The Siren has adored Johnny Cash since childhood and looks forward to Walk the Line. She also wants to see Truman. So two of her must-sees are biographical pictures, a genre that is currently the redheaded stepchild of cinephiles everywhere. Those dreary, earnest, plodding biopics. So seldom do they have any verve or daring, says prime detractor David Edelstein, who brilliantly summarizes the good and the bad of biopics in one paragraph, here.
The Siren has a certain fondness for biopics, even bad ones. No one is saying they are all bad, not when one of the pinnacles of cinema, Abel Gance's Napoleon, is a biopic. But biopics have recurring flaws, including one Edelstein doesn't mention. The Siren believes the truly fatal, albeit frequently entertaining, mistakes are made when moviemakers cast a "hot" actor who doesn't fit the subject.
Hollywood violates casting logic in ways big and small. One minor irritant: someone reedlike playing a woman with heft. See Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline, or Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. Mind you, those two ladies gave good, serviceable performances, but the Siren wonders crankily if they'd cast skinny John Malkovich as Winston Churchill.
Maybe they would. Here is
The Siren's List of All-Time "What the Hell?" Biopic Casting Decisions:
1. Clark Gable as Charles Stuart Parnell in Parnell (1937) One sort of wishes James Joyce had commented on that one.
2. Kim Novak as Jeanne Eagels (1957). Lush-figured, somewhat wooden Kim as a sylph-like junkie acting legend.
3. Kay Francis as Florence Nightingale in The White Angel (1936). This one makes the Siren sad, because the good-hearted, well-liked Francis hoped this role would break her usual mold of enduring great sorrow whilst wearing fabulous couture. She just wasn't up to it, though, and was furthered hampered by a script that ignores Lytton Strachey and goes straight for the sainthood angle.
4. John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956). You've probably heard the rumors about the filming of this one near a nuclear test site, and the actors and crew members who later died of cancer. A straightforward summary is here.
5. Cornel Wilde as Omar Khayyam (1957). A twofer--a Baghdad-and-boobs biopic! Wilde's turn as Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945) is also cited sometimes as dreadful miscasting, but the Siren thought he was all right in that one, just fighting a risible script.
6. Jean-Pierre Aumont as the nationalistic Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in Song of Scheherazade (1947). It's hard to find, but the Siren has seen this turkey twice and loves it to death. It gives you a French-to-his-toenails actor cast as a simple Russian sailor, "Nicky." (Would you call this guy Nicky?) In true Hollywood fashion, Nicky the sailor has a song in his heart and a big urge to sing it--but he's got to find a piano first. Yvonne DeCarlo's dance to "Capriccio Espagnole" at the end is so transcendently campy it would have flummoxed Susan Sontag.
But, you say, these are all old flicks. Of course casting back then was often ridiculous.
Ha. Moving right along to
7. Colin Farrell as Alexander (2004). The Siren hasn't seen that one, but just the four words "Colin Farrell as Alexander" crack her up.
8. Jude Law as Russian war hero Vasilli Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates (2001). Not a straight biopic, and not without merit, but despite a valiant effort Law is about as peasant-like as a pair of Gucci loafers. One brilliant piece of casting, however, is Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khrushchev. The movie becomes fascinating as soon as Hoskins shows up.
9. Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved (1994). Sid's symphonic stylings. Didn't believe him for a moment.
10. For true, throat-clutching horror, let us we hope we never match Jennifer Love Hewitt playing Audrey Hepburn in that 2000 TV movie. This atrocity belongs with "Jackass" in the category of "Movies Whose Mere Existence Moves Me to Despair." Even now, just thinking about Hewitt as Hepburn brings back a twitch in my right eyelid. Ms. Hewitt's career largely has stalled since that outing, and an uncharacteristically vengeful Siren says, "GOOD."
There will always be more on the way. You have probably heard that Sofia Coppola's latest project concerns Marie Antoinette. ("Not that awful woman again," moaned a French lady the Siren knows well. Lack of originality in choosing biopic subjects is another problem altogether.) Coppola's film stars Kirsten Dunst as the doomed monarch, a choice that may well doom the picture as far as the Siren is concerned. Dunst, the epitome of a suburban American blonde, playing the Queen of France? Anything's possible--one of the few decent performances George Hamilton ever gave was as Hank Williams--but I wouldn't put money on it. Come on, she can't even stand up straight. I hope the French are plotting their revenge right now. How about Sophie Marceau as Eleanor Roosevelt?
Just to show she thinks the genre has produced truly worthwhile films, the Siren lists a few she likes:
Julia (good movie, though, as Edelstein says, "the only true thing in this picture is that there were Nazis in Germany")
Yankee Doodle Dandy (the most genuinely thrilling flag-waving fadeout of all time)
Man of a Thousand Faces
Lawrence of Arabia
Love Me or Leave Me (That's three with Cagney. What can I say.)
Coal Miner's Daughter
Pride of the Yankees
Papillon (Debating whether this one counts. Leaving it in.)
Sid and Nancy
Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
The Story of Adele H.
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Nun's Story
[Corrected 11/29/05, with thanks to JG]