Monday, August 13, 2012

Our Favorite Biopics

Life is better when someone makes a movie out of it.

Doug: Patton (1970; dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) While I dig Walk the Line more for the music than the story (Johnny Cash is the bomb, even when impersonated by Joaquin Phoenix), Patton is probably my favorite biopic (pronounced by-YAH-pic, only if you're an idiot like Dean Richards). Did you know that Francis Ford Coppola wrote (or co-wrote, depending on who you talk to) the screenplay? The man makes some great wine too! He's responsible for the famous opening scene in which George C. Scott (as General George S. Patton) delivers a motivational speech to the Third Army in front of a giant American flag. It almost never happened, however, as Coppola explains here. It's hard to imagine this film without its most iconic scene. Patton holds up -- even 42 years(!) later -- and moves much quicker than its 170 minute runtime would have you believe. If you like war movies and haven't seen it yet, what are you waiting for?
JB: Ed Wood (1994, dir. Tim Burton) For the first and only time in his career, Tim Burton’s patented “misunderstood boy” shtick meets its match. Not only a peek into Wood’s world of no-budget filmmaking and grade Z celebrity, but also a warm-hearted look at camaraderie, friendship, and obsession. Every role is perfectly cast, but Johnny Depp (abandoning his usual ironic distance) and Martin Landau are particular standouts. Landau won an Academy Award for bringing Bela Lugosi back to life! The film also boasts beautiful black and white cinematography and more uncanny make-up work by Rick Baker. After I showed it to my film class last semester, a stunned student asked me, “Was that all TRUE?”

“Eddie's the only fella in town who doesn't pass judgment on people. “
“That's right. If I did, I wouldn't have any friends.”

American Splendor (2003, dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulci) One of the cable movie channels has been showing this all month, so I have been able to see it about five more times. Needless to say, it is “re-watchable.” Co-directors and co-screenwriters Berman and Pulci not only adapt Harvey Pekar’s ground breaking comic book to the screen, but they pull off a cinematic tour-de-force and provide film classes everywhere with a neat, convenient definition of META. The film is part documentary (the real Harvey Pekar appears and narrates), part biopic (Paul Giametti stars as the “fictional” Harvey Pekar), and part animated comic book. At one point the fictional Harvey goes to California to see a play based on his comic book and watches a scene we have just witnessed in the movie -- this time acted out on stage by Donal Logue as a second fictional Harvey Pekar. The real Harvey Pekar’s voice-over explains how he felt seeing his life fictionalized and wonders what he will think about the movie we are watching. “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”
Patrick: I'm Not There (2007; dir. Todd Haynes) Less a conventional biopic than a weird semiotic experiment, Todd Haynes' movie about Bob Dylan features SIX different actors playing the famous singer at different stages in his life, including a young black boy and Cate Blanchett. It's a tribute to the constantly shifting persona Dylan created for himself, but also a deconstructionist commentary on the nature of the biopic genre. How willing are we to accept an actor as a stand-in for this real person? How much of what we are shown in these "true" stories is actually true, and how much is created from scratch through the tools of filmmaking? There's a LOT to unpack in I'm Not There -- I've seen it a couple of times, and I still don't get everything in it (though Haynes apparently over-explains the meaning behind every sequence on the DVD commentary, which remains as of yet unlistened to by me), but I just find every scene in the movie riveting. It's far from a typical "biopic" -- especially one covering a musical icon (see: The Doors, Walk the Line, Ray, Lady Sings the Blues, Sweet Dreams, La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, Beyond the Sea, etc. etc. etc.), but that's what's good about it. We've seen that movie a thousand times. Even if you don't like I'm Not There, you've got to give Todd Haynes credit for giving us something different.
Erika: I’m always overwhelmed to choose a ‘favorite’ anything. It’s like a defect in my DNA; it makes me feel nervous. Will my other favorite bio pics get upset with me? Hold a grudge? I don’t like conflict. What were we talking about again?

There seems to be some dissent on the interwebs in relation to what defines a bio pic. I see Goodfellas on a bio pic list and think, “Well, of course it’s the best. ONE of the best.” But it is one of the best MOVIES… I’m not sure it counts as a biopic just because it is based on a true story. Same with The Social Network, Hotel Rwanda… the list could go on.

