Our Backstreets #18: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It’s a day when we remember our dead, particularly those who have served in combat. I mean no disrespect to the war dead and their families, but it has become more than painfully obvious that dying in war is no great honor, that war is a web of insanity in which sane people often are caught. Yet, we remember our fallen combatants in a sainted glow that, in my opinion, allows society to continue to make war. This myth is just one of many we as a society collude in to perpetuate norms.

It may seem trite at this point to switch to movies, but movies are the dreams societies have about themselves. In the case of Hollywood, they bolster the norms of American society and, increasingly, global societies that gobble them like popcorn. Independent film and documentaries may be an antidote to this myth-making, though those areas of filmmaking are often target of cooption by the majors, who prefer to control the story. And every story has its heroes and its villains.

That brings me to biopics. These films are practically destined to become fictions, lantern shows of good and evil. How does this happen? Historical records of long-dead figures may be lacking, contradictory, or deliberately embellished for the sake of posterity. If the subject is more contem- porary—and beloved—it can be hard to show the warts and all without inflaming outrage among fans and family alike. If the subject is still alive, he or she may become hostile to the project if things aren’t told just the right way or, more often, create an self-consciousness in the filmmakers that causes them to self-censor. Still other subjects may be used as nothing more than a template upon which to hang a fictional story, with name recognition used to pull in the crowds. There is even the question of whether a subject’s private life is relevant, whether a biopic should concern itself with the accomplishments of the subject to the near-exclusion of the life.

If you look below at the comments section of my review of Crazy, a new biopic about country/jazz musician Hank Garland, you’ll see some heartfelt concerns by Debra Garland, Hank’s youngest of two daughters. The comments led to a short correspondence between me and Debi, who was written out of the film and who has a running feud with her uncle Billy over it. I don’t know the exact nature of the feud, but I do know that the liberties this biopic took caused a great deal of conflict, not to mention a serious rewriting of history that sometimes becomes accepted fact. In this case, Debi was disappeared; for the people like me who may never have heard of Hank Garland before seeing the movie, there never was a younger daughter named Debra.

I started thinking about the nature of biopics and some films that are much beloved, perhaps for the wrong reasons: for example, what I consider the worst biopic ever made: The Pride of the Yankees. Obviously hurried into production to take advantage of the great public grief over the death of Lou Gehrig, it made Gehrig right-handed for everything but hitting and allowed Babe Ruth to mug shamelessly during Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech. This film was excruciating in every way—and not just because it was a lie from the word “action”—yet it’s a cherished film among many moviegoers.

Then there is one of the best—The Song of Bernadette. This film about the teenage girl who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto at Lourdes takes its story and dialog from the historical record, reproducing the look of a mid 19th century French village, its poverty, and its transformation following the miracle. Only small touches may have been embellished to bring out some of the philosophical differences of the time, strengthening rather than weakening the biography. Why was Bernadette’s story so faithful to what we know about her? Is it because a belief in miracles and religion suits society? And is the miracle itself merely a lie made true by the faithful? You see, this biopic stuff gets complicated.

I’ve pondered this question from a lot of angles, and I’d like your opinions. What purpose do you think biopics serve? Why have they endured as a movie form? What examples do you have of good and bad biopics? I’d be very interested in your opinions. l

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    26th/05/2008 to 3:14 pm

    Great post, Marilyn … I’ll bite. I am as conflicted at Memorial day as you are, and for many of the same reasons, although I don’t think it’s societies that make war, it’s governments and the elitists who run them. War movies glorifying the fallen dead and movies glorifying our way of life (see the latest Indy and every piece of capra-corn) serve the function of anesthetizing (or duping) society into supporting them, into giving the blood of our children to support their continued amassing of power and wealth.
    To that extent, the answer to what purpose biopics serve is that first of all, they suit the corporate purposes of those who make them which is see above: to amass power and wealth. This might seem trivial, but where it gets complicated is that to do this, they must support the current power structure of the country, which supports said accumulation. Thus, their content almost always lets that power structure off the hook, usually in favor of a personal view of personal problems: nothing is the fault of society, it’s always the fault of the individual being profiled. And, wonder of wonders, they almost always overcome those problems through hard work and personal willpower, thus supporting the American narrative that an individual can get anywhere through those things.
    Biopics persist because people will go see them, simple as that, and people go see them because they fulfill a variety of needs. I think one of those is the need to see the famous as just like us; if they can overcome their problems, we certainly can too. And we need to be reassured that our professed American values, reinforced in the movies, are worthwhile, noble, and effective.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/05/2008 to 4:21 pm

    Rick – We’ve gone beyond the biopic to demonizing troubled celebrities – a chance to feel superior and believe that the rich can’t possibly be happy. I see this as a huge collusion of society, including the little guys. Yes, governments make war and the entertainment industry makes money, but they wouldn’t if we didn’t enjoy seeing Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears implode (and the sexism of that enjoyment cannot be minimized) or gulp up machismo like a wanderer in the desert. I remember Colin Powell’s dog-and-pony show in front of the UN. