Take 5 is a recurring column in which we reach out to our favorite Gladiators contributors to weigh in on a certain topic. In this installment, we look at the timely topic of the biopic.
By all guesses, Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming The Master is supposed to be about L. Ron Hubbard. All Tom Cruise/cloning/volcano jokes aside, it might be one of the better docudrama/biopics of the last few years — if only because Anderson is directing and Philip Seymour Hoffman is starring. The closest competition this year will most likely be Daniel Day Lewis in his turn as Honest Abe in Steven Spielberg’s newest film, Lincoln. And, we also have Russell Crowe coming in as Noah in 2014.
So here we wonder aloud about the biopics that have been made and those that should.
Which biopic / docudrama most accurately captures the essence of its subject?
Dustin Freeley: For me, the inherent problem of the biopic is that writers and directors try to squeeze an entire life (the rise, the fall, and everything in between) into a space of about two hours. This is impossible and often makes for sloppy storytelling, underdeveloped narrative, and a reliance on the viewers’ passion for history to rivet them to the screen. The better biopic/docudrama films select a moment of its subject’s life and extrapolate on that, suggesting that this defining moment contains aspect of personality (admirable and flawed) that persist throughout the rest of their lives as well. That said, I think The Aviator does this quite nicely. There’s a lot that can be said about Howard Hughes, and while Scorsese’s film does touch on its subject’s potential schizophrenia and severe OCD, the bulk of the film is about his obsession with perfection. The movie spans a couple of years and flashes back, on occasion, to brief glimpses of Hughes’ childhood, but each moment with the Senator, the President of Pan Am, or on set of a Hollywood movie emphasized Hughes’ personality. We didn’t need to see his childhood more than we did, and we didn’t need to watch his eventual death and the mythology that surrounds it. And, we don’t.
Morgan O’Rourke: I feel like movies like Lawrence of Arabia or Goodfellas are obvious choices here, but I’m going with Ed Wood, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s homage to the worst director of all time. A cross-dressing, B-movie filmmaker already sounds like a Burton creation and Johnny Depp plays him with the perfect sense of childlike optimism that you would imagine someone would need to keep doing something he is so obviously terrible at. But what really pushes the movie over the top for me is Martin Landau’s Academy Award-winning portrayal of Bela Lugosi. The real-life Lugosi was best known for starring as Dracula in the seminal 1931 movie and was typecast as a movie monster for the rest of his career. By the time he met Wood late in his life he was living in obscurity and Landau basically steals the show with his characterization of a depressed, morphine-addicted, but still prideful, former star grateful for one last turn in the spotlight.
Tim Adkins: To me, Malcolm X is the gold standard of biopics. It’s not a perfect film, as the editorial perspective is a little vague in places where maybe it could have revealed a big insight (like who was really responsible for his assassination). But it does rank as a triple-crown achievement. Malcolm’s autobiography, from which the screenplay draws pretty heavily, is one of the best and most important pieces of 20th century non-fiction. The film exceeds the vision of the book. Spike Lee, however you feel about him, has always hungered to be thought of as an all-time great filmmaker. With apologies to Do the Right Thing, this is his crowning achievement. And then there’s Denzel Washington. Nevermind what the AMPAS said, he put his foot into everything a foot could possibly be put into. And then he found some new stuff to put his foot into ‘cause he wasn’t all the way done with the putting of the foot.
Having said all of that, though, the question is about essence. And, while I know this probably qualifies more as a standard documentary, no film will ever do more to fully and faithfully capture the essence of its subject than Tupac: Resurrection. Tupac was always the most perfect actor to tell his story. Even when he was struggling to understand it himself. What that team did in excavating the archives of Tupac interviews and footage was brilliant. Gives me chills every time I watch it.
Jared Wade: The Insider. While I love grand films about prominent historical figures (like Patton) regardless of their accuracy (like Braveheart), I feel like the best biopics are often those about people I would have never otherwise known exist. The story of Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry whistleblower, is one that few people would have ever watched a documentary about. The real-life tale is one that few would even sit through the first commercial break of 60 Minutes for. But Michael Mann took his story and made into a compelling film that is as well made as the subject is relevant to understanding the corruption of corporate America. Mann made it not into just a biography of a man, but a tale to help understand the world in which we live.
Steve Barker: I thought Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon was spot on. He became Andy Kaufman and the movie felt like a Kaufman greatest hits collection. I heard that when Carrey made his audition tape he played it for Nick Cage saying it was an old Kaufman reel and Cage had no idea it was actually Carrey. When Carrey revealed the truth Cage withdrew from auditioning for the role. Although, I highly doubt Ghost Rider had much of a shot. As an overall performance and movie I think Jamie Foxx in Ray is the best. Not only did he become Ray Charles, but also he hit the dramatic scenes as well as the singing and the look.
Which film most abjectly misses the mark?
Dustin Freeley: I know it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I’m going with A Beautiful Mind, primarily because it is loosely based on the subject who it claims to be honoring, and it elides the most fascinating part of his life. John Nash, the 1994 Nobel Economics laureate was a schizophrenic, but he did not think he was working for the government, something that the film would have you believe. Moreover, the film tries three times to toy with the audience, making them wonder if Nash really is working for the government. This is merely a ploy to kill forty-five minutes, create drama, and make Nash a more interesting character. Furthermore, the most fascinating thing about the real-life John Nash is that he refused medication to treat his schizophrenia because it impeded his work. Thus, he learned to deal with an often-debilitating disorder and work at and ultra-high level in an uber-competitive field. Unfortunately, this aspect of his life is neatly wrapped up in a five-minute montage before he accepts the Nobel Prize and gives a speech as his poorly-made-up wife claps proudly in the audience. (As a note, recipients don’t give speeches – yet another stab at emotional appeal on the part of Ron Howard.)
Morgan O’Rourke: When Oliver Stone’s movie The Doors came out, I thought Jim Morrison was the coolest guy ever. But that’s because I was in high school. As the years have gone by I have discovered the immutable law that the further you get from your teenage years, the less likely you are to buy into the legend of the ol’ Lizard King. Sure I still like The Doors’ music now and then, but for Stone to turn a junkie rockstar who wrote some truly godawful poetry into a mystical rebel shaman is just silly fanboy pandering. Of course, it’s not like Stone had much of a dramatic character arc to work with. Jim Morrison never saved the world or anything — he just sang some songs and overdosed in a bathtub at 27. The end. That said, the movie is still pretty entertaining, though, in a train wreck sort of way. And Val Kilmer does make a great Morrison.
Tim Adkins: Not sure if it counts, but I thought Invictus really missed the mark. Morgan Freeman as Mandela was cool as hell, but the rest of it felt too much like an afterschool special meant to alternately scold and uplift. The truth of that story is way more fascinating than what the filmmakers gave us. If we’re talking about more straight-ahead biopics, I go with The Greatest. It was actually a rare autobiopic where Muhammad Ali played himself circa 1977. It was pretty bad. Felt like a man trying to make himself into a myth. Or someone using the man to articulate an ill-formed myth. And it lacked the guts and intelligence of who Ali has always been. That’s where it really failed.
Jared Wade: Alexander. You couldn’t possibly do less while analyzing the life of man who ruled so much. Alexander the Great is rumored to have never lost a battle and once ruled nearly half of the known world. Yet Oliver Stone spent three hours highlighting Al’s life through the lens of an Oedipus complex in which he only exerts his never-ending world conquest to spite his one-eyed father while wishing to sleep with everyone from his mom (Angelina Jolie) to (perhaps) his military compatriot (Jared Leto) to a seemingly feral ancient-Afganistan-residing princess (Rosario Dawson). What is left uncovered is everything conceivably interesting about arguably the greatest military commander in human history.
Steve Barker: I was pretty disappointed with Notorious. Jamal Woolard did a fine job as Biggie, but the story didn’t seem developed, and some of the side characters just didn’t work. I thought Anthony Mackie’s portrayal of Tupac was a little over the top. It’s like he watched one clip of Tupac mouthing off to a TV camera and took that as his sole research for the role. Mainly my issue was with the writing. There’s a scene with Biggie and Lil Kim right after they’ve had sex and Kim starts rapping while getting dressed. Biggie hears this and tells her to rap more and, bam, she has a record contract. I’m sure the producers didn’t want to make a four-hour movie, but everything moved way too quickly. Hopefully someone will put out a documentary on Biggie’s life to get the real story out there.
