Watching my life go by

A recent request at the Mobius Home Video Forum for opinions on James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005) set me to thinking.  I’m now of an age where I’ve seen several points on the timeline of my life used as the basis for Hollywood movies.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that—history has made for some great (if not necessarily truthful) cinema over the past hundred years and I enjoy a good “based on actual events” story as much as the next guy.  But still… 

DickAnswering the post gave me an unsettled feeling.  I flashed on Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), during which I remember thinking “That’s not the Richard Nixon I remember.”  However subtly nuanced, Hopkins’ Tricky Dick was on par with his career-defining turn as meta-cannibal Hannibal Lector, as compelling and frightful as he was synthetic and false.  Stone’s Nixon was a straw-stuffed bogey built for burning.  As good an actor as is Anthony Hopkins, he never really got Richard Millhouse Nixon in all the shades that anyone alive during his administration would instantly recognize.  But hey, I told myself, it’s only a movie. 

AndyOver the last decade, there's been a wealth of biopics and films drawn from true events.  We’ve seen Muhammad Ali impersonated by Will Smith, Jim Morrison by Val Kilmer, Ray Charles by Jamie Foxx, Elvis Presley by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Malcolm X by Denzel Washington and Mario van Peebles, Sylvia Plath by Gwyneth Paltrow, Larry Flynt by Woody Harrelson, Bobby Darin by Kevin Spacey, Andy Kauffman by Jim Carey, Queen Elizabeth II by Helen Mirren, Bettie Page by Gretchen Mol, Truman Capote by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Andy Warhol by David Bowie, Crispin Glover, Sean Gregory Sullivan, Jared Harris and Guy Pearce.  Even if you don’t see the movies, you can’t escape the saturation ads or the Academy Award® lobbying that dry mounts actor to historic personage.  While I can differentiate between fact and fiction fairly well, as I grow older I worry about the cumulative effect of all this biopicry on my perception of my own past, in which I find myself remembering fragments of once-hot but long-cooled love affairs as if they were scenes from a movie I saw once.  How long before I begin to lazily accept biography as the story of my life? 

Absent friendsI’ve also lived long enough for “life's rich tapestry” to encompass entertainment derived from events culminating in the deaths of dear friends.  I can’t bring myself to watch either United 93 (2006) or World Trade Center (2006) just yet, as both movies end (effectively) with the murder of my friend Joe Allen on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Ditto a recent episode of NBC’s Law & Order, which “ripped from the headlines” painful facts related to the slaying of my friend Adrienne Shelly for use as must-see TV.   

I try to be good but occasionally I have to vent.  “Idi Amin did not have a lazy eye,” I inform those heaping praise upon Forest Whitaker for his performance in The Last King of Scotland (2006).  “Johnny Cash was not born with a cleft palate,” I rant.  “If Michael Sheen were running England, the words ‘Prime Minister’ and ‘boy crush’ would not be linked in my personal lexicon.”  I know I’m being churlish but I’m fighting for my life.  As I remember it. 

8 Responses Watching my life go by
Posted By MDR : February 20, 2007 4:49 pm

Richard, I know how you feel (and I think we're about the same age).  It used to really bother me when I watched an historical biography that I knew to be false (because the events occurred during my life).  As I started watching TCM, I became aware that it's always been that way, that creative license has always trumped accuracy (in Hollywood) for entertainment purposes (e.g. when I watched Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), I noticed that screenwriter Robert Sherwood significantly altered Lincoln's "House Divided" speech).   What I didn't realize until fairly recently, however, is that documentaries are works of fiction also.  I used to think that the category was for films which were about real-life events, that they were factual, well researched and objective, until I realized that oftentimes the opposite is true.  What's really scary is that too many people believe what they see "at the movies" because they're ignorant and too lazy (or apathetic) to learn the truth.

Posted By MDR : February 20, 2007 4:49 pm

Richard, I know how you feel (and I think we're about the same age).  It used to really bother me when I watched an historical biography that I knew to be false (because the events occurred during my life).  As I started watching TCM, I became aware that it's always been that way, that creative license has always trumped accuracy (in Hollywood) for entertainment purposes (e.g. when I watched Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), I noticed that screenwriter Robert Sherwood significantly altered Lincoln's "House Divided" speech).   What I didn't realize until fairly recently, however, is that documentaries are works of fiction also.  I used to think that the category was for films which were about real-life events, that they were factual, well researched and objective, until I realized that oftentimes the opposite is true.  What's really scary is that too many people believe what they see "at the movies" because they're ignorant and too lazy (or apathetic) to learn the truth.

Posted By JasonLeeIsAGod : February 23, 2007 11:00 pm

Thank goodness I'm not the only one that couldn't get past Johnny Cash's cleft palate (or harelip as some fogeys & less PC folks used to call it).Is it too much to ask that when they cast someone as Johnny Cash that they'd cast someone that actually looked & sounded like Cash?Honestly, things like that can ruin a flick for me sometimes too.  I spent the whole movie thinking it was Joaquin not Cash & I don't think that was what the filmmakers had intended.

Posted By JasonLeeIsAGod : February 23, 2007 11:00 pm

Thank goodness I'm not the only one that couldn't get past Johnny Cash's cleft palate (or harelip as some fogeys & less PC folks used to call it).Is it too much to ask that when they cast someone as Johnny Cash that they'd cast someone that actually looked & sounded like Cash?Honestly, things like that can ruin a flick for me sometimes too.  I spent the whole movie thinking it was Joaquin not Cash & I don't think that was what the filmmakers had intended.

Posted By RHS : February 24, 2007 11:39 am

Welllll… I was being a bit facetious about the cleft palate– I never actually said that to anybody, I just thought it during extreme close-ups.  My issue has less to do with physical peculiarities (or lack thereof) than with the trap that biopics fall into of treating someone's life as a series of recognizable milestones.  Lives are more than that, of course, and no one knows this better than the famous.  I shudder to think of my own life given the biopic treatment and laid out from tragedy to tragedy, missing all those great days when nothing of note happened but which had more to do with molding my personality than the death of my sister, the demise of my first marriage, etc.  I don't think finding an uncanny look-alike to fill J.R. Cash's shoes in Walk the Line would have made the story seem any more true to life. 

Posted By RHS : February 24, 2007 11:39 am

Welllll… I was being a bit facetious about the cleft palate– I never actually said that to anybody, I just thought it during extreme close-ups.  My issue has less to do with physical peculiarities (or lack thereof) than with the trap that biopics fall into of treating someone's life as a series of recognizable milestones.  Lives are more than that, of course, and no one knows this better than the famous.  I shudder to think of my own life given the biopic treatment and laid out from tragedy to tragedy, missing all those great days when nothing of note happened but which had more to do with molding my personality than the death of my sister, the demise of my first marriage, etc.  I don't think finding an uncanny look-alike to fill J.R. Cash's shoes in Walk the Line would have made the story seem any more true to life. 

Posted By JLIAG : February 26, 2007 4:26 pm

I think one good thing comes of the biopic, people may actually go out & seek out the true story or more info on the person whether it be Richard Nixon or Jim Morrison.  And that's always a good thing.I've done it myself.

Posted By JLIAG : February 26, 2007 4:26 pm

I think one good thing comes of the biopic, people may actually go out & seek out the true story or more info on the person whether it be Richard Nixon or Jim Morrison.  And that's always a good thing.I've done it myself.

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