The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (Susan W. Dryfoos)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Like last year's much-ballyhooed Crumb, The Line King (cue parents around the country patiently explaining "No, this is different, it's some sort of docu, it's not the, you've got the tape, why do you need to, no, it's...") is a documentary about a guy who draws what might uncharitably be called cartoons -- both comics and caricatures are often incorrectly labeled as such -- and who has gradually made the transition from struggling artist to cultural icon. There, however, the similarities abruptly cease: where Crumb was a disturbing, provocative exploration of the thin line between creativity and madness, The Line King is a reasonably engaging puff piece profiling a man who seems to have no inner demons to speak of. Al Hirschfeld, for those of you who don't read the New York Times, is a caricature artist whose unique, curvy, instantly recognizable illustrations of scenes from Broadway and off-Broadway shows have been appearing in that newspaper's pages since time immemorial; he's also famous for hiding his daughter's name, Nina, somewhere among the swooping lines of every drawing. (Incredibly, this practice has attracted the attention of the U.S. military, who use Hirschfeld's caricatures to train soldiers in the art of detecting camouflage.) Since Hirschfeld is now 93 years old, and since he began drawing theatrical caricatures professionally as a very young man, The Line King is more than just a history of his life -- it's a de facto history of the New York stage in this century. This is fortunate, because Hirschfeld's life has been pretty humdrum: no wacked-out siblings, no raging controversy, no fetishistic obsessions...just decades of consistently impressive work. Still completely alert and lucid -- he looks and acts about 70 -- he's a genial, appealing screen presence (though some of his remarks sounded scripted to me), and if this extremely flattering profile (directed by Susan W. Dryfoos, who I assume is related in some way to former Times publisher Orvil E. Dryfoos) is disappointingly slight and shallow, it's nonetheless both informative and entertaining, especially for viewers interested in American theater and/or the art of caricature. A fairly typical film biography, then, in a nutshell. In tribute, I've hidden a 'Nina' in the text of this review; see if you can find it without using your computer's internal search engine.