Star-pics: Biopics of the Stars

Tomorrow, TCM devotes its daytime programming to biopics, or biographical pictures. Fans of this genre know not to expect an accurate chronicle of the life of a famous person; instead, biopics (or, “bi-opics” as a former coworker used to insist on calling them) offer the mythic version of that life. In other words, biopics use the lives of the famous to depict a universal truth, to offer a life lesson, or to represent a value we can all relate to. TCM has selected several film biographies that focus on prominent leaders throughout history, including Alexander the Great, Marie Antoinette, and Gandhi. Expect stirring stories of individual self-sacrifice for the greater good of the people.

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Personally, my favorite biopics are those about show business figures, especially movie stars. Biopics are almost as old as the medium of cinema itself (The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1908), but star-pics did not emerge until the postwar era. By that time, the first generation of popular movie stars had evolved into legendary icons as reflected in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), Valentino (1951), and The Story of Will Rogers (1952). Also during the postwar era, the studios lost vertical control of the industry, meaning they were forced to loosen that vice-like grip on production, distribution, and exhibition. The systems and practices that had led Hollywood to become the most successful film industry in the world began to break down. Not coincidentally, the industry released a spate of movies that looked back on its history, warts and all (Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful). In contrast, the star-pics of the 1950s are affectionate re-creations of early Hollywood—nostalgic valentines to past legends and industry high points.

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The Men Who Would Be King

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Last week, I talked about the new indie film Elvis & Nixon, which is loosely based on the time that Elvis Presley made an impromptu visit to Washington D.C., to drop in on President Richard Nixon. The event resulted in the most widely requested photo in the National Archives.

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as the King and the President respectively. Shannon tackles the impossible task of playing Presley and does so with sincerity and sympathy. Thankfully, he was able to suggest the King’s Southern accent and vocal characteristics without resorting to impersonator-like tricks and gimmicks. Thin and gangly, with a kind of scarecrow look, Shannon does not remotely look like Elvis, which is distracting. But, he was compelling to watch. Elvis & Nixon reminded me of other films about Elvis Presley in which actors portray the King. Their interpretations range from the credible to the ridiculous.

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Elvis & Nixon: A Match Made in Pop Culture Heaven

blogopenerElvis & Nixon opened over the weekend with little fanfare but with a barrage of unconstructive, ineffectual reviews. Liza Johnson directed this slice-of-Elvis-lore, which chronicles the time that Presley flew to Washington, D.C., on the spur of the moment to meet President Richard Nixon. Their meeting resulted in a famous photo of the two iconic figures shaking hands, which is the most requested image from the National Archives. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as Presley and Nixon.

The movie prompted me to go back to my collection of Presley bios and resources to reexamine the incident. I checked in All Shook Up: Elvis Day by Day, 1954-1977, which is my favorite reference because it objectively and succinctly chronicles Presley’s actions on a day by day basis. I also reread parts of Peter Guralnik’s definitive, two-volume biography. I offer a pared down version of the event here, not to accuse the film of inaccuracy but to provide a proper backstory. On December 19, 1970, after an argument with his family about overspending for Christmas, Elvis boarded a commercial flight in Memphis bound for Washington, D.C. He checked into the Washington Hotel as Jon Burrows, one of his aliases. That night, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles, arriving well after midnight. Jerry Schilling, a former member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia, met him at the plane with a limo. After dropping off at least two stewardesses, whom Elvis had promised a ride, he and Schilling arrived at Presley’s house on Hillcrest Drive. The following morning, December 20, the pair flew to Washington, D.C., with Elvis using the alias Dr. John Carpenter (his character’s name in his last film, Change of Habit).

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Lust for Life: “You Look Too Fast”

blogopenerEach Monday evening during the month of March, TCM celebrates “Art and Artists” by airing 18 movies about painters and sculptors. The most diverse films are those based on fictional artists or paintings, including everything from the horror classic The Mystery of the Wax Museum (March 21, 1:15am EST) to the comedy The Art of Love (March 28, 8:00pm EST). The series also spotlights dramatic biopics based on real-life artists, including tonight’s selection: Lust for Life, El Greco, Rembrandt, and Andrei Rublev.

With a background in art history, I am an unabashed fan of artist biopics, even though most of them are not really about the art. Directed by Alexander Korda in 1936, Rembrandt is an exercise in “good taste” as typified by big-budget British productions of that era. Charles Laughton as Rembrandt is given numerous opportunities to show off his gifts at dramatic recitation in a story that is mostly about enduring personal loss. El Greco, a TCM premiere, is a little-known Italian production with international star Mel Ferrer in the title role. The film posits El Greco as the outsider artist who butts heads with the closed minds of the Inquisition. The contributions of composer Ennio Morricone and set decorator Dante Ferretti, who would later team with Martin Scorsese, make this film worthwhile viewing. Of the four, Andrei Rublev by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is the most unconventional and the most cinematic. Tarkovsky eschewed a linear, cause-and-effect biographical structure in favor of experimental black-and-white imagery and a stripped down narrative in which little is explained but much is felt.

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Makeup vs. Acting

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The recent gangster biopic Black Mass stars Johnny Depp as real-life organized crime boss Whitey Bulger, a fixture in Boston’s criminal underworld from the 1960s through the 1990s. Depp gives an intense performance as the ruthless mobster, who was legendary for his unpredictable behavior and violent methods. The actor embraced the role, mastering the South Boston accent and adopting street-tough mannerisms. I recommend Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace; Crazy Heart) whose realist style serves the story well.

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When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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Edison, the Man-ipulator

Edison_the_Man__1_This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight is devoted to “Science in the Movies,” which showcases flicks with at least a nominal connection to science, including biopics of famous scientists. Let’s face it, most viewers, including myself, can name only two or three scientists at best, and, topping that list would have to be Thomas Edison. This Friday, January 24 at 8pm, TCM airs Edison, the Man, a 1940 biopic of the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison, the Man is the sequel to Young Tom Edison, and I wish both films were part of “Science in the Movies,” because they were conceived at the same time. Mickey Rooney stars as the scientist in Young Tom Edison, while Spencer Tracy plays the role in the sequel. In 1938, Rooney and Tracy had costarred in Boy’s Town, the biography of Father Flanagan, which had been a hit for MGM. While the double Edison flicks did not exactly reteam Rooney and Tracy, they did take advantage of their successful pairing from Boys Town in a unique way. The Edison biopics were released only three months apart in 1940, which explains the less-than-exciting titles. The studio wanted to avoid potential confusion over two films about the same subject, while telegraphing to audiences that the second film continues from the first. MGM’s strategy proved sound: sequels rarely did big business at that time, but Edison, the Man drew a bigger box office than Young Tom Edison.

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Once Again, Remembering Vera-Ellen

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Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.

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Reel Presidents: Lincoln the Man, the Politician, and the Vampire Hunter

lincolnopenerFor my last in a series on movie presidents, I return to the cinematic interpretations of the life and career of Abraham Lincoln for a look at the major biopics. The biopics are not a window into Lincoln’s life and times; instead, they are mirror reflections of the issues and problems of the decades that produced the films. Sometimes that mirror is cracked or warped, resulting in fractured or distorted history. But, that is precisely why I like biopics and have a high tolerance for even the ponderously pompous ones.

The Depression era was flanked by three major biopics of Lincoln. D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln was released in 1930, while John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois concluded the decade. Released in 1940, Abe Lincoln in Illinois was adapted from Robert E. Sherwood’s Pullitzer-Prize-winning play, which covers Lincoln’s early years in Kentucky, his Illinois law practice, his ill-fated romance with Ann Rutledge, and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Raymond Massey, who originated the role on stage, was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Like Frank McGlynn, Massey became identified with the character of Lincoln. He appeared in two television versions of Abe Lincoln in Illinois– an episode of Pulitzer Prize Theater in 1950 and an episode of Lux Video Theater in 1951. Five years later he played the 16th president in a small-screen version of The Day Lincoln Was Shot for another drama anthology, Ford Star Jubilee. As late as 1962, Massey was still appearing as Lincoln, making a cameo in the epic How the West Was Won. Legend has it that Massey loved the role so much that he appeared at parties and Hollywood social events dressed as Lincoln, prompting playwright George S. Kaufman to quip, “Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.”

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Reel Presidents: Searching for Lincoln

lincolnbilltedAs a follow-up to last week’s commentary on movie presidents, I intended to devote this week’s post to  Abraham Lincoln, wrapping up with a discussion of the recent cinematic odes to the 16thpresident, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tim Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. However, after sifting through sources and tracking down interesting asides, I discovered that there is way too much on Mr. Lincoln to fit into one post. Being such a movie-president enthusiast, especially when it comes to Lincoln, I just couldn’t bear to omit some of my favorite tantalizing tidbits, surprising suppositions, and ornery opinions. My two-part series on movie presidents has expanded into three parts. This week, I offer the unusual, the obscure, and the forgotten; next week, I will revisit the familiar, the celebrated, and the (in)famous.

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