Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cast the First Stone

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.)
Ed Wood
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]


Exiled in NJ said...

You left Nixon's favorite, "Patton" off the list of good ones. He might put you on his enemies list, if he isn't too busy dodging flames.

Then again, I don't care for Hopkin's Nixon, but Joan Allen is Pat Nixon.

Astaire & Rogers had to play Vernon & Irene Castle, but the film is not as good as their earlier pairings.

Just Bad: Peck as McArthur; Bendix as Babe Ruth; several other baseball biographies are wooden like Reagan playing Grover Alexander. Tony Perkins is interesting as Jimmy Piersall, but athletic he is not.

I am sure this is the first of many comments on this theme.

Uncle Gustav said...

Don't forget Cary Grant as man-toad Cole Porter!

The Siren said...

Exiled: I always remember Paul Newman saying he didn't think anything he'd ever done impressed his kids as much as making Nixon's enemies list. I am not worthy.

Flickhead: I didn't forget Grant, but there was a curious symmetry in his casting that made me leave him off the list. An actor whose proclivities are the subject of speculation to this day, playing a closeted composer ... of course the movie's a catastrophe but I'm not convinced it's because Grant was miscast.

Exiled in NJ said...

Is Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell's 'The Music Lovers' spot on casting? Right sentiments but a very limited actor.

Roger Daltrey as Lizst in another Russell extravaganza, and it seems to me he also did a biopic of Mahler [Robert Powell] and maybe others. I've not seen the latter.

Peter Nellhaus said...

As it is, I was irked to find out that "Hitch" wasn't about Alfred Hitchcock, and "The Woodman" wasn't about Woody Allen. I did see "Alexander" on DVD, and Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie were hilarious. And who among us believe that Billy the Kid looked anything like Kris Kristofferson? If I squinted, Kevin Spacey looked vaguely like Bobby Darin. Kate Bosworth came closer to Sandra Dee as she appeared in "A Summer Place".

girish said...

The Siren has unleashed one of her magnum opus posts. How delish. Must link to it tomorrow.

Cinemania said...

John Goodman played the Babe too, but he'll always be a cross between Roseanne's husband and Fred Flinstone to me. The guy does cartoon characters like nobody's business.

Denzel had some fine moments as Malcolm X.

Gotta give a little love to Liam Neeson for Schindler's list as well.

Some cat named Bobby deNiro did a decent job playing Jake LaMotta, too.

And then there's John Hurt as The Oh So Tragic and Affecting Elephant Man. Perhaps the Saddest Story Ever Told.

Exiled in NJ said...

I know little Irish history but thought Neeson was excellent as Michael Collins. Rickman's deValera was fascinating too, but what is truly amazing is checking out the IMDB reviews and boards for this film. Reading them, it seems like the Irish struggles are being fought again.

I suppose Hurt's Merrick is the saddest true story ever told, but for calamity piled upon calamity, nothing tops 'Jude,' or for that matter the book, when he was merely 'the obscure.'

surly hack said...

Along with Yankee Doodle, I always liked Gentelman Jim.

Tania said...

I'm really looking forward to Walk the Line too. I like the whole phenomenon of Joaquin Phoenix, but I just haven't felt the urge to see anything he's been in lately. I just like that he's so glowering, so, you know, edgy. So when I heard about the casting for Walk the Line, I stood up from the couch and cried, "Correct!"

But biopics sure are a dull bunch for the most part. Lives just don't tend to follow compelling narrative arcs. I still like them, though. They give you that exciting thrill: not only are you being entertained, you're learning something! Edutainment!

On skinny actors in fat roles: I think filmmakers are more willing to cast skinny goodlooking guys as fat historical figures when those historical figures aren't themselves iconic. Any guy playing Winston Churchill would have to be a tub, but Oskar Schindler could be played by a tall, lanky handsome Liam Neeson without garnering complaints.

My pet peeve: the prosthetic nose. Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, John Goodman as Babe Ruth—good performances just cannot draw my attention away from a fake nose. Why the hell do they do it?

Cinemania said...

Good point, exiled. Damned Thomas Hardy; he sure knows how to wring the tragedy outta life, doesn't he? Tess is an awfully heartbreaking tale as well.

Exiled in NJ said...

Lance Mannion was riffing on Bob Woodward yesterday. I'll repeat my comment from there that while President's Men is not strictly a biopic, I think in years to come our mind picture of Woodstein will be Redford and Hoffman.

dan: I watched Polanski's Tess again recently. I'd forgotten its haunting dedication to "Sharon." The photography put me in the 19th Century, but Polanski was not able to conjure up the righeous anger of Hardy in the last chapter of the book.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Just another comment, if I may. What I liked about "Ed Wood" was that Tim Burton occassionally filmed the biographical parts like an Ed Wood film. A film not mentioned that I thought had great casting was Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to do With It?", although Ike does look more like Wesley Snipes than Laurence Fishburne. As a lover of films past, I was surprised that the Siren did not mention the go-to guy for biopics, Mr. Paul Muni. By the way, it was pure coincidence that I reviewed two new biopics on my blog.

surly hack said...

Fact or fiction? The biopic is traditionally a snooze, a canonization of a saint. We know that most famous people are driven, selfish bastards--but we seldom met them in classic hollywood bios.

The Wrong Man is not a biopic, but a based on fact docufiction. The feel of documentary realism(what appears to be location shooting, low key performances)interrupted by the dizzy subjectivity in the prison sequence and it's most startling moment when a prayer is answered.