Who should a biopic be made about?
Dustin Freeley: I’d like to see one made on Mark Twain, but I fear that the writer and director would fall prey to the inherent problem I noted in response to question one. The man gave us two canonical classics and cleverly satirized commerce, capitalism, consumerism, racism, and humanity through the mouths of adolescents. Someone else who would make an interesting subject for a biopic would be Hitler. The endemic problem here is probably best exemplified by the deep, tooth-sucking breath that you just took. Hitler’s ideology is clearly evil, though his life as a soldier in Germany during World War I is fascinating, as are the post-war repercussions levied on Germany and their ultimate impact on Hitler’s ideology and its bridge to the next War to End All Wars. There are additional problems here as well. First and foremost, the director would need to stay away from the events of World War II, the Holocaust in particular, lest his or her intent is to merely create a hate-driven film. This creates an additional problem: Hitler, no matter how one tries, will never be seen as a likeable – or even less-than-detestable – character, unless the biopic becomes something akin to the fictional Springtime for Hitler.
Morgan O’Rourke: I have to go with Teddy Roosevelt. The more I read about the guy the more obvious it becomes that he was a goddamn superhero. The script would write itself. I mean this is a man who got shot in the chest before giving a campaign speech and instead of going to the hospital, laughed it off and launched into a 90-minute address as scheduled. The problem is that I don’t think there is an actor alive who would be bad-ass enough to play him. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis can take a crack at it after Lincoln and then work his way through the rest of Mount Rushmore. Like we all wouldn’t pay to see that.
Tim Adkins: Personally, I would love to see really good biopics done on Julius Erving and Roberto Clemente, but athletes are nearly impossible to make good films about. I’d also like to see a portrayal of the early and middle years of Charles Bukowski’s life — stopping in 1980 before he became a full-fledged iconoclast. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Samuel Slater, the “father of the industrial revolution.” Legend has it that he snuck into a British factory in the 1780s, memorized their entire operations and then stole/imported the industrial revolution to the United States. That could be a very rich film. But at gunpoint, if I have to choose only one person: Betty Davis — the singer, not the actress. Betty Mabry Davis was Miles Davis’ second wife. And she connected him with Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. You can make a really good case that she was responsible for Bitches’ Brew and inspired all sorts of musical fusions of the late 20th century. Also, she made some hella funky records of her own. She was a bad-ass woman and not nearly enough people know her story.
Jared Wade: Someone I’ve never heard of. If someone was truly historically prominent, I would usually rather just learn the facts of their life instead of seeing some dramatized version. FDR did what he did and much of the outcome was great for post-Depression America. It could be incredibly poignant to see some director show how arguably America’s greatest president pulled this all off without being able to walk. And I do eagerly await Daniel Day Lewis’ representation of Abraham Lincoln. But I would generally rather just watch the documentary take on such important people from Ken Burns, or someone else with a similarly grandiose vision to recount history in a easily digestible two-hour serving size. When it comes to a great movie based off the life of an actual person who actually lived, I generally prefer the less-well-known: Oskar Schindler, T. E. Lawrence, John Reed, Henry Hill, Harvey Pekar, or Paul Rusesabagina. With the benefit of using protagonists who lack pre-established identities, filmmakers are generally freer to create much more interesting narratives.
Steve Barker: I’ve given up hope that the Jimi Hendrix picture will ever happen. I feel like I’ve been hearing about it for over ten years. The last thing I heard was the movie couldn’t clear any of Hendrix’s songs. So, what’s the point? I think the life of punk rock artist Billy Childish would make a great film. He’s not that well known in the U.S., but he’s a great writer, painter and musician who had a terribly abusive childhood and struggled with alcohol, all the while producing tons and tons of great art. He’s still alive, so maybe a biopic would be a little premature. An Eazy-E biopic would be great, but would have to be done right. The script could be based off of Jerry Heller’s book Ruthless. The producer would probably have to go with an unknown to play Eazy. I can’t think of anyone that short and badass in Hollywood. (Editor’s Note: The kid who played Kenard in The Wire would be perfect in about 12 years.)