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The Weekly Listicle: Biopics about people we love to hate!
Posted By Julia Rhodes On September 30, 2010 @ 8:19 am In Movies,The Fourth Wall | 1 Comment
Here at The Fourth Wall we are anxiously anticipating this week’s David Fincher feature, The Social Network. Even if you aren’t enchanted by the involvement of Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, you might’ve been reeled in by the good-looking cinematography and the trailer’s choral rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Perhaps your interest was piqued by the involvement of perpetually nerdy yet loveable Jesse Eisenberg, or maybe by the presence of oft-better-than-he-should-be Justin Timberlake. Some of us are curious solely based on the film’s subject, though: Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.
“I hate that guy,” is the typical reaction when someone mentions this movie. Or “who gives a s*^&? That dude got rich by making us all suckers…,” grumble, grumble. Yep, these things are undoubtedly true, and it certainly is spooky how much of our collective privacy Zuckerberg controls. However: the slogan for The Social Network is “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Zuckerberg stepped on a few toes to get where he is, and even if you’re not interested in moneyed, Ivy League drama you may find yourself fascinated by just the kind of treachery that went into inventing this thing we all use. I mean, come on, despite the fact that everyone bitches about Facebook, almost all of us get something out of it. Whether you use it for day-to-day amusement, a platform to advertise what you’re doing, to spout missives about God or your marriage, or even if you just celebrate the existence of stupid people on failbooking , Facebook is a full-blown communications phenomenon.
The movies have long been fascinated with public figures, great and terrible—but particularly the terrible. No one’s perfect, and many of us aren’t even good people. Some of the films on our list were made posthumously, but certainly not all; for some, the protagonists were alive and well to watch the public’s reaction to their innermost secrets. Delicious! Just because someone made a movie about you doesn’t mean you get to sit on a pedestal and preen—this is evidenced by Zuckerberg’s noted distance from this production. Join William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and me (Julia Rhodes!) as we chronicle our favorite biopics that turn vivid spotlights on their protagonists, illuminating them in a harsh, questionable, and sometimes awful light.
Heavenly Creatures (dir. Peter Jackson, 1994)
In 1954, teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme brutally murdered Pauline’s mother near the picturesque town of Christchurch, New Zealand. The murder stunned the country, which prides itself on gorgeous landscapes and a neutral position on world politics. Peter Jackson (who has become a personification of NZ since the Lord of the Rings movies released) undertook the murder as the subject of his first mainstream film forty years after the fact.
Heavenly Creatures opens with tourism advertisement footage of Christchurch in the 1950s: babies crawl happily through neatly trimmed grass over which lovely red brick buildings soar; smiling schoolgirls march in time, their plaid skirts swaying; flowers erupt in bloom. Suddenly anguished shrieks interrupt the cheery voice-over and the scene shifts to a pair of young girls, covered in blood, as they rush toward the POV camera crying, “It’s Mummy! She’s terrible hurt!” This jarring transition—from beauty and tranquility to violence and the death of innocence—pretty well sums up the way New Zealanders felt about the murders.
Fourteen year-old Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) met English transplant Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet’s first film role) in school in Christchurch. The two bonded immediately over their shared health issues, disdain for the royal family, love of Mario Lanza, hatred of Orson Welles, and yearning to escape into an imaginary world. Jackson formed the movie based on Pauline’s diary entries, which betray their parents’ reticence to the relationship between Pauline and Juliet. Mr. Hulme visits a psychologist, worried about his daughter’s attachment to another girl, and a fisheye lens on his mouth captures his utter disgust and near-inability to say the word “homosexual.” Those were the times in which we lived (and it’s almost unnecessary to note that some still do). As both sets of parents strive to tear the girls apart, Pauline’s anger takes on a whole new dimension, eventually ending in her mother Honora’s bludgeoning.
