to a time when we hoped to examine the better part of ourselves through entertainment. We may never return to that place again, and it's a heartbreaking thing.