Artists are trouble, especially when they’re Daryl Hannah. And if you are running for District Attorney in your town, you should definitely not get involved with them, or art dealers, or collectors. Look, just steer clear of the whole art world altogether, ok?
Robert Redford’s character, Tom Logan, learns this the hard way in the 1986 film directed by Ivan Reitman. It all starts when he agrees to give legal counsel to Chelsea Deardon (Daryl Hannah), the daughter of celebrated painter Sebastian Deardon, after she attempts to steal one of her father’s pieces. It’s complicated because she’s trying to recover a painting her father dedicated to her just before his murder, which Chelsea witnessed, herself, when she was eight years old.
The man responsible for his death is Victor Taft (Terrance Stamp). He is also the proprietor of an uptown art gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, just in case some readers are still not convinced that all art dealers in movies and television from the 1980s must be named Victor (or Victoria). Needless to say, he’s evil.
Victor was kind enough to rescue Chelsea from the blaze, along with the canvas her father gave her. Not as fortunate were all of his other unsold works, which were destroyed in the fire. Or were they?
Incidentally, we never actually see Deardon’s paintings, as Reitman makes the choice not to show them (at least not from the front). It’s a shrewd decision, maintaining a sense of reverence through mystery, and more filmmakers should follow this example when it’s appropriate. In “Legal Eagles,” we do get a sense of context for Deardon’s career, understanding how his work is situated in the secondary market, among other artists like Dubuffet, Calder and Picasso—he isn’t quite in their ranks, but he is collected by their collectors.
The true fate of Deardon’s oeuvre is gradually revealed by Logan and fellow defense attorney Laura Kelly (Debra Winger). As it turns out, Victor Taft was masterminding an insurance fraud scheme, heisting a number of the paintings and stowing them away. 17 years after committing his crimes, he seems to wield an awful lot of power. When Kelly and Logan accuse him of a cover-up, he threatens to singlehandedly dismantle both of their careers, suggesting they will never practice law again (isn’t this guy an art dealer?).
Chelsea, on the other hand, having been so traumatized by the violent episode she witnessed as a child, is now a performance artist. “She’s a what?” asks Logan. He later finds out exactly what that means when he gets a front row seat to one of her multimedia works. After inviting him to her spacious SoHo flat, she casually ignites paper sculptures of a house and a birthday cake and large format portraits of herself, and they combust into a small inferno. It’s like a Laurie Anderson piece with pyrotechnics, complete with spoken word elements and a synthesizer soundtrack. The imagery is all emotionally charged symbolism, harkening back to night of her eighth birthday party, and her father’s imminent death.
She puts on quite a show but, aside from this being counter-intuitive behavior for someone who almost died in a fire, her work would undoubtedly set off every smoke detector within in a 100-foot range. But Chelsea doesn’t care—she’s an artist. She is at once exotic and a mess, and full of secrets. Men with guns follow her around at night . . . and could she have even killed someone? Her own criminal record has made her a reluctant enfant terrible, but her motives are pure, despite a slew of bad choices, such as seducing her attorney.
The film’s characterization of Chelsea as an “emotionally disturbed” young woman who never fully grew up evokes a familiar bias toward artists, implying that her work is just a coping mechanism for trauma she experienced. Artists rarely appear well-adjusted in the entertainment industry, nor do they have regular, workaday lives like normal people. What’s more, as an attractive female artist, Chelsea’s character reminds us of the sexism that spans beyond the art world and into the culture at large. It isn’t clear how successful her artistic career is, but it is her looks, not her talent, that prove to be her most effective way of getting what she wants.
As is often the case in the movies, all of the non-art-world characters in “Legal Eagles” ultimately seem to return to some semblance of normalcy. The others end up either dead or, in Chelsea’s case, drifting through the rest of their damaged lives like bohemian space cadets. At least some viewers with future careers in law may possibly find inspiration to become Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts some day.