What’s most exciting, beautiful and captivating about Heavenly Creatures is Jackson’s depiction of the fantasy world in which Juliet and Pauline while away their time. They carve clay figurines and invent detailed scenarios in which the figures interact. Jackson tells the story mostly by taking the audience into the depths of the girls’ imaginations. In the fantasy land of Borovnia, they lavish in luxury and quickly dispose of anyone who pisses them off. Pauline’s and Juliet’s real lives are nothing by comparison.
Winslet’s and Lynskey’s performances are spot-on; Jackson’s trademark beautiful cinematography captures the sweeping mountains and plains of New Zealand; the director’s overactive imagination is a perfect fit for two girls who found the real world wanting. The movie’s a suspenseful, lovely trip into the passionate minds of teenagers and the conservative 1950s. On another interesting note, after serving time in prison, Hulme moved to America and began a successful career as writer Anne Perry. She was only outed after the movie released.
Mommie Dearest (dir. Frank Perry, 1981)
Joan Crawford is nothing less than a silver screen legend. Brought up in the studio-run silent era, Crawford was one of the original superstars. One scant year after her death, her daughter Christina Crawford released an expose and memoir that divulged the neurotic and poisonous underbelly of Crawford’s home life. In the book, Crawford was depicted as a vainglorious, abusive, mentally ill alcoholic who cared more about her career than her four young children.
People love to hear about stars’ personal lives (go stand in the supermarket checkout line to see the evidence), and Mommie Dearest took off like nobody’s business. In 1981, the movie was released with Faye Dunaway, a superstar herself, in the leading role. Dunaway’s performance is over-the-top; the two actresses look nothing alike, but Dunaway eerily resembles Crawford in appearance and mannerisms when she plays her. There are a few hilariously frightening scenes, one of which takes place when Crawford finds that Christina hung some of her dresses in the closet. Crawford allegedly had a complete nervous breakdown when she found wire hangers in Christina’s closet, making untoward wrinkles in her little girl’s clothes.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve likely heard someone yell “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!” It’s become synonymous with “unnecessary tantrum.” The movie depicts Crawford as threatened by her daughter and constantly battling for status with the young girl. After Christina takes a job working at a soap opera and must take time off to have surgery, she’s stunned to find out none other than her mother replacing her in the role. Then, according to Christina, Crawford disinherited her.
The story is melodramatic, sad, and completely compelling. It’s become a cult classic, and Crawford’s appeal to drag queens resulted in reenactments all across the country. Who doesn’t love watching a famous person tumble from his or her pedestal? (Hint: remember Britney Death Watch 2007?)
Party Monster (dir. Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, 2003)
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Michael Alig and James St. James founded a new fad in NYC. A brightly colored, glittery mixture of disco divas and drag queens, the two paraded around to New York’s biggest clubs, doing metric tons of drugs and lavishing in K-holes and pleasing infamy. Those of us alive then might remember them from totally nonsensical appearances on Sally Jessie Raphael and Geraldo—such was their type of fame-whoring crazy. They started a whole new craze, a fascination with a new kind of debutante/socialite: the Club Kids. In 1996, Alig killed Andre “Angel” Melendez by knocking him out with a hammer, then dosing him with Drano in a drug-induced state of mania. The brutality of that crime is hard to swallow. What’s worse is that, after the murder, Alig kept Melendez in an ice-filled bathtub until it started to smell, at which point they chopped it up, stuffed it in a cardboard box, and threw it in the Hudson.
St. James wrote a scathing (but also hilarious, sad, and self-deprecating) account of his life with Alig and eventually the murder, called Disco Bloodbath. Drugs, an atrociously vile murder, glitter, and New York City clubs: what makes for a better movie than that? Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato tackled the subject matter and came up with a totally wacked out cast: Macaulay Culkin, then in seclusion post-Home Alone stardom, returned to play Alig. Seth Green, mostly known for TV and slapstick comedy, flounced in to play St. James. “My So-Called Life”’s Wilson Cruz signed on as Angel. Marilyn Manson cameoed, perennial New Yorker/Harmony Korine discovery Chloe Sevigny had to have a role, and “That 70s Show”’s Wilmer Valderrama completed the mix.
