Biopics, considered.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Nov. 24 2004 11:54 AM

Readers Picks for Best Biopics

Plus, more on the genre.

Alzheimer's Watch: Several readers have written to say (or, rather, sneer) that Patrick Star, the doofus starfish of SpongeBob SquarePants, is pink, and not, as I wrote, purple. This is the sort of thing that I dread seeing in Slate's weekly list of fuck-ups (aka "Corrections"), which is why I'm posting it here myself.

On to biopics:

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Reading through the hundreds of e-mails in response to my biopic challenge ("Name one good one, I dare you"), I was struck by my rashness in declaring the genre the most vacuous in cinema. The explanation, I think, is that when I see a clumsy, superficial biographical movie, I think, "Ick … biopic." But when I see a biographical film that has the depth and compression of fiction, I think, "Hey, good movie!"

One reader called my definition of a biopic "wacky," but look, it's a meaningless label if you open up the category to include any nonfiction film. You don't call a book a biography just because it happens to focus on a person who actually lived. That would be, like, every nonfiction book. Unless the point of a movie is to take the measure of an entire life (or a good percentage thereof), it isn't a biopic. Jonathan Demme and Bo Goldman's Melvin and Howard is an American masterpiece about a couple of real guys who might or might not have met, but it's not a biopic of Melvin Dumar. A biopic is something like Oliver Stone's Alexander, which even has that old standby, the dead hand falling away from the body and dropping something symbolic in slow motion (in this case, a ring).

There are gray areas, especially with terrific films. Is Serpico a biopic? Some readers said so. OK, it's called Serpico, it opens with the guy at the police academy, let's call it a biopic. Elizabeth, with its stunning Cate Blanchett performances, focuses on an open and persecuted young woman becoming a hard and commanding queen. It's not the measure of the life, but it's the fulcrum of it. Besides, Elizabeth might well have been called "Young Elizabeth," and movies with "Young" in the title are a biopic subset. John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is a terrific "young" biopic.

Are portraits all biopics? Is Sid and Nancy a biopic? Tempting … Boys Don't Cry? The Whole Wide World? Birdman of Alcatraz? So close. John Boorman's The General? Maybe. Is The Miracle Worker a biopic? My head says no, but my heart … says no, too. Anne and Patty can console themselves with their Oscars for being snubbed. Is Goodfellas a biopic? The problem in that case is that Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a total cipher. Ixnay those very fine portraits Danton, The Story ofAdele H., Secret Honor, Dreamchild, Chopper, and Lumumba.

Canadians have lobbied to consider Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould a biopic. As, post Nov. 2, I've been mulling over a move to Canada, I'm going to give this one a big thumbs up.

One trend in the e-mails was a tendency to confuse great performances with great films. No one can dispute that there are a ton of great biopic performances. But I'm sorry: Chaplin is not a good movie, however amazing the performance of Robert Downey Jr. (He's often an amazing actor, isn't he? But the dude cannot sing …) Ditto What's Love Got To Do With It? with one of most criminally underused actresses, Angela Bassett. Ditto Heart Like a Wheel, ditto Bonnie Bedelia. Ditto Bird ditto Forrest Whitaker. Ditto Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, David Carradine in Bound for Glory, Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb, Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths in Hilary and Jackie, Charlize Theron in Monster. Ditto (reaching back) Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces and Larry Parks in The Jolson Story. I Shot Andy Warhol? Not bad, but it's all about Lili Taylor. Pollack? Sorry … but it's a great showcase for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden. Judy Davis (and whoever played her younger self) was extraordinary in that Judy Garland TV movie, but the thing itself was wall-to-wall biopic clichés.

Mommy Dearest? Please.

I like the acting in Julia, but the only thing in it that isn't a lie is that there were Nazis in a place called Germany.

A good female biopic? More than 50 readers named Coal Miner's Daughter, a couple of dozen adding that it was especially galling that I'd cited Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams, given that Lange lip-synched to Patsy Cline records while Sissy Spacek did her own singing. But I don't care: I think Lange's is the greater achievement for being able to look as if that legendary voice could come out of her. That said, Coal Miner's Daughter is a heckuva good movie, and the bonus is another great Patsy Cline from Beverly D'Angelo.

Now for the ridicule. Some readers—I'm not going to name names—had nice things to say about Oliver Stone's N**on. Pity the poor fools. I have no words left for Born on the 4th of July, but there are about 1,000 I wrote in the New York Post many moons ago to the effect that it's a mixture of pulp, sanctimony, and the most naked opportunism. Don't get me started about Paul Muni pictures from the '30s. One reader pointed out that Bob Fosse put his heart (almost literally) into All That Jazz, but it's a) an autobiopic, and b) totally ridiculous. I did love the reader who suggested that Zelig is a biopic.

