Tom of Finland, a new biopic from Finnish director Dome Karukosi, charts the evolution of Touko Laaksonen from a covert erotic illustratorknown for his graphite drawings of well-endowed men with supernaturally swollen bicepsto a world-renowned artist who became a rallying point for the freedom of sexual expression in the 1970s and beyond.
Laaksonen ( 1920-1991 ), better known by his the name "Tom of Finland," went from well-hung images celebrated in the gay underground to being well-hung in prominent U.S. galleries, including MOMA in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2014, Laaksonen's work was even featured on postage stamps in Finland, a country that had previously outlawed homosexuality during the artist's young adult life.
Tom of Finlanda primarily Finnish language film with English subtitlesspans almost half a century and covers five main segments of Laaksonen's life: World War II, post-war when he shared a flat with his very conservative sister, his love affair with the male dancer Veli, coming to the United States and the AIDS epidemic.
"At first it felt like quite a huge challenge and responsibility to tell the story of this extraordinary man," said popular Finnish actor Pekka Strang, 40, who portrays Laaksonen in the film. "But once we started shooting, I only focused on the part, just like any other part I've done before. Otherwise, [the performance] would have become more statue-like than that of a real human being."
Strang, who was cast very early in the development of the film, flew to the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles in 2016 to research Laaksonen's life and work.
"Of course, I knew something about the art, but I knew very little about the artist himself," said Strang, who is married to a woman. "During the casting process, and especially after I had been given the part, I started to research as much as I could about Touko/Tom, meeting members of the foundation, meeting his friends, and reading and watching some rare interviews. As described to me by his friends and people close to him, he was kind, talented, and beloved by his family."ï¿½
"We aimed to tell the story of the man behind the art and of his life and struggles and achievements," added Strang. "For me, the biggest question that still remains is how this boyborn in a small town in the 1920's in a very conservative country and agebecame the visionary artist who started a sexual revolution."
Even the journey itself, from Finland to California, brought the actor closer to the illustrator.
"It was the first time I visited Los Angeles and driving in a cab through the city I felt that I recognized all the buildings and the beautiful light as seen in so many movies," he said. "For Touko, it must have been like arriving into a dream to see his work drawn during the dark times in Finland, enjoy themselves out in the lightproud, happy and without boundaries."
Once Laaksonen's work was picked up by an L.A.-based publisher, the artist found commercial success.
In 1973, Laaksonen left his full-time position at the Helsinki office of McCann-Erickson, an international advertising firm and began publishing his illustrations full-time. In 1979, he co-founded the Tom of Finland Company, and in 1984, the Tom of Finland Foundation was established with the mission of preserving and exhibiting homoerotic art.
The biopic is Finland's official submission to the 90th Academy awards for Best Foreign Language Film, an Oscar category with entries from 92 countries this year.
"It is a huge honor and recognition for the artist, Tom of Finland, that our country submitted our movie to the Oscars," said Strang. "One of Toukos desires during his last years was that he would be considered a real artist in his homeland. This, unfortunately, didn't happen before he passed away. I hope the leather community feels the movie is a celebration of the culture and heritage of Tom. His drawings have been such an inspiration for pop culture and pop icons all over the world."
Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 23.
Some reviews of the Tom of Finland biopic have noted its lack of male nudity and depiction of gay sex, which may surprise some audience goers particularly given the subject matter of the film. Variety called the movie's "sexual beigening of the story's colorful sexual content a predictable pitfall of this mainstream biopic format." Despite any of the film's perceived shortcomings, however, Strang hopes audiences are inspired by the movie.
"I hope they leave the cinema with a sense of joy and hope…this is something that what we can provide in these times," said Strang. "And I also hope that we have an understanding of what the gay community has gone through. They've suffered through really harsh times and we need to be reminded of that so we never turn back the clock."
Tom of Finland will be showing at the Siskel Film Center Jan. 5-18. On Sunday, Jan. 7, director Dome Karukoski will be present via Skype for an audience discussion.
For more information, visit SiskelFilmCenter.org/tomoffinland .