Party Monster was not a good movie, but it certainly is fun to watch. Having grown up on Culkin’s aftershave scream in Home Alone, watching him strut around in platform boots and two pounds of costume makeup is insanely entertaining. The rest of the cast seem to have genuine fun playing in these crazy costumes, acting bizarre on camera. The murder itself isn’t as graphic as you might think, but the actors make the film. Bailey and Barbato went on to make Inside Deep Throat, a documentary about the infamous porno which is much better than fictionalized autobiography Party Monster. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a biopic whose subjects are actually terrible (but bizarrely likeable) people, look no further than this one. And in the strange connection of the day, Six Degrees of Diana Scarwid: the actress played an older Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest, and plays Alig’s mother Elke in Party Monster.
Boys Don’t Cry (dir. Kimberly Peirce, 1999)
Boys Don’t Cry has long been on my list of fantastic movies I can’t watch very often, along with Requiem for a Dream and probably Winter’s Bone. I’m not a fan of Hilary Swank, but she absolutely deserved the Oscar she won playing Brandon Teena, a young trans man in early ‘90s Nebraska. The movie grabs my ouch-feelings, then twists them and rips them to shreds. Along with the Matthew Shepard murder, Brandon Teena’s killing is one of the most vicious hate-crimes perpetrated in the U.S. in the last twenty years.
Boys Don’t Cry isn’t the tale of a saint, though. Despite the dangers obvious to everyone else, Teena refused to take no for an answer when it came to performing as a boy. He paid dearly, and it’s horrible to watch. After discovering his secret, women are far more accepting—though avoidant—than the classic Midwestern rednecks who raped and murdered him.
The movie features performances that are as intense as they are cruel, trailer trash stereotypes that are all too familiar to those of us who grew up in the Midwest. Indie favorites Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III play rapists and murderers, miserable pyromaniac sociopaths with cheap beers in their hands, and you have no trouble believing every moment. Chloe Sevigny plays Lana, a doe-eyed, husky-voiced beauty stumbling drunkenly toward her imminent, pathetic future. Swank’s portrayal of Teena is beautiful and horrifying. The movie is really about America, though, and the kind of hatred borne and perpetuated in a certain culture. At the beginning of the film, a girl says to Brandon, “You don’t seem like you’re from here.” Brandon asks, “Where do I seem like I’m from?” “Someplace beautiful,” says the pretty young lady. Nope, no saints here.
Yet another Six Degrees connection: Chloe Sevigny, who plays Gitsie in Party Monster, plays Teena’s lover Lana.
The Baron Of Arizona (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1950)
This movie is not well remembered, nor are the real-life events which inspired it. However, it is an engaging and nicely executed dramatization of a scoundrel’s exploits. Vincent Price charms and swindles effortlessly in the role of James Reavis, a 19th century impostor who nearly conned the United States out of the Arizona territory.
Loosely adapted from its historical source, the movie weaves quite an adventure for Reavis, who through a series of clever forgeries dupes an orphan girl into believing herself the heiress of a vast land grant from Spain, to be honored under American treaties with Mexico. He sets her up as ruling baroness of a land area coincidentally occupying most of Arizona. Meanwhile, he cultivates her affection and grooms her for marriage. Suddenly all his selfless effort begins to make sense.
Reavis jaunts off to Spain to falsify no less than the original documents signed by the Spanish crown centuries before. This involves the infiltration of a monastery and the burglary of the rich and powerful. And after all that work, Reavis returns to find that Uncle Sam doesn’t think much of his claims and intends to prove him a fraud. The nerve of some governments!
Vincent Price, who achieved a real-life royalty of sorts in the horror pictures of American International, played a number of dramatic roles early in his career which were largely overshadowed by the spooky persona of his later years. He is a gifted all-around performer, and plays a straight dramatic role with the same cold-blooded charisma that he later brought to Theatre of Blood and The Masque Of The Red Death.
