The Last Bio-pics Post
Well…surely not the last blogpost EVER about bio-pics, but the last in my series that began here, here, here and here. This one covers films made from 1970 on, and like the rest in the series is strictly restricted to films about figures from the classic era of show biz (vaudeville, burlesque and the classical studio era of Hollywood). Films about rock stars, for example, are not part of this series.
This and my Harlow post are separated from the first three not just because they come later in time, but because they necessarily have a very different sensibility. The post-studio era films are more realistic in many ways with more location shooting; fewer fictionalized characters and events; greater period realism; franker dialogue; and more graphic attitudes towards sex and violence. But we still retain the instrinsic tension between facts and story shape. The genre is still flawed…
Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Diana Ross exploded from star to superstar in this bio-pic about Depression Era jazz singer Billie Holiday, the first narrative film released by Motown Productions. Much like Streisand’s Fanny Brice the character that emerges is more of a hybrid of the person depicted and the lady playing her. But there is much for the actor to chew on as Holiday struggles with drugs and racism and her love interest Louis McKay (Billie Dee Williams). Richard Pryor adds a certain meta magic as the unnamed “Piano Man”.
One of Dustin Hoffman’s career highlights in a definitive biographical film by auteur Bob Fosse, written by Julian Barry. Fosse of course was a choreographer (not a bad orientation for a film director to have), and better still he started out in burlesque (or to be more accurate, post-burlesque). And so did Lenny Bruce — hence Fosse’s excellent engagement with every aspect of the material…its heart, its soul and all its detail. Gritty and low down nightclubs are the artist’s milieu. Bruce’s mother had been a dancer; his wife, a stripper. Again areas where Fosse can click. Hoffman is a pretty good physical match, and as you can imagine he especially excels at the dramatic aspects of Bruce’s struggle with society and the authorities. He’s not a funny man himself but he does a good enough job at mimicking the routines off record albums to pull off the role. Easily one of the best bio-pics of all time.
WC Fields and Me (1976)
This film based on the popular book by W.C. Fields’ mistress Carlotta Monti is in a word screwy. Details about Fields’ life, especially the portions that occur prior to his meeting her, are crazily fictitious and mixed up in a way that indicates they are probably derived from Monti’s vague memories of stories told to her by the truth-averse and alcoholic Fields. So much is wrong that it will make any Fields fans yank their own hair out. The film pretends that Fields had no silent film career, that he was fired from the Follies for his ribald material, that he was down and out and broke due to the Great Depression, that his friend, servant and comedy partner Shorty Blanche was a midget (and German), that Shorty came west with him to get into pictures, that they operated a wax museum together, that Fields wanted to be just a screenplay writer, that he didn’t break into shorts with Mack Sennett, etc etc etc. Rod Steiger’s performance as Fields is at once uncanny and grotesque — one part Rich Little, and one part…well, Rod Steiger. Valerie Perrine does a fine job as the delusional but beautiful Monti. Billy Barty plays the fictitious German midget. Jack Cassidy is one of the highlights of the film as John Barrymore, Allan Arbus is Gregory La Cava, and Paul Stewart (of Citizen Kane) is Flo Ziegfeld. The film is well directed by Arthur Hiller, but the story is fakakta.
The Great Houdini (1976)
I was already a fan of the Tony Curtis Houdini bio-pic from watching it on television. Imagine my excitement when they announced this new made-for-tv verison starring Paul Michael Glaser at the full height of Starsky and Hutch mania! Being all of 11, I ate it up at the time, but in retrospect it seems to me Glaser played it too broadly comical (Houdini was a VERY serious fellow) and (as so many do when they play Houdini) too smart-mouthed Brooklyn. (Houdini was the son of a strict rabbi who grew up n Wisconsin). But it has an all star cast! With Sally Struthers as Bess, Ruth Gordon as the famously Oedipal Houdini’s mom, Vivian Vance as her nurse, and Peter Cushing as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Written and directed by Mel Shavelson!
Scott Joplin (1977)
Riding high on the mid 70s vogue for Scott Joplin (the 1973 soundtrack for The Sting, the 1975 Broadway productions of Treemonisha, and his posthumous 1976 Pulitzer), came this fairly excellent bio-pic. Originally developed as a TV movie, it was released first theatrically — hence the PG rating and compressed storytelling, all of which is almost a throwback to the earlier era of bio-pics. But most of the characters here are real: in addition to Billy Dee Williams as Joplin, there are Art Carney as his publisher John Stark, Clifton Davis of That’s My Mama as Joplin’s cohort Louis Chauvin, and Godfrey Cambridge as ragtime composer Tom Turpin. Furthermore, Joplin’s contemporary Eubie Blake is in the film! And if that’s not a seal of approval I don’t know what is. The period sets and costumes are all excellent, and the music heavenly. If Billy Dee Williams’ acting leaves something to be desired, there’s plenty else to listen to and look at. Like Lady Sings the Blues, this one was produced by Motown Productions.
Bud and Lou (1978)
This tv movie has its apologists — and what a sorry lot you are! I watched it when it initially aired, and saw it probably one additional time subsequently. The casting probably seemed genius at the time, but with any amount of reflection it is entirely off base. Like Lou Costello, Buddy Hackett was short, dumpy and goofy faced. But that doesn’t make him the same comedian. The job here is to play Lou Costello. Buddy Hackett cannot un-be Buddy Hackett. So the movie might be better called Bud and Buddy. EXCEPT for the fact that Harvey Korman is an even worse match for Bud Abbott. Now, Korman was a terrific straight man, and he even specialized in sporting the same kind of pencil thin mustaches Abbott wore. Both men had a certain polish, but Abbott’s was an obvious veneer, he came across like a gangster, a guy who hangs out in night clubs and race tracks and gambling parlors. The fussy Korman couldn’t be farther away from that kind of energy. But beyond that, like all bio-pics, this film is mostly about the behind-the-scenes, and while Hackett and Korman are both funny comedians, they are terrible dramatic actors. Add on top of it the fact that our “Virgil” is their manager, played by ARTE JOHNSON, and you have the embarrassing nature of this spectacle in a nutshell.
The Jayne Mansfield Story (1980)
Belive it or not this one works quite well, mostly due to the excellent casting of Loni Anderson as Jayne Mansfield and Arnold Schwarzenegger as her weight-lifting husband Mickey Hargitay. Neither of these performers is a thespian genius, but they are at least WELL cast, and that is always more than half the battle, especially in this kind of movie. They are also both having the time of their lives in these roles…also more than half the battle. The script is the usual paint-by-numbers tv movie fare, and somewhat fictionalized, but it’s an inoffensive good time.
Mommy Dearest (1981)
I know I am far from alone in relishing this overwrought orgy of slander and bad taste. I never miss it when it happens to be on television and I’ve probably seen it eight times by now. I have no doubt that Joan Crawford, like most big stars, was every bit as horrible as the movie depicts, but author Cristina Crawford undermines her own case with the mercilessness of her revenge. Faye Dunaway’s operatic turn as the ultimate witch-mama is one of the most entertaining performances of all time. Diana Scarwid as her long-suffering saintly child is one spoonful of sugar less treacly than Sally Jane Bruce as Pearl in The Night of the Hunter. It all makes for a psycho-biddy movie worthy of William Castle. Ultimately its so entertaining, who cares if it’s true or not?
Mae West (1982)
Ann Jillian, hot off her success on the sit com It’s a Living undertakes one of the plummest of female roles, and does quite an excellent job. Quite a close impression of the distinctive comedienne, but more than an impression — quite a good, three dimensional performance. Further the script is much better than the average fare as these things go. It doesn’t assume that the audience is composed of idiots, doesn’t spell everything out. At the same time, it lets the theme be the organizing principle, rather than just a bunch of events streaming by simply because they happened. West’s life lends itself to such thematic treatment — “make your own way in this man’s world” and the script is smart enough to recognize it and go with it. Piper Laurie plays her mother, James Brolin is her longtime real-life love interest Jim Timony and Chuck McCann plays W.C. Fields!
Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (1983)
Goody two shoes, squeaky clean Linda (Wonder Woman) Carter goes way against type as the smoldering, sexy Rita Hayworth, her green eyes and porcelain skin defyng her every footstep and gesture. Like Hayworth, Carter is beautiful and part Latin. Unlike her…everything else. Her agent must have told her to do it. Also in the cast Michael Lerner (inevitably) as Harry Cohn, and Edward Edwards as Orson Welles.
White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991)
As well cast as Loni Anderson was as Jayne Mansfield, so is she MIScast as the ill-fated Thelma Todd. The physical disparities are jarring; plus Thelma Todd was a very funny lady, and there’s little indication of that here. Todd’s story is ultimately a murder mystery and that’s a promising “in” but unfortunately stretched here. They make it look like Lucky Luciano did it; but the reality is simpler, it looks much more like her lover Roland West (Lawrence Pressman). Maryedith Berill (of Fridays) is miscast as Patsy Kelly; Paul Dooley plays Hal Roach.
Sir Richard Attenborough’s blockbuster bio-pic of the world’s greatest comedian Charlie Chaplin at once attempts too much and too little. In the worst bio-pic tradition it attempts to hit every detail in the long chronology of Charlie Chaplin’s life. But it never gets us close to Charlie Chaplin. Clearly that’s part of his point, the character is chided for keeping us (his audience) at a distance. But you can do that (in fact you must do that) while also getting us close to his personality. I’ve read nearly every book there is about him — there is so much about his character that is quite well known that doesn’t wind up in this movie. Robert Downey, Jr does his best, but it’s far from good enough (how could it ever be? no mere mortal can play Chaplin, best to CGI the whole thing). The film starts promising enough with its images of Edwardian London, and with Geraldine Chaplin playing her own insane grandmother. This is the crux of the story, the root of Chaplin’s character, but it gets quickly lost in the avalanche of “greatest hits” that follow. His crucial time at Keystone is breezed over. You barely meet Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett and Marisa Tormei as Mabel Normand before they sail by. Kevin Kline clearly fancies himself as the right type for Douglas Fairbanks but he is too old and not macho enough. But, look, there’s no way I wouldn’t be very hard on this movie. Some people like it. To me, it’s not worthy of its subject. I expected something bigger– more “epic” — from the man who gave us Gandhi.
The Rat Pack (1998)
Well, it’s just unwatchable…several truly excellent actors bending over backwards to do impressions of other major stars while mouthing one of those dreadful tv movie scripts. The unmusical Ray Liotta is badly miscast as Frank Sinatra, and since he is heart and soul of the Rat Pack, it’s a major drag on the movie. Joe Mantegna can’t help bringing an inappropriately intellectual quality to Dean Martin, although he is right in other respects. Don Cheadle has too much class and dignity to play the unselfconsciously phony Sammy Davis Jr. A couple of other gents are better at the thankless Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, but that’s sort of like expecting the Professor and Mary Ann to save Gilligan’s Island. Worst of all: a movie is a verb, not a noun. What is the plot here? “Five gonzo guys in tuxedos in 1961” is not a plot.
The Three Stooges (2000)
I’m not real sure why executive producer Mel Gibson felt the need to tell THIS particular story so badly, but having done so, the product turned out to be surprisingly watchable. The driving throughline is Moe’s determination to get the team into features, which becomes a sort of epic as it plays out over the decades. (while popular in comedy shorts, the team wasn’t trusted to headline in a feature until 1960? near the end of their careers). whereas the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and — most gallingly — the RITZ BROTHERS — had starred in features long before them. The film has many dramatic moments, and the impressions are reasonably good, but truly, the idea that you are watching a dramatic re-creation of the lives of THREE STOOGES, never allows you to become fully immersed . Every few minutes you can’t help asking yourself, “Am I really doing THIS instead of something else?”
Martin and Lewis (2002)
Surprisingly excellent tv movie about the partnership of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, thanks largely to the casting of Sean Hayes as the former and Jeremy Northam as the latter. Both playing versions of their characters but not striving to do imitations and thus able to inhabit their parts fully and give truer performances. Further the script, based on Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself) by Arthur Marx, is focused nicely on the inherent contradiction in the team’s relationship: Lewis’s pathological need for attention…and the fact that that was what made the act unique, successful, and eventually for Martin, unbearable.
Brad Garrett (the 6′ 8.5″ brother from Everyone Loves Raymond) takes on The Great One with mixed results. Garrett does a good job of re-creating the comedy routines and even at tackling the drama, but the script is the usual superficial, retread hash. And awayeee we go!
For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc