Georgia O'Keeffe American master

Georgia O'Keeffe stirs recognition in certain predictable ways: her no-nonsense face leathered by the New Mexico sun; her paintings of animal skulls and of flowers that mystically evoke ladies' privates.

But there is much more to know about O'Keeffe, who in her 98 years established herself as one of the best-known women painters in history — and more.

A new Lifetime film, "Georgia O'Keeffe," provides a telling glimpse through the framework of her love affair, collaboration and emotional tug-of-war with photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

This biopic, which premiered Saturday at 9 p.m., and is repeated this week at 7 tonight and Tuesday at 9 p.m., is directed by the versatile Bob Balaban (a filmmaker, writer and actor remembered as Elaine's boyfriend Russell on "Seinfeld").

Oscar winner Jeremy Irons is charismatically exasperating as Stieglitz, whose own artistic pursuits took a back seat to championing O'Keeffe's career, even as his self-absorbed nature threatened to destroy her.

And Joan Allen plays the fiercely independent yet vulnerable O'Keeffe, a young woman who meets Stieglitz in New York early in the last century, finds fame under his tutelage, then makes a difficult break to spend the bulk of her years in Santa Fe's splendid isolation.

Allen, who helped develop the "O'Keeffe" project and serves as an executive producer, says she felt simpatico with the painter.

"I'm from Illinois, she was from Wisconsin, and I could understand a midwestern quality about her," says Allen between bites of a pizza margarita near her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment.

"She knew what she wanted to do: At 8 years old she was playing with her friend and asked her, 'What are you going to do when you grow up?' 'I don't know.' 'Well, I'm gonna be a painter.'

"At 8 years old, I was, 'I'm gonna be an actor.'

"So I could see that we shared a kind of focus."

Now a remarkably young-looking 53, Allen began her acting career as a founding member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company and has enjoyed New York stage triumphs including "The Heidi Chronicles" and her Tony Award-winning run in "Burn This."

During two decades in dozens of films, she has played the former first lady in Oliver Stone's "Nixon," an accused witch in "The Crucible," and a CIA agent in "The Bourne Supremacy" and that thriller's sequel, "The Bourne Ultimatum."

The rest of the time, she opts for the role of regular gal. Dressed for a recent hot day in T-shirt, walking shorts and tennis shoes, the willowy blonde says she likes living a normal life, which she shares with her 15-year-old daughter, Sadie.

"I mean, today's the first time I've put on mascara in ages," she laughs.

In March, Allen returned to Broadway in the play "Impressionism," opposite Irons.

"I already knew I was going to be doing a play with him when 'O'Keeffe' came together last summer," she says. "He got on board and we were shooting by late October."

The brisk four-week production took place in and around Santa Fe, she says, accommodating Manhattan scenes and what subs for Stieglitz's Lake George, N.Y., estate. (Also on hand for the shoot: co-stars Ed Begley Jr., Kathleen Chalfant, Linda Emond, Henry Simmons and Tyne Daly.)

The film's selected slice of O'Keeffe's life unfolds as a very unconventional romance.

"I think they were very much in love with each other," Allen says. "But personality-wise they were very, very different people."

Stieglitz comes across as not only a pioneering photographer, but also a shrewd promoter and a hopeless philanderer.

O'Keeffe had a more ascetic bent.

"She didn't suffer fools — she had no time," says Allen.

"Someone once came and knocked on her door and said, 'Oh, Miss O'Keeffe, I've always wanted to see you,' and she literally did a pirouette, then slammed the door in the woman's face."

Indeed, the film displays O'Keeffe as someone who didn't suffer anything that got in her way.

"She made a very tough decision to separate herself from Stieglitz, do her work and live her life," notes Allen, despite O'Keeffe's hunger for approval from Stieglitz that endured even past his death in 1946 until her own, 40 years later.

Allen points to the last speech in the film, which finds an elderly O'Keeffe declaring she still asks herself on finishing each work, "What would Mr. Stieglitz think of this?"

"Artistically," Allen marvels, "they were so joined."

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