Though solidly realized, the film has less edge than one might hope. Had it been made ten years later, Price’s character would surely be more ruthless and his fate more poetically just. As it happens, the film goes a little light on the big bad crook right when he should be coming to hopeless ruin. I don’t mind an upbeat ending, but it’s a little incongruous. Nonetheless, as a portrait of adventurous villainy, The Baron Of Arizona holds up with some of the best.
To Die For (dir. Gus Van Sant, 1995)
As a film adapted from a novel inspired by a true crime story, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For has a tenuous link to historical fact. But if you want a portrait of human ruthlessness, gleeful and horrifying all at once, look no further. Drawing on the case of Pamela Smart, who seduced a student into murdering her husband, the film features Nicole Kidman in a unique and jarring performance that you may find hard to watch, but impossible not to enjoy.
From the very beginning, budding network news starlet Suzanne Stone (Kidman) makes it clear that she will do anything to become famous, and her personal definition of success includes only the very top of the heap. Had people only taken her at her word, so much trouble could have been avoided. Instead, she seduces, manipulates, and destroys her way as high as she can go. Her sordid plots mean bad news for her mob-connected husband (Matt Dillon) and a local school punk (Joaquin Phoenix), among a host of others.
Suzanne’s outer self is as warm – and hot when it needs to be – as her blood is cold. She’s got her mission in life, and in a way her singularity of purpose is admirable. Of course, it does require an arguably sociopathic temperament. Kidman’s performance is a triumph of the darkest kind of comedy – a woman of such eerily perfect allure that she can, to an extreme extent, get anything she wants from anyone. It has less to do with Kidman’s own eerily perfect beauty than with the ability to immerse herself in a frightening yet fascinating character.
As diverse as the two characters and their contexts are, it closely resembles the accomplishment of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs. Though we know we should be running the other way for our lives, we are as hypnotized by Suzanne as the characters in the story are.
Kidman’s performance sells the film, but praise is due to the production as a whole. Van Sant, with his knack for unusual perspective, weaves a tapestry of conventional narration, monologue, and mock interview that satirizes the whole scummy underbelly of modern entertainment. The more bad things Suzanne does, the more suited she seems to be for the job of “media sensation.” She does appear to have all the right talents. The downside of always getting everything you want is that you never count on the world catching up with you, ever. Here I must stop and reveal no more. Enjoy the movie.
Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) (dir. Werner Herzog, 1972)
Maverick director Werner Herzog took a shred of 16th century Spanish history and wove a tale of ambition, delirium and doom on a stretch of river where, as one character put it, “God never finished his creation.” As with many of the director’s films, the production was surely as miserable and difficult as the events it recounts.
In a grueling and fruitless quest for the mythical golden city, El Dorado, explorer Gonzalo Pizarro sends a scouting party down a hostile jungle river to report on the lay of the land. Weighted down with armor, cannons, horses, and whole tribes of native slaves, the Spanish are clearly new to this terrain, and pay sorely for their ignorance. The more the characters extol the glory of their crusade, the more ridiculous it all seems.
As though ambush, disease, dangerous water and impassable terrain were not enough, also threatening the party is Don Lope de Aguirre, a wild-eyed nobleman whose only ambition is to overthrow the sensible Don Pedro de Ursua as party leader and assume the crown of New Spain for himself. Herzog favorite Klaus Kinski offers his finest in the role of Aguirre, skulking and brooding about the screen as his quiet menace burns down to a core of murderous rage.
Cut off from help or authority of any kind, Aguirre is free to corrupt and recruit followers to aid his mutiny. He picks men like himself, mercenaries and cutthroats of the kind Shakespeare’s Caesar might call “lean and hungry.” In a hollow mockery of the Spanish crown, he sets us the expedition’s ranking nobleman, Guzman (played by German actor Peter Berling) as a puppet “king” even as he plots the murder of the true leader, Ursua. Bad, bad business.