Some additional biopics not named above:

Two masterworks: Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch, a stunning film about an artist who literally dug into the canvas to express his torment. David Lynch's The Elephant Man—birth to death, and almost no one has done it better.

American Splendor is a biopic, and bless it: It even puts the real subject in there to pass judgment on his actor counterpart.

Good religious biopics: The Nun's Story, Song of Bernadette, Therese, Kundun

Epic biopics of all eras and styles: Andrei Rublev, Mishima, The Last Emperor, Malcolm X

Decent sports biopic: Fear Strikes Out

Decent Movie Biopic: Dragon

Movies People Suggested That I Haven't Seen: Angel at My Table (I know, I should have seen it), Bye Bye Blues

Gay Biopic: Gods and Monsters (aka "Old James Whale")

On the above subject, JD Kotula asks me to shun A Beautiful Mind and Frida because they gloss over their subject's gay proclivities. I don't agree about Frida, but his larger point is worth sharing: "I am a gay moviegoer living in a world in which film biographers tend to dress heterosexual love up in glitter and lace while either ignoring or downplaying same-sex affection in biopics. Both movies I mentioned above are guilty of this. As is De-Lovely (which should be nominated for Biggest. Piece. Of. Shit. Ever.). I'm curious about how Alexander will turn out. Even if it follows the idiotic heterosexual excesses of Frida and A Beautiful Mind, I can at least rest well knowing that Oliver Stone did his best to gay it up some. So, please disqualify from the contest any biopics about queer people that place too much importance on their opposite-sex love affairs/marriages. Moviegoers--and history—deserve better."

Biopics To Come: Beyond the Sea, The Sea Inside, The Aviator

Thanks, everyone, even if you mentioned N**on, for the wonderful e-mails. Have a peaceful Thanksgiving. ... 11:50 a.m.

Thanks, everyone, for your nominations for good biopics. Lots of Coal Miner's Daughter encomiums. I'm going to sleep on those—and all the other suggestions—and come to some definitive conclusions on Monday—right before I trudge off to see Oliver Stone's Alexander... 1:15 p.m.

In John Gielgud's autobiography, he wrote that as soon as an artist learns to do something well, he or she must control it and do it more selectively. I can't think of a better explanation for why Pedro Almodóvar has evolved into one of the world's most marvelous filmmakers. Beginning with an absurd amount of talent and gutsiness in the heady atmosphere of post-Franco Spain, Almodóvar might have continued to devise camp spectacles like Matador or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Instead, he dared to move past the trappings of camp to explore the emotions that fuel it.

His next-to-last movie, All About My Mother, was a reverie of women (the category in this case includes transvestites and transexuals) drawn together in the wake of a teenage son's death: The film dramatized the ways in which a camp universe can fill a spiritual void. Almodóvar's last movie, Talk to Her, was a study in transgressive love (bordering on necrophilia) that was flabbergasting in its matter-of-factness: You had no idea how deeply perverse it was until three-quarters of the way in. His latest, Bad Education (only playing in New York right now, but soon to open in other cities), is up there with the last two: It's a refinement of his early Law of Desire, but without all the outlandish, swooning melodrama. And don't tell me that Almodóvar without outlandish, swooning melodrama isn't Almodóvar. Bad Education suggests that he can do anything.

It's the early '80s, and a gay director, Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), very much like Almodóvar in the first years of his success, is poring over newspapers, in search of something to spark his next movie. On cue, a young man (Gael García Bernal) arrives claiming to be the director's first love, from his Catholic school days. His name was Ignacio then; now he's an actor and it's Angel. Also, he has a script called The Visit: It tells the story of a transvestite who attempts to blackmail a priest who used him sexually at that same Catholic school. The director is dubious (he says, "There's nothing less erotic than an actor looking for work"), but as he begins to read, we're suddenly watching Angel—or, as he calls himself in drag, Zahara—performing his act, picking up a butch motorcyclist who turns out to be (another?) Catholic-school love named Enrique, then showing up after a church service at the office of that pedophile priest.

Because Bad Education moves along a straight emotional path, it feels seamless—yet there are flashbacks within flashbacks and stories within stories. Is it real, or a movie within a movie? And is it autobiographical, therefore a movie within a movie within a movie? You don't even realize, until the last 20 minutes or so, that you've been watching a noirish whodunnit. (You certainly suspect, given the Psycho-ish opening credits and Alberto Iglesias' brilliant Bernard Herrmann pastiche overture.) Even more surprising is that it's a noirish whodunnit bordering on tragedy.

