Make mine a double
As Hollywood gets ready to unleash a slew of big-name biopics, from Allen Ginsberg to Joan Jett, Ed Power looks at the enduring appeal of movies that capture the lives of our idols
Published 06/02/2010 | 05:00
Sooner or later every Hollywood star reaches that stage in their career where, in order to impress upon the world the true depth of their talents, they feel it necessary to don a funny wig, assume a weird accent or walk with a pronounced limp. In other words, they have decided it is time to ratchet up their Oscar credentials by starring in a biopic.
Nothing, it seems, boosts your prestige as a 'serious' screen presence quite like getting under the skin of a real-life person. From Warren Beatty to Will Smith, Jennifer Hudson to Hilary Swank, few A-listers can resist the lure of the biographical feature -- notwithstanding the fact that, if rendered in a cack-handed fashion, the results risk proving unpleasant for all involved.
Sometimes a biopic can have a transformative effect on your Hollywood status. Man On The Moon, based on the life of comedian-anarchist Andy Kaufman, gained Jim Carrey something nobody thought he'd ever achieve: the respect of his peers. And yet there are terrible dangers too: Colin Farrell never quite recovered from the peroxide mop he was forced to model in Oliver Stone's unintentionally hilarious Alexander.
This year is no different. Dances With Smurfs -- or, as James Cameron would rather you referred to it, Avatar -- may have smashed all box office records, but it's clear Hollywood hasn't lost its faith in the old-fashioned biographical movie.
Fresh in cinemas this February is Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela tribute Invictus, which portrays the Springboks' contentious 1995 Rugby World Cup win as a triumph for racial harmony of historic proportions.
That's merely the beginning of the deluge. Also jostling for your eyeball time in 2010 will be the Ian Dury movie Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, The Runaways -- a feature about the life of Joan Jett starring Twilight's Kristen Stewart as the 70s rocker -- and the Allen Ginsberg movie Howl, with Spiderman's James Franco in the title role.
Come May, meanwhile, cameras will start rolling for a feature about the controversial life and times of Winnie Mandela, entitled Winnie, with Jennifer Hudson in the main role. The film has already raised the hackles of its subject, who complains that she wasn't consulted about the film's content ("It is difficult to understand how a production can bear the name of an individual who has not been consulted at all," she fumed in a letter issued through her lawyers).
The biographical drama is almost as old as Tinseltown itself. The first true biopic is generally considered to be a 1929 retelling of the life of 19th century British parliamentarian Benjamin Disraeli, with early movie star George Arliss in the title role. He would go on to star as American Revolutionary figure Alexander Hamilton in 1931 and as the philosopher Voltaire two years later.
Wildly successful, these films unleashed a flood of biographical cinema. Through the '30s, Warner Brothers alone released The Story of Louis Pasteur, Florence Nightingale paean This White Angel and The Life of Emile Zola. By the early '40s, meanwhile, it is estimated that half a dozen films based upon the life of Abraham Lincoln were in existence.
If anything, biopics grow more popular with each passing year. In 1947, two biopics were made by mainstream Hollywood studios; by 2007, 24 were in production, ranging from the straightforwardly faithful to the profoundly wacky -- Todd Haynes' I'm Not There offered a rotating cast of actors, including Cate Blanchett, in the part of Bob Dylan.
Conventional wisdom tells us that, in order for a biopic to succeed, the star must bear a close physical resemblance to the historical figure he is playing. Hence, Richard Attenborough's casting of Ben Kingsley as Gandhi; Morgan Freeman's channelling of Mandela in Invictus; and Val Kilmer's turn as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's profoundly bizarre The Doors (apparently we can blame Jimbo's early death on an invisible Indian shaman).
More recently, this is the premise upon which British actor Michael Sheen appears to have constructed a career. Blessed with oddly plastic features, he was the spitting image of Tony Blair in The Queen, which charted the inner turmoil of Elizabeth II (a stately Helen Mirren) in the weeks after Diana's death. He also captured some of the rocket-fuelled egotism of soccer manager Brian Clough in The Damned United and the glib shiftiness of David Frost in Frost/Nixon.
These turns were more than mere impersonation, however. To get to the essence of a character, Sheen in each case devoted weeks to researching every aspect of their lives.
"I get all the material I can get: footage, books, talking to people," he said in an interview.
"I immerse myself in all that for maybe a month. I don't even try to do anything else, I just surround myself with all that. Then I'll start to get ideas, for instance, something that you wouldn't immediately think of as research, like for Clough I started looking into cult leaders, because the way he worked with teams was that he created a cult. There was total worship of him, total obedience, he worked off charisma and fear and all that sort of stuff. So I might go off on a tangent."
That's not to say that a physical likeness is by any means mandatory. The Johnny Cash movie Walk The Line is considered one of the finest biopics of the past decade, although Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon bear, at best, a faint resemblance to the Man in Black and his wife June Carter Cash.
Instead, the film's strength lay in the way the stars inhabited their characters from the inside out, rather than vice versa. All of the musical sequences in Walk the Line were performed live by the cast. Phoenix actually learned to sing in Cash's bruised baritone, while Witherspoon spent days bunkered down with musical director T-Bone Burnett trying to capture Carter Cash's style. They weren't so much impersonating the characters as climbing inside their heads.
Speaking about the challenges of playing Cash, Phoenix said the public familiarity with the singer worked both ways. "There are pros and cons with playing a real person," he said. "There is a great deal of expectation, and people already have a preconceived idea of who that person is. At the same time, there's a wealth of information to draw from, and I like that process a great deal."
Curiously, it is the biographical stinkers which often live longest in the memory. Notorious examples include Anthony Hopkins' sweaty stab at Tricky Dicky in Oliver Stone's Nixon; Madonna's cloth-eared portrayal of Argentine political heroine Eva Peron in Evita; and and Kevin Spacey as singer Bobby Darin (he was at least 10 years too old for the part and far too buttoned down). In each instance, the role was reduced to a parade of tics and winks towards the audience, with little to suggest the script had any true insight into the person they were portraying.
Closer to home, how could we forget the aforementioned Farrell as a badly wigged Alexander the Great or Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan in Neil Jordan's otherwise solid Michael Collins?
Historically, Collins' squeeze may have been a peripheral figure but Roberts' howler of a 'brogue' dragged her centre stage for all the wrong reasons.
Still, all of this dwindles compared to the car-crash potential of a forthcoming Heather Mills biopic (rumoured to star none other than Reese Witherspoon), plans for which are reportedly at an advanced stage.
According to the producers, the original idea was to tell "the tragic and empowering story of her life -- a young model who gets run over and loses her leg, overcomes her difficulties and marries her prince". Sounds enticing, though we fear they may have to tweak the ending a bit.