Guzman, fat on the bounty of privilege, continues to insist on the proper posturing of the royal court, past the point of absurdity to the realm of the outright pathetic. At the moment of his coronation – with a rotten raft for a throne and a flooded wasteland for a kingdom – he weeps. Whether he is overcome with joy or sorrow is a matter for debate, but it is a pitiable display. One can understand why Aguirre might want to strike out on his own, away from these people. Nonetheless, his decision to lead the survivors down a path of madness and slow death seems a little thoughtless.
Aguirre is a beautiful tragedy. The actors and staging are superb, and the atmosphere captured in the Urubamba region of Peru is just about as authentic as you can imagine a movie being. The effort that went into the production shows, even though it must have been pure hell. The story is bleak, but fiercely compelling. For a satire of New World conquest, it is positively the final word.
Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
I’m going to try not to dwell on this one, because I’ve discussed Citizen Kane in The Weekly Listicle at least once before and frankly will probably do so again sooner than later. (Note: Upon having finished this article, I am now forced to admit that I completely failed not to dwell on this one. My apologies.) Citizen Kane is one of the most famously unflattering biographical films, its reputation as such completely unmarred by the fact that it happens to be fictional. Sort of. Citizen Kane isn’t a biography of William Randolph Hearst in the same way that Primary Colors isn’t a biography of Bill Clinton. The veneer is thin, the intentions obvious, and the insult was immediately recognized by Hearst, who used every tool in his disposal to quash the film’s release and the career of young writer/director/actor Orson Welles. Citizen Kane narrowly escaped Hearst’s thorough quashing. Welles’s career did not.
Orson Welles made his debut in Hollywood with a film that allegedly began production under schedule and under budget, and wrapped production over schedule and over budget. His special effects-laden masterpiece spanned the life of Charles Foster Kane, who could have had a normal, happy life with his birth parents but was instead adopted by a tycoon who gave him everything he needed… except love. These Dickensian origins gave Kane a tragic back story and a pronounced need to be adored by everyone around him. His complete disregard for every part of his inheritance except for a newspaper spoke to his need for constant publicity before such human frailty was commonplace. He manufactured wars to sell papers, he bought every trinket he could find to fill his empty home. And when that home got too small, he built an enormous castle to put even more stuff into. His life was large, but completely hollow. Hearst, whose life eerily paralleled Kane’s in a ridiculous and clearly intentional number of ways, picked up on these details immediately. The ultimate punchline and insult: “Rosebud,” the mysterious utterance that drives the plot forward and supposedly motivated Kane’s every deed, was in fact William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for his young mistress’s
Of course Hearst had every right to be offended, and no right whatsoever to prevent such a masterpiece from seeing the light of day. Had he lived long enough to distance himself he might have seen Citizen Kane for the compassionate, though very sad tale it is. Kane never purports to be a fair or balanced view of its protagonist, and at no point does the film take place from Kane’s point of view. The film is about how those around the strange and powerful man viewed him, loved him, hated him sometimes, and ultimately cared about him more than Kane could ever realize, because he only ever wanted love on his own terms. I guess Hearst did too.
On a side note, Welles himself was the subject of an interesting Made-For-TV movie called RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane. Liev Schreiber played the young wunderkind as a passionate but narcissistic genius whose talent couldn’t prevent his own larger-than-life personality from sabotaging his own chances at happiness and artistic success. James Cromwell plays Hearst as a sympathetic though corrupt figure who finally learns humility during the period when Citizen Kane was produced (albeit for other, more significant reasons than one mere Hollywood production). Though wildly inferior to Citizen Kane (what isn’t?), it nevertheless deserves an honorable mention on the list and remains a “Must See” for all fans of classic film.
Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman, 1984)
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Amadeus was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I was a year and a half old, and apparently I loved it so much that I insisted we stay and watch it twice, which we did. Amadeus is just that good. It’s an unusual biography – mostly apocryphal – of two musical geniuses: Antonio Salieri, popular in his day but now all but forgotten (except for his role in Amadeus of course), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom history has made into a musical God but was, in life, underappreciated, broke and possibly kind of douchebag.