It's best not to spill too many more beans—only to say that Gael García Bernal is the real thing. Also, he looks like Julia Roberts, only more beautiful. Hmmm, I described Peter O'Toole as beautiful below. Is it possible I'm going gay? This might be proof, for them that want it, that Kinsey really is destroying the moral fabric of this country.  ...10:58 a.m.

More Biopicking: No more Gandhi e-mails, OK? I know it won an Oscar, and I know that Ben Kingsley is terrific, but the movie is squaresville—despite the fact that my friend Bill McKibben thinks it's the greatest movie ever made, which is proof that he should stick to nature. As for Amadeus: It lies about Mozart and exploits his most soul-stirring compositions to put a lump in your throat. But its real crime is selling the notion that artistic genius and personality are unrelated—that masterpieces are just gifts from God and not also the product of intense labor, intelligence, and soul-searching. But my editor did suggest another pretty good biopic: Yankee Doodle Dandy. All biopics should have hoofing.

Chris Norlin offers Raging Bull. I'll take it—even though it has no childhood scenes. He also asks if there are any good biopics about women. I'm stumped. There's Sweet Dreams with Jessica Lange as a stunning Patsy Cline—but that's not a great movie. Frances: Ditto Jessica, ditto stunning, ditto not a great movie.

You will be publicly humiliated if you write me about The Sound of Music or The Singing Nun... 10:48 a.m.

Forgive My Editors: Here at Slate, my editors indulge me in all sorts of delightful ways and are splendid (and sexy) people to a one, so I feel a tad ungrateful when publicly complaining about headlines or subheads that sensationalize or plain make a hash of what I've written. But in light of all the skeptical e-mails piling up, I wanted to say that it was those idiots who came up with the table-of-contents line that dubbed Kinsey, "The only good biopic ever."

I think there are a few more, although not, as one of my correspondents argued, Citizen Kane. That's the exception that proves the rule, isn't it? In the first place, a significant amount of material (including the subject's name) is fiction. In the second, it was made in part to incense its (living) subject rather than to celebrate him. Finally, in its mischievous use of fake newsreels and established biopic conventions, it can almost be taken as a biopic parody. In the same way, those entertaining biopics penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—EdWood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man in the Moon—use earnest, Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval biopic conventions in the service of some unsavory or crazed individuals. Those movies are in a special class.

But Abel Gance's Napoleon is a masterpiece, however heavy-handed. Every time I see it on the big screen or screens (there's a triptych sequence), I'm knocked on my ass by the Tolstoyian daring and unfettered technical virtuosity. The other biggie biopic, of course, is Lawrence of Arabia, in which David Lean's magisterial impersonality only deepens the ambiguities. (And wasn't Peter O'Toole a beautiful man …) I'm sure there are a few great modern biopics—My Left Foot and Before Night Falls spring to mind (although I'm not sure the latter is precisely a biopic), and I like a lot of Shine in spite of David Helfgot's grotesque piano stylings. Bonnie and Clyde? Vincent andTheo? Not biopics. A biopic is not just a movie about a real segment of a real person's life. It's a movie that, like a written biography, attempts to take the measure of that life, from birth (or youth) until death (or old age).

Anyone want to make a case for another great biopic? And don't give me performances. I know that Vanessa Redgrave's Isadora, Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice, George C. Scott's Patton, and, for that matter, Russell Crowe's John Nash and Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles, are superlative performances. Biopics get green-lit because great actors like those for some reason want to go for broke. OK, I know the reason. (Hint: Think of the first word of a brand of wieners.)

N.B.: Anyone who e-mails anything containing the word "Nixon" in it—even anything (as Albert Brooks might put it) with the words "nix" or "on"—will be publicly humiliated.

On the subject of Kinsey, you'll be hearing a lot in the coming weeks and months about the charge that Alfred Kinsey supervised and/or condoned the sexual stimulation of children by pedophiles for the purposes of research. This is how the wingers have chosen to combat the message of Kinsey, which treats the man with ambivalence but certainly endorses the criticism of morality posing as scientific fact. The charge comes from the noxious Judith Reisman, whose lawsuit against the Kinsey Institute for slander was chucked out of court in 1994. Kinsey certainly interviewed pedophiles and deviants in the course of his research, but the charge that he directed or abetted the molestation of children has never been proven. Many of the Web sites that are trumpeting this view lead with the news that Kinsey had homosexual relationships, and that the writer-director of Kinsey, Bill Condon, is gay. Q.E.D., right?

Now watch as the press makes this more and more of a story as Academy Awards time approaches. Remember A Beautiful Mind? The only time the mainstream media ever shows a serious interest in a movie's factual underpinnings is when its chances of winning an Oscar are imperiled.  ... 9:23 a.m.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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