1. Raging Bull (1980; dir. Martin Scorsese) I got to see this on the big screen a couple years ago when a suburban Chicago theater ran old MGM movies once a week in the summer. I LOVED it -- what a timeless Scorsese film. I was late to the party with Raging Bull, but so lucky to see it in the theater.

2. Into the Wild (2007; dir. Sean Penn) Emile Hirsch’s performance is so believable; I could not stop thinking about this movie (or Christopher McCandless) for weeks after it came out. I don’t have a desire to live alone in the wild, but this film made me understand someone who did… (Side note: I’m still genuinely heartbroken that Eddie Vedder’s music for the movie did not get any Oscar recognition. I guess “Hard Sun” did not qualify for Best Song because it is a cover.)

3. Persepolis (2007; dir. Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi) Animated feature version of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel. It’s smart, sad, educational, funny, and moving.

Do those count? I think I broke my own rule… What do you guys think? Do you have rigid definitions for a biographical movie?
Alex: Monster (2003; dir. Patty Jenkins) Even the savviest of filmmakers would be hard-pressed to make a convicted mass murderer a sympathetic figure. I'm not even entirely sure that is Monster's goal here, but Patty Jenkins comes pretty damn close to putting you, the rational viewer, in a place where you ponder the phrase "Yes, I could see how such a dreadful set of circumstances could lead someone to kill a half dozen innocent citizens."

Let me be perfectly clear. We tend -- with good reason -- to avoid hot-button political issues here at F This Movie!, but I carry an unblemished record of staunch anti-cold-blooded-murder values with me. I'm speaking on this issue purely from a storytelling perspective. Jenkins -- who, astonishingly, is without a feature credit to her name before OR since this  movie -- is downright masterful at building a world in which the deck is so decidedly stacked against Aileen Wuornos that it's a wonder she made it as far along in life as she did before everything went completely off the rails.

Jenkins does this chiefly by juxtaposing Wuornos's horrific crimes with her tumultuous union with troubled youth Selby. Charlize Theron rightly earned the lion's share of critical praise and Academy hardware for her performance, but the film also contains some of the best work Christina Ricci has ever done. The sheer vulnerability she exudes is overwhelming in that perfect way that makes you think maybe you shouldn't even be watching, like your observation is an intrusion into these characters' personal hell.

In a movie so steeped in the absolute worst parts of humanity, it's a wonder that Jenkins is able to give us even one hint of something optimistic. But she does, with spades, in a near-perfect sequence in a roller rink set to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Just watch it. Speaks for itself.

Finally, because her performance became noteworthy for "uglying it up," I think Theron's work in Monster is actually underrated. If the true measure of great acting is very simply making the viewer believe that you ARE the person you're portraying, then this is one of the better performances in the history of movies, right? It's more than goofy makeup gimmicks and funny accent. Theron is living inside Wuornos's skin.


  1. "There seems to be some dissent on the interwebs in relation to what defines a bio pic."

    My own intrepretion is that a Bio-pic is about a person already familiar to the public and covers a substantial portion of his life rather than just one event that he is most known for.

    My favourite is Lawrence of Arabia. The screenplay is brilliant, knowing the perfect start and end points from Lawrence's life and providing plenty of memorable dialogue. The cinematography, editing and music are all fantastic. The most important aspect for any Bio-pics success is the lead actor and Peter O'Toole is positively mesmerizing in the role.

  2. And there is a brand spanking new transfer of LoA coming out soon on Bluray. It is an essential film. "This man... would like a glass of lemonade."

  3. I hate myself for loving "Ed Wood" because I know how much it screwed with the facts of Lugosi's life.

    If you go by this film, Lugosi was a hermit. Abandoned by family and friends and he didn't try to get help with his morphine addiction until near the end of his life.

    The truth is that Lugosi was close to his son all of his life, had lots of friends in the ex-patriot Hungarian community of LA, was married when he met Wood (that wife tried helping with his addiction by weaning him off the drug until he was just getting the clean needle but he relapsed when they divorced) and he remarried and was still married to her when he passed. He'd tried going to the UK to take methadone treatments somewhere in that same time. And he did do other film work during those years.

    Obviously, Lugosi was back on his heels career-wise when Wood met him. But Burton makes him appear pathetic.