By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Feb 28, 2001 at 12:07 AM

Actors stepping behind the camera has become common practice in the last decade. Surprisingly, many of them have found great success as a director. Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner even won Academy Awards for it (Gibson for "Braveheart" and Costner for "Dances With Wolves"). Others giving it a shot include Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Jodie Foster, to name a few.

Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris ("Apollo 13," "The Truman Show") is the latest to take a stab at directing. Harris does double duty in "Pollock," a bio-pic in which he stars as the famous painter Jackson Pollock.

"Pollock" covers a span of 15 years in the painter's life, including his rise to fame and subsequent fall. It begins in Greenwich Village during the early 1940s. Pollock is a struggling artist living with his brother and sister-in-law. Though no one knows him yet, Pollock is a brilliant painter...with a serious drinking problem.

Enter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) into his life. She, too, is an artist and wants to see his work. Pollock lets her see some of his paintings and Lee is convinced that he is a genius. Soon the two are living together and Lee becomes his biggest fan.

Fame and respect don't come easily for Pollock. Initially no one knows what to make of his work. Is it abstract expressionism? Is it surrealism? No question it is different, but no one is buying and art critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) isn't impressed.

But Pollock isn't a quitter. He continues painting and eventually moves out of New York City to an old house on Long Island. He falls in love with the peaceful surroundings and does his best work. Pollock grows quite famous and Life magazine does an article about him, basically asking someone to prove to them that he isn't the best artist in America.

One thing Pollock can't overcome, famous or not, is his self-destructive behavior. He drinks too much and often loses his temper, striking out at whoever is near him. He is a troubled man, but through it all Lee is at his side.

"Pollock" is a flawed but ambitious and arresting movie. Harris does an impressive job behind the camera and a magnificent job in front of it. He gives a passionate and haunting performance, creating a truly mysterious yet fascinating figure.

An outstanding cast and crew surround Harris. Harden, Tambor, Val Kilmer, John Heard, Bud Cort, Amy Madigan and Jennifer Connelly all do great work. Also worth noting is the stunning cinematography by Lisa Rinzler and a beautiful score from Jeff Beal.

"Pollock" may leave you a little frustrated. It's hard to determine what made him such a disturbed man. We learn nothing about his youth or what makes him so fervent about art and painting. The movie's also not as successful when dealing with his domestic affairs. It's distracting and feels too pedestrian and conventional.

Quibbles aside, "Pollock" remains a worthy effort. Scenes showing the artist in action are exhilarating. It is a joy watching him work. Plus, Harris is so good he alone conquers the film's flaws. He makes it more than worthwhile.

Grade: B+

"Pollock" opens on Fri., March 2, at Landmark's Oriental Theatre.