What We Wish We Were: On Biopic-Mania
May 23, 2013 | by Liz Brown
Sometimes there are things you didn’t know you wanted to see.
Like Michael Douglas, spangled and rouged, arms out in a white ostrich-trimmed cape, prancing sideways across a Vegas stage. This is barely two seconds of the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, about the relationship between Liberace and his younger lover, Scott Thorson, but those are two seconds I want to see over and over.
Usually I get cranky and snide about biopics. The last one I saw was Hitchcock. I went to have my prejudices against the genre affirmed, and they were. I kept watching Anthony Hopkins in his fat suit and thinking about his makeup, the boom just outside the frame, the camera rolling back on its track, the contrivance of the whole thing—and not in some provocative, Brechtian sense. I left full of scorn for the labored verisimilitude and regurgitated history—a petty way to go to the movies, but kind of satisfying, too, in the way that being petty can be.
Maybe it’s a good film if you weren’t aware Alfred Hitchcock had a thing for so-called icy blonds and that he got creepily obsessive when it came to his leading ladies. And if that’s not clear from watching Hopkins/Hitchcock skulk around dressing rooms, Jessica Biel/Vera Miles explains it to Scarlett Johansson/Janet Leigh and us in a scene that feels more like a DVD featurette about the “making of” than dialogue between two people.
According to Clement Greenberg, “kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas,” which you could easily say of the biopic, a genre stuffed with formula. There’s the childhood trauma, in which the character suffers a tragic incident or loss that confers gravitas and a readymade psychic wound to explain whatever ambition and abuse will follow. There’s usually early success, a fall from grace, a period of abjection, but eventually self-reckoning and final redemption.
And if, as Sanford Meisner said, the goal of acting is to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, in the biopic it so often feels like actors are living imaginatively under truthful—or true-ish—circumstances. They become not so much characters but mouthpieces with canned histories, familiar tics and accents. Acting as karaoke.
But I should be clear not to malign the art of karaoke. I’ve seen so-called regular people—the untrained, nonprofessional, nonfamous—approach something like the ecstatic in those unrehearsed moments while the lyrics change color on TV screens. In the biopic, not so much.
Too often the films end up feeling like elaborate sessions of playing dollhouse. Which can be a thing of great wonder if the film is about Karen Carpenter and the director is Todd Haynes and the talent is actual Barbie dolls.
Even if Michael Douglas fails at playing Liberace, according to Susan Sontag, the film’s value as camp will skyrocket. I won’t be sorry. I’ve got plenty of shares of that stock. But I do hope Michael Douglas’s performance is actually good. I hope he imbues the Vegas showqueen with humanity and complexity and that I am not only entertained but also moved.
That said, I have no desire to see Douglas “disappear” into the role of the ermined pianist because there is a subgenre of the biopic that I love unreservedly and I’m hoping that Behind the Candelabra will take it to new extremes.
I’m thinking of Mommie Dearest as an example, in that I never stop seeing Faye Dunaway and Joan Crawford, whether she—or rather, they—are chopping down rose bushes or commandeering the Pepsi board room. I’m thinking of movies in which you see both actor and subject at the same time: a bioptic.
To fall within this particular category, both figures must inhabit significant and discrete real estate in the cultural imagination. Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis might fit, but then Lindbergh’s public persona hasn’t sustained quite the vividness that, say, Margaret Thatcher’s has. So Meryl Streep as the Iron Lady satisfies the conditions of the bioptic, but to my thinking Streep as Karen Silkwood does not because the whistle blower didn’t really figure in popular consciousness until after her death, and then even more so after Streep’s portrayal of her. Streep as Lindy Chamberlain (“Dingo ate my baby!”) doesn’t fit, but Streep as Julia Child does.
On some level you could say this is just famous people playing famous people, but Anthony Hopkins is famous and Alfred Hitchcock is famous and that pairing doesn’t create the kind of double exposure I’m looking for. Hopkins isn’t famous in a weird enough way. He’s famous for being a good actor but not necessarily for his off-screen persona.
So given this logic, Lindsay Lohan as Liz Taylor—if a bit overdetermined—fits the bill. James Franco as James Dean didn’t count when that TV biopic came out in 2001, since it was several years before Franco would hit fameballdom. But Franco’s interpretation of Riff Raff in Spring Breakers does, and certainly Riff Raff as Franco in One Life to Live counts—a bioptic and pop-culture ouroboros.
Lee Daniels’s The Butler is scheduled to come out in August, which means, among the many inspired casting choices (John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, Robin Williams as Eisenhower), that Jane Fonda will play Nancy Reagan. And so we enter a funhouse of leg warmers, astrologers, and celebrity association. Hanoi Jane is the goddaughter of Alla Nazimova. Tom Joad’s daughter is Ronald Reagan’s “Mommy.”
At IMDb, Mike Newell’s Reykjavik, about the 1986 summit, is listed in preproduction, with Gorbachev played by Christopher Waltz and Ronald Reagan by Michael Douglas.
In Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely, Diego Luna is a Michael Jackson impersonator in Paris where it’s too hot and he’s very much alone. But then he meets Samantha Morton, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and decides to join her at a commune in Scotland where she lives with other celebrity impersonators, including her lover, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator played by an aggressive, feral Denis Lavant. She describes it as a special place, “where everyone is famous.”
Mister Lonely wears its absurdity lightly. James Dean herds sheep. Shirley Temple feeds the chickens. This is a movie that completely bypasses the kitschy, clunky apparatus of the biopic and looks directly at the impulse to impersonate. There are no heavy-handed explanations for anyone’s wounds or desires—it’s a given that everybody has them. Whatever backstories or preprocessed psychology there may be is summed up in a toast the pope impersonator gives the group: “Everyone in this room is not like everybody else, but the good thing is we have found one another and we have become what we wish we were.” Scenes that might have otherwise remained tongue-in-check set pieces—Charlie Chaplin trounces Michael Jackson at ping-pong—are often poignant, sometimes haunting, with the film effortlessly gliding back and forth between joy and sorrow.
On the night before the impersonators put on a show for the local village, the Queen smokes what may be a postcoital cigarette while in bed with the Pope. These two impersonators are played, respectively, by Anita Pallenberg and James Fox, who last shared the screen when they starred, with Mick Jagger, in Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance from 1970. The movie, about a gangster in hiding and a rock star who has “lost his demon,” goes down a cosmic rabbit hole of sex and drugs, exploding ideas about masculinity, stardom, and the possibilities for impersonation.
Michael Douglas lifts his cape—a strange, glittering bird in full flounce. Thank God for Liberace, I think. And my gratitude isn’t just for the scale of the man’s flamboyance—though, yes, for that—but mostly because I’m seeing Gordon Gekko without the French cuffs. When I see Michael Douglas’s gleaming rictus smile and the slight dip of his head—almost a curtsy—all those aggrieved, thin-lipped straight men from the eighties topple away. I know some of those films, like Basic Instinct, Disclosure, and Falling Down, are from the nineties, but they feel like they were made in an eighties hangover, laced with rage that the Reagan era of entitlement wasn’t sticking. And why are those the ones that always come to mind, and not Romancing the Stone or The War of the Roses? A question for another day.
I watch the fey sidle of Michael Douglas’s hips and I see the scratchy-voiced cop from The Streets of San Francisco and the paterfamilias from Traffic swan across the stage to a mirrored piano. A swish of the cape. The handsome young chauffeur settles the showqueen’s train. Michael Douglas arranges himself at the bench, bejeweled fingers poised above the keys, and I am grateful.
Liz Brown is a writer in Brooklyn.