April 16, 2013

What Makes a Biopic Work

This weekend my husband and I saw 42, the new biopic about Jackie Robinson's challenges in integrating major league baseball.  I'd heard that the movie was wonderful, and we both enjoyed it.  It made me start to think about other movie biographies I've seen, some of which worked better than others.  Here are my observations about the ingredients of a successful biopic:

  • Focusing on a several-year period  instead of an entire life allows for more depth without the epic length of a Gandhi or a Malcolm X.  I really had a feel for Jackie and Rachel Robinson.
  • Cooperation of surviving family members, particularly a spouse, makes a huge difference.  Movies like Funny Girl and Lady Sings The Blues, both handsome, spare-no-expense productions, had storylines compromised by direct threats of litigation from Nick Arnstein and Louis McKay, ex-husband and estranged husband of Fanny Brice and Billie Holiday, respectively, if they were portrayed in an unflattering manner (both Brice and Holiday were deceased by the time their lives were put on film, but their husbands were still alive).  As a result, both movies were largely fictional.  (Ike Turner reportedly made the same threats during the filming of What's Love Got to Do With It, but apparently by the 1990s studies were less worried about libel suits.)  Mrs. Rachel Robinson has said in numerous interviews how pleased she is with the way the movie turned out, not only with the portrayal of her late husband, but by the depiction of their love and marriage.
  • Casting the most suitable actors.  The actor who played Jackie Robinson actually looked like a young Jackie Robinson. Similarly, Meryl Streep became Margaret Thatcher (and Julia Child as well), and Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles (and the piano playing didn't have to be faked, another plus) because of resemblance to the subjects they played (whether real or makeup-enhanced).  Raymond Massey had the angular features (and the height) to impersonate two historical figures on screen with startling physical accuracy--Abraham Lincoln and John Brown.  But Hollywood has made some major gaffes in this regard.  Diana Ross, a small, petite, brown-skinned woman, looked nothing like the tall, big-boned, fair-skinned Billie Holiday (who had only been dead 13 years in 1972, when the movie was made, with many people who remembered the real Billie Holiday pointing that out). Denzel Washington didn't look anything like Malcom X, either, but he gave such a powerful performance that it really wasn't that big a deal (and the horn-rimmed glasses helped a lot).  I did think that the late Al Freeman, Jr., gave a wonderful embodiment of Elijah Mohammed in that same film.  Other times the actors have been too old for the parts they played.  The most glaring example I can think of is a 49-year-old James Stewart playing a 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis. The studio dyed Stewart's hair blond, but it couldn't hide the years.  Similarly, Warren Beatty, looking every one of his 54 years at the time, was too old to play Bugsy Siegel from his late 30s to his murder at age 41 in Bugsy, and 45-year-old Kevin Spacey, despite a strong resemblance to Bobby Darin, was too old to portray the singer, who died at age 37, especially at the beginning of his career. 
  • Portraying real-life contemporaries of the subject adds authenticity.  42 was full of depictions of real people:  Branch Rickey, Leo Durocher, various baseball players, including a number of racists.  I think that forty years ago or more that studios, worried about lawsuits, deliberately avoided this, so they commissioned screenplays that incorporated fictitious characters (there was no Lester Young or Louis Armstrong in Lady Sings The Blues, instead there was composite character Piano Man, played by Richard Pryor), which overall makes the story feel more like fiction.  Fortunately, this thing doesn't happen much anymore.  I did notice that the "married actress" Leo Durocher was seen in bed with in 42, an affair that cost him his job, was not called by name (the actress shown and referred to was actually Laraine Day, whom Durocher later married).  Portraying a person but not actually referring to them by name should be enough to protect the studio from any legal action brought forth by Day's heirs (she died in 2007).
  • A general sticking to the facts.  Movie biographies are notorious for exaggeration and just plan fabrication.  Spencer Tracy as Thomas Edison (Edison, the Man), Tyrone Power as Jesse James (Jesse James), Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer (They Died With Their Boots On), Nat "King" Cole as W.C. Handy (St. Louis Blues; like Lady Sings the Blues later, this role was designed to showcase the star's talents more than to be an actual biography), Carol Lynley as Jean Harlow (Harlow), are depictions whose scripts are riddled with inaccuracies.    

Those are my observations.  Please feel free to share yours!  What are some of your favorite biopics?  Which ones left you cold?


'Cilla said...

You said a mouth full but all very true. :-)

bettye griffin said...

Glad you agree, Cilla! Thanks for posting.