Monday, March 25, 2013

10 Mostly Terrible Hollywood Biopics

Why are most movies about people that make movies so lame?

So Ed Wood is still the best Hollywood biopic ever made, not because it's completely faithful to the facts (it is not), but because it doesn't just reduce its subject to one thing the way so many biopics do. Tim Burton tries to understand what made Ed Wood Ed Wood, and the movie interprets the director's body of work and reflects that interpretation back into something that both celebrates Wood's life and work and attempts to get at what makes it special. It also manages to be entertaining.

These movies don't do that.

The majority of celebrity biopics are made for TV (Lindsay Lohan IS Elizabeth Taylor! Adam Brody IS Barry Williams! THOMAS IAN GRIFFITH IS ROCK HUDSON!), which aren't worth listing because (for the most part) of COURSE THOSE ARE BAD. These are all movies that actually played in theaters, and they range from "Ok, but not very good" to "This is one of the worst movies ever made."

1. Chaplin (1992)
Like so many bad Hollywood biopics, Richard Attenborough's movie about the life of Charlie Chaplin doesn't concern itself so much with the man's work or what made him one of the greatest screen comedians/icons/comedy directors of all time. Instead, it's more interested in answering the question "But Who Was He Fucking?" The answer, the movie says, is "A lot of women." Yes, Robert Downey Jr. is very, very good in the title role (he was nominated for an Oscar), especially in the recreations of Chaplin's work. It's an uncanny imitation. Truth be told, the movie is not outright horrible. It's not very good, either, but it's totally watchable. The movie has a great cast, and it's fun to see Dan Aykroyd playing Mack Sennett and Kevin Kline play Douglas Fairbanks and so on and so on (it's the kind of movie where a new famous face shows up every five minutes so the time passes quickly). But it reduces one of the most incredible film careers of all time to a single takeaway: Charlie Chaplin was a womanizer.

2. The Buster Keaton Story (1957)
Casting Donald O'Connor as the great Buster Keaton makes sense on paper, since O'Connor is very talented physical comedian. Unfortunately, the movie has no interest in physical comedy. Or comedy. Or the facts about Buster Keaton's life. It's a lame and turgid account of his romantic relationships. Did it ever occur to anyone to consider making a film about a famous comedian...what's the word...funny? Don't expect to learn anything about Keaton from the movie, since pretty much everything here is made up. Buster Keaton made a bunch of money selling the rights to his life, suggesting that he would never have to work again. So what was he doing in all of those AIP movies?

3. Hollywoodland (2006)
Ok, like Chaplin, this movie is not completely terrible. In fact, the George Reeves flashbacks are the best stuff in the movie, and Ben Affleck is actually really good (this came from the period when it seemed like he was going to become a really solid character actor, but instead he went the route of Academy Award-winning director) in the part. In fact, they could have just made a movie out of the George Reeves stuff and Hollywoodland would have been pretty great (it's like Julie and Julia that way).  Instead, the movie adds all this stupid stuff with Adrien Brody as a detective speculating what REALLY happened when Reeves proved to not be faster than a speeding bullet. The single takeaway: The death of George Reeves is one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries. WRONG.

4. Mommie Dearest (1981)
This biopic of Joan Crawford is astonishingly bad, which means it has inevitably been ironically embraced as a camp classic. Because things that are terrible should be celebrated. Faye Dunaway ruins all of her Bonnie & Clyde goodwill by going waaaay over the top as Crawford, an anal retentive control freak who makes life for her daughter Christina (who wrote the memoir on which this movie is based) a hell to be enjoyed by drag queens for years to come. The single takeaway: Joan Crawford was a fucking monster. Say it with me: SOMETHING SOMETHING WIRE HANGERS.

5. Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) Rather than tell the story of how Lon Chaney became one of the biggest stars of silent film and a brilliant makeup artist who would disappear into his characters, contorting his face and body so as to cause himself genuine physical agony in the name of a performance, Man of a Thousand Faces is about family drama -- Chaney's relationship with his parents, his wives and, eventually, his son. As Chaney, James Cagney is a great actor who is badly miscast, and the makeup recreations look way worse in 1957 than they did in the '10s and '20s. The single takeaway: Lon Chaney had deaf parents.

6. Hitchcock (2012)
JB and I have already spent an hour discussing why this is a terrible movie on our podcast, but in case you need reminding, here it is: a) it suggests that every good decision Alfred Hitchcock made in the directing of Psycho came from his wife, Alma; b) Instead of concentrating on what drove him as an artist, it tells a story about how he was jealous of the attention his wife received from a male friend; c) It makes pretty much everything up. The single takeaway: Behind every brilliant filmmaker is an even more brilliant spouse. 

7. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) Rob Cohen's well-intentioned biopic of Bruce Lee commits the sin of most biopics: it tells the story purely with the benefit of hindsight, as though everyone involved knows that they are famous characters acting out a biopic. Because Lee is Asian, the movie dumps on a bunch of vaguely racist mysticism and explains away the star's death as some act of predetermined fate. Bruce Lee's premature death (like that of his son, Brandon) is tragic enough without having to romanticize it with Hollywood nonsense. Jason Scott Lee (no relation) gives it his all in the title role. The single takeaway: It was a curse that killed Bruce Lee.

8. Wired (1989)
Bob Woodward's book on John Belushi is one of the most disreputed and despised celebrity biographies of all time, so it makes sense to try and make a movie out of it. No one saw it, and the movie has still never been released on DVD. The most amazing thing about the movie is that Michael Chiklis' career managed to bounce back. Just kidding! The most amazing thing about Wired is that it is told from the point of view of John Belushi's GHOST. It has to be seen to be believed. Better yet, just watch the trailer; multiply that to 110 minutes and that's the movie. The single takeaway: John Belushi was a drug addict.

9. W.C. Fields and Me (1976)
Legendary screen comedian/raging alcoholic W.C. Fields was an interesting, dark personality who successfully transitioned from the vaudeville stage to silent film to the "talkies" and is one of the most recognizable film personalities of all time. BUT WHO WAS HE FUCKING? Answer: the "me" of the movie's title, his mistress, Carlotta Monti (Valerie Perrine). Question: if the movie is told from Monti's point of view, how is it that half the running time goes by before the two even meet? HOW DID SHE KNOW ABOUT HIS SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP WITH A LITTLE PERSON? Playing W.C. Fields would be a thankless job for just about any actor, since there's a tremendous temptation to just do a cartoonish impression. In the hands of Rod Steiger -- who already has a proclivity for overacting -- it's an impression on steroids. Fields -- like Chaplin, like Keaton, like Chaney -- wasn't just another actor. He was an icon. Don't these classic movie stars deserve better?

10. Harlow (1965)
Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, was one of the biggest and most successful movie stars of the 1930s. So accurate is this biopic that it fails to mention any of her actual work, makes up almost every single person in Harlow's life, leaves out two of her three husbands and changes the cause of her death. Listen, biopics do not have to be completely faithful to the truth, but they need to devise a fiction that's more compelling than the facts -- or, at the very least, attempt to understand what made this person special (Ed Wood) or interesting (Ed Wood). Harlow does none of that. The best thing about the trailer below is how much the movie is sold like a '70s exploitation movie, complete with sleazy, salacious voiceover. The single takeaway: Jean Harlow was a sex object.


  1. Great article. Some more biopics that deserve special 'what were they thinking?' recognition that you didn't include (because 10 makes such a nice, round and even number)

    The Conqueror (1956): five simple words: John Wayne as Ghenghis Khan! :-O

    Nixon (1995): What was is it with Anthony Hopkins and impersonations he isn't able to handle? "Hitchcock" was a repeat for me of the same attempt 17 years earlier to pass as someone else and not looking/acting remotely like the person he's impersonating. That Oliver Stone was at the peak of his 'psychodelic' editing style (not as bad as "Natural Born Killers" but quite high) doesn't help, yet still there's a great biopic here buried under jumpcuts galore and prosthetic make-up.

    Lust for Life (1956): Because when you think of the painter that was driven mad to the point of cutting his ear off, you think of Kirk Douglas! :-P

    My new-to-me movies:

    When you wish (to be) upon a star! Al Reinert's documentary FOR ALL MANKIND (1989) on TCM-HD.

    Hippie Herbert West comes to the rescue of Raiden's baby mama in Stuart Gordon's FORTRESS (1992) on Blu-ray.

    The shocking behind-the-scenes account of the manufacturing of the real R2-D2... or not. THX 1138: THE GEORGE LUCAS DIRECTOR'S CUT (1971/2004) on DVD.

    A love story between an ass-kicking hot chick and a cyborg warrior with a mechanical rabbit head? Thank you Masamune Shirow. Shinji Aramaki's APPLESEED (2004) on DVD.

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  3. This list is all biopics of actors, actresses or filmmakers -- not just general biopics. I'm all for the more general discussion, but fear that the point of the list may have been overlooked.

    Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is great. Just ask JB.

    1. leave it to me to miss the WHOLE point. Thanks Patrick. I'll take my heat in the shame corner now.

  4. 1) You call Lon Chaney a "brilliant make up artist" and then say that the make up in the film looks "worse than it did in the '10s and '20s". As if to say that Chaney's makeups looked bad? (And yes, the makeup in that film was horrible and the last scene was the complete polar opposite to the truth)

    2) "The death of George Reeves is one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries. WRONG." Can I ask your sources on that? Not meant to be confrontational...I'm just interested in reading something about that case that claims it knows what really happened.

    3) Finally saw "Hitchcock" and listened to the podcast this weekend. Agree with almost all of the criticisms. Especially the creation of "history" (although Hitchcock did have the flu on the day they shot Arbogast's murder - but the AD took over using the story boards).
    I didn't mind the Ed Gein "fantasies". I took it as symbolizing Hitchcock's learning about Gein's life. How Gein's view of life influenced him to have ugly suspicions about Alma. But seeing in the end his how Gein ended up showed him what waited for people with unhealthy obsessions - like his for a "blonde fantasy girl". And yes, that "epiphany" doesn't jibe with what Tippi Hendren has said happened to her. Always thought Janet Leigh lucked out that she met him after she was a wife and mother - that probably made her "untouchable" to him.

    Just puzzled at your saying that the movie never settled on the reason why he was taking this chance making "Psycho".
    Yes movies aren't real life you really know (sane) people who make important decisions for only one reason...outside of "split second/gut reactions" things like trying to catch a falling child or something like that? I mean for example Donald Trump (ick) IS evidently obsessed with making money. But not to have the currency physically around him. A collection of reasons - sustaining that lifestyle, that no woman would have anything to do with him if he wasn't rich, no one would listen to his stupid ideas about politics without the money, that his father was a big shot and he has to do better than him - go into it.
    Or did I misunderstand you guys?

    And "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is good but most likely belongs on a list with "Gods And Monsters" and "Shadow of the Vampire", IMHO. A lot more fiction than fact.

    1. I was not saying Chaney's makeups were bad. I meant that with 30 years of "progress," somehow the makeup in Man of a Thousand Faces represents several giant steps backwards.

      I don't claim to know what happened to George Reeves. When I say "wrong," I mean that the mystery does not have quite the import that Hollywoodland suggests. Maybe it's unsolved, but it's not keeping a lot of people up at night.

      I have no problem with Hitchcock suggesting there were several reasons for Hitchcock to make Psycho. I just don't think the movie does a good job of examining any of those reasons. It feels like a lot of half-formed ideas. A better movie could have pulled it off, but Hitchcock might have been better off on focusing on one. The Gein stuff could have worked, but the tone of it and the approach that the movie took is different from everything else. The whole thing never feels of the same piece, if that makes sense.

      I like biopics like Confessions and Gods and Monsters and Shadow of the Vampire much more than any on this list, probably because they use fiction to try and understand or interpret fact.

    2. "A better movie could have pulled it off, but Hitchcock might have been better off on focusing on one."

      And then they could have others incensed that they "made a genius like him seem simplistic"...

      Rock and a hard place. :-)

    3. But they still did. He would just ask Alma and she would fix it.

  5. I think biopics often have the same problem inherent is prequels. Basically, we know the story already so is it really necessary to see it dramatized? Perhaps, if the story is good enough. However, that is often not the case with Hollywood personalities. Whereas biopics can and do work with historic personalities.
    It's like whose life would I rather be a fly on the wall of, Buddy Hackett's or Julius Caesar's? Howard Hughes or Steven Spielberg?

    I think that is also why I personally have no interest in seeing "The Social Network". I know people have said it is a good film, but I just have no interest in the life of Mark Zuckerberg and the story of Facebook. He just is not interesting to me, about as appealing as watching a movie about Elon Musk and the founding of PayPal.

    1. Yes, exactly this. They also open themselves up to the question "The truth was so much cooler, why didn't you stick to that?"

  6. The one bad Hollywood biopic that I can think of is Ken Russell's "Valentino" from 1977 starring famed dancer Rudolf Nureyev as Rudolph Valentino. Everything in this film was so wrong about it, that Russell even said that making this movie was the biggest mistake of his career. It was never released on DVD until it was reissued through the MGM Limited Edition collection about a year or two ago. Be aware of it!

  7. Oh, Jason Scott Lee...weren't you supposed to be a star? What happened? P.S. Is it just me or is the score from Dragon AWESOME! It's what honor sounds like.

    1. Hey! Jason Scott Lee was in that live action version of The Jungle Book! That was... a movie. Honestly, all I can remember is Carey Elwes showing him weapons, explaining how they can kill, and JSL asking after every one "And then you eat him?"

    2. I used to like that version of The Jungle Book :-) And it's not on DVD :-(

  8. By the way yes the score to Dragon is awesome. Lots of movie trailers have used that as temp music for their inspirational movie. I actually like Dragon quite a bit. I know its not a completely accurate Bruce Lee biopic but I felt they did a good job with the major events in his life. Also I like it when he breaks the giant ice cubes in The Big Boss fight.

  9. Let me run an idea by you. Ed Wood is good because he's famous for making bad movies and the film is mainly made up of him making bad movies. The other things he's known for are wearing women's cloths and being Bela Lugosi's friend. The other parts of the movie, when he isn't making movies, is about people dealing with his cross dressing and being Bela's friend.

    The movie is about him doing the thing we know him for.

    Bad biopics are about the person being bio'd doing things BESIDES the thing we know them for. Chaplin (as an example) is about who Charlie Chaplin was sleeping with, instead of being about a genius who made movies that still hold up to this very day.

    Every time they stray too far from "The Thing We Know Them For", or too far into fiction, it looses us.

    Just an idea.

    1. I think you are ON to something here...