Most hollywood biopics are not nearly as honest or interesting when they depart from fact.

Exiled in NJ said...

Muni was Pasteur, Zola, and Juarez, though Zola centers on the retelling of the Dreyfus Case. These are all 'costumers' but 'Chain Gang,' like Wrong Man, was based on fact. Then if we can say Tony Camonte is Al Capone, Muni sets a standard that few will ever top. He is so ugly, frightening, like something out of the ground loose on our streets.

Exiled in NJ said...

I have memories of comedians saying Don Ameche invented the telephone, and today Lance Mannion notes that most people would confust Jason Robards with Ben Bradlee. I suspect Robert Blake will always be connected with the killing of the Clutter family, and I do hope that for her sake, Charlize Theron means more to future generations than being a man-hating killer.

Cinemania said...

Exiled, A & E did a version of Tess a vew years back that, while lacking the poetry of Polanski's version, clearly captured the spirit of Hardy's novel. Did you see it?

chutry said...

I love Johnny Cash, too, but I'm having the opposite reaction. I'm resisting the idea of seeing the new biopic on an almost visceral level. Maybe it's the cating of Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, but for some reason, I'm worried I'll be let down.

To dan jardin eand tania: John Goodman as Babe Ruth was a bad casting choice. Bad prosthetic nose and the man couldn't play baseball (not that I *can* play baseball, either).

Lance Mannion said...

Reminds me of one of my favorite Hawkeye Pierce-isms from MASH (TV show,of course. Good movie but Alan Alda's the real Hawkeye.) Hawkeye's recalling his childhood as time when it was easier to be a kid. You didn't have to remember anything. "FDR was always the President, Joe Louis was always the champ, and Paul Muni played everybody."

Good post. Back later with my votes.

The Siren said...

Peter - I'm embarrassed. I had "Juarez" on my list but somehow cut it when transferring. I really like that movie a lot. The Pasteur and Zola flicks are canonizations, like Surlyh says, but they have a lot of energy and interest due mostly to Muni, I think. But I agree with Exiled that "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" was Muni at his best. I even liked "The Good Earth."

Chutry, I know exactly what you mean, and I had no intention of seeing anyone's damn Johnny Cash impersonation until someone who was working on a doc about Cash told me he had seen the movie and was impressed. So I am willing to give it a chance. I do not expect it to exceed or even equal the Folsom Prison documentary, however.

Tania - thanks for the reminder about gorgeous Liam as Schindler, who was dumpy in real life (though apparently quite the charmer). Dan, it's funny but I don't think of Schindler's List as a biopic, but rather "Spielberg's Holocaust opus." Ditto "Raging Bull," though you could argue that's the greatest of them all.

Exiled in NJ said...

dan: I've not seen the A&E Tess. Had no cable when it came out but the idea of sitting thru hundreds of Enzyte & Bowflex commercials would have been an stopper for me, no matter how well done.

Years ago, when brokers and banks were showing us how all could be millionaires in retirement using IRAs, a journalist client looked into his crystal ball and saw a time when the US would be divided into millionaires and those who never had the money to invest. He asked rhetorically what those with no money would do. I could only think of one answer, from Muni's fade out:

"I'll steal"

The line goes with Joe E Brown's last word in Some Like It Hot as the best end dialog for a film.

tempesttozephyr said...

F - you said leave a comment sometime, so here I am. Is it bad that I really liked Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin? At least they didn't spruce up his life too much!


Cinemania said...

Exiled, I confess that I tape A & E's take on Tess, so managed to skip on past all the commercials. I can't watch TV any other way.

And tempest, don't feel bad re: Chaplin. Downey's got some real chops, when he's straightened out.

Bela said...

I would just like to echo your French friend's comment on Sofia Coppola's project. What's with the obsession with Marie-Antoinette? She was a dreadful woman.

Gary Oldman (whom I've never liked) may have been unbelievable as Beethoven, but the film itself was wonderful. I thought so anyway.

Exiled in NJ said...

My goodness, 24 comments and yet no one has mentioned Beatty's John Reed, along with Nicholson's Eugene O'Neil, Kosinski's Zinoviev, or Maureen Stapleton's Emma Goldman. No comment on Diane Keaton; she holds a place in my firmament akin to Julia R's in the Siren's.

The sheer guts to make such a film puts it up there with the best.

JG said...

One sort of wishes James Joyce had lived to react to that one.

Actually he did, as he died in 1941, four years after that film came out. Whether or not he saw the film is another matter.

The Siren said...

JG: Eeeek! I hate boneheaded errors like that. I remember thinking I needed to check Joyce's death year and I never did. As far as I know he never commented on Gable, and I do not know how blind Joyce was by the time the movie came out. I will correct, and thanks for pointing it out.

risa said...

makes me wonder what you thought about 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' - while not quite a movie, it is most definitely a biopic.i was terribly impressed.

The Roaring Girl said...

Dear Dread Self-Styled Siren,

Years late, I know, but having read all your recent posts, I've started on the backlog.


Good casting in a biopic? _Les Enfants du Paradis_. This is not, I am well aware, an actual biopic as such, but most of the main characters were real people, so I've Made an Executive Decision that it counts. My general rule in life is that any question that begins with "What is/are the best..." can often be answered with _Les Enfants du Paradis_.

Worst biopic casting?

Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great in _Scarlet Empress_. Marlene as the young sweet naive princess in the first part of the movie is just...just...bad? Or maybe not. So bad she's good? I don't know. I'm SO CONFUSED BY THIS.