Peter Shaffer’s screenplay, based off of his own stage play, takes a larger-than-life figure and lowers him to our level. That’s what the story is in fact about: Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham in an Academy Award-winning performance) idolizes Mozart, whose exploits as a childhood prodigy inspired Salieri to seek musical greatness himself. Upon meeting Mozart for the first time he’s shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that this “Amadeus” – meaning “Beloved of God” – is an immature and lecherous buffoon. That God could bless such a flawed individual with such wondrous gifts so offends Salieri’s sensibilities that he eventually renounces both God and his clearly undeserving creation. It will be by Salieri’s hand that Mozart will find himself critically panned, penniless and haunted until his untimely death. And Mozart will think Salieri his only friend throughout the entire scheme.
In truth, as much as can be known at any rate, Salieri and Mozart probably shared mutual respect despite some obvious rivalry as composers from the same era, in the same geographical location, working for the same artistic patron. Shaffer was not the first to dramatize their relationship as a tragedy of the mediocre talent sabotaging the underappreciated genius (famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote the first such story in 1825, very shortly after Salieri’s death), but his version has proved the most popular thanks to Milos Forman’s exceptional and Academy Award-winning film. (His new director’s cut screws with the pacing a bit too much for my tastes, and adds little of consequence to the narrative.) Abraham got most of the awards, but Tom Hulce deserves equal credit for bringing the childish Mozart to believable life. His shrill laugh remains one of the most iconic noises in film history, to me at least. And while neither of the biographical figures in Amadeus escape condemnation, Salieri’s the one who suffers through more slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Though clearly rewritten for dramatic purposes, his life today has more meaning through this warts-and-all cautionary tale than for his many and plentiful accomplishments in life. Though one of the finest films ever made, Amadeus makes for one tragic biography.
Shattered Glass (dir. Billy Ray, 2003)
An unintentional but recurring theme in my choices this week: disappointment. All the biographies in question are about impressive figures, all of whom were surrounded by individuals who saw their potential for greatness but found them lacking on a basic human level. Shattered Glass, an underappreciated biopic from 2003, is a prime example. The film is based on an article in Vanity Fair about former New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, who in the mid-1990’s was revealed to be a fraud who repeatedly fabricated elements of his stories… sometimes even the entire story itself.
Writer/director Billy Ray, who also directed the equally excellent (and equally underappreciated) biopic Breach, directs this film with straightforward panache, if such a thing is possible. At times Shattered Glass plays like a Hitchcock film, with Stephen Glass (an excellent performance from Hayden Christensen, before the Star Wars movies forever tainted him to audiences everywhere) rapidly circling the drain, his lies becoming too difficult to maintain, and his career, credibility and his friends hanging in the balance. He’s a charmer, this Stephen Glass, but he’s not reptilian. When caught in a relatively minor lie about a hotel refrigerator, he confronts his superiors with utter humility. He apologizes shamelessly, throwing himself upon their mercy for his ignorance and failure to follow up on such a trivial detail. A confident swagger would have been his undoing, but by appealing to a deeper sense of pity he managed to obfuscate the fact that the entire story was absolute hogwash, refrigerator or no.
But it’s this kind of emotional manipulation that ultimately destroys him. By appealing to his peers’ sense of charity he actively involves them in his recurring betrayals. Once his lies are out in the open, the tragedy isn’t that the stories weren’t true – disgusting breach of journalistic integrity though it may have been – no, the tragedy is that the people who cared about him and were invested in his future were so very disappointed, ashamed, even, that this little punk thought he could achieve greatness through such petty means. What’s worse, he can never adequately apologize… even if he means it… because to them he is now the least credible person in the entire world. Shattered Glass is a thrilling tragedy; a very sad picture that nevertheless entertains as much as the typical Hollywood blockbuster because the relationships between the characters are a powder keg of which even Michael Bay would be envious.
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