Biopics have understandably remained popular throughout cinema’s history. Take a famous figure who lead an interesting life, cast a (usually) big star to play them, and half the battle is already over for any half-decent filmmaker. There are a lot of good ones, a lot more mediocre ones, and a fair few not so good ones. A lot of critics and audiences, especially if they happen to be devotees of the person being depicted, tend to focus on inaccuracies or dramatic license being taken as negatives. Sometimes though, deviation from the truth, combined with an unconventional take on narrative and perspective can produce something really interesting, and perhaps more worthy of the biopic’s focus figure. Here are three notable, and favourite, examples.
GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)
James Whale, Universal Pictures stalwart and 1930s horror icon, was one of the most fascinating artists (on-set and off) to ever work in Hollywood. A gay, working-class English theatre director might not seem like the ideal fit to helm studio genre films, but he quickly became a reliable pair of hands to Universal, and the films he made were utterly essential to their survival.
The success of GODS AND MONSTERS comes down to three key strengths. 1. The faultless, human performances of Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave. 2. The razor-sharp adapted screenplay that’s liberal with the truth but always comes back to the characters and what they’re going through in a given moment. 3. The equal parts affection for and criticism of Whale, his life, and his art.
It’s always McKellen’s film. The brilliant venom with which McKellen spits “the other FRANKENSTEIN films were directed by hacks”, and the heartbreaking intensity he puts into his monologue about a miserable working class childhood as the camera orbits him will stay with you, and is easily the best scene in the film. Fraser is good too, embodying a certain kind of 50s male, not overly judgmental until his status-quo is threatened, and sharing as Clayton does a troubled upbringing with Whale, and potentially hiding just as many secrets. Redgrave seems to relish playing Whale’s snarly German housekeeper Hanna like a parody of all the severe European hags to be found in Universal Horror, her prickliness hiding a deep affection for her employer.
As Whale reminisces and his mind fractures, we move from straight recreations of his career behind the camera to a trippy blend of his films and reality, to the extent that the melodramatic final shot of the film looks just like a scene from Whale’s own Frankenstein transplanted into 50s American suburbia.
MAN ON THE MOON (1999)
Milos Forman is the king of unconventional biopics of unconventional people. AMADEUS, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT and MAN ON THE MOON all play with our perceptions of the facts, and this fast and loose film about Andy Kaufman, like Forman’s previous masterful Mozart film, does some really interesting things with film reality and by extension, comments on Kaufman’s unique view on the world.
We open with Jim Carrey as Kaufman, in character as his most famous persona, commenting on how biopics tend to be inaccurate, and recommending that you switch off the film there and then (as he awkwardly watches the credits scrolling past beside him). From the off, MAN ON THE MOON is subverting your expectations, and it never stops doing so in a storytelling sense. In being such a bizarre story, we as an audience are convinced much of it is untrue (though a lot of it, bafflingly did), and just like really happened, we expect a final reveal, Kaufman’s last great act, but it never comes. The joke was on us, that at long last, it wasn’t a joke.
Carrey is electric throughout, and brings across just how out of place Kaufman was in our world, how frustrating spending any amount of time with him must have been, and how unusual any film about him is bound to be. You couldn’t hope for a more ideal supporting character performance in a film than Paul Giamatti, the master of stealing a scene from a film’s star (though it’s a challenge with Carrey at his most intense).
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS (2004)
The first fifteen minutes of THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS plays it pretty straight, but then the characters take over. All of a sudden, Peter Sellers’ father (Peter Vaughan) walks out of his living room after watching his son on TV, and as the light changes and he turns to camera he is now Geoffrey Rush playing Peter Sellers playing his father. He then proceeds to talk about Peter’s upbringing. A few scenes later, Sellers plays his own wife (Emily Watson) as he watches playback of a passionate argument they have just had, re-dubbing it how he wished it had gone, and later still Sellers becomes Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) dissecting his star. Finally, and most affectingly, he becomes his ailing mother (Miriam Margolyes). All the actors playing Sellers’ family and associates impress (particularly Margolyes), but not quite as much as Rush does when he plays Sellers playing them.
Rush also gets Sellers’ physicality spot-on, and doesn’t try to pretend that the subject was a nice person, in fact, he was a bit of a bastard. This is particularly emphasised by a scene where Sellers announces to his family that he is leaving them for Sophia Loren. His young daughter, clearly upset, asks “do you still love us?” Without missing a beat, Sellers replies “Of course I do, but not as much as I love Sophia Loren”.
Sellers is rarely shown to let his guard down, he’s always playing some kind of character and I think that’s how most people, in his private and public life, saw him, as a chameleon. The Sellers family life isn’t real either, not really, and neither are their home videos. It’s all an act, a performance, and when the cracks do show, it’s only to have him flying into a rage, as is the case when one outburst results in a pile of broken toys, a crying son and the sudden appearance of a “I’m sorry” pony.
All three of these biopics wisely don’t choose to simply re-tread the subject’s life. Instead, through unusual stylistic, storytelling and performance choices, they embody the spirit of the unique artists being portrayed far more vividly than a conventional filmed biography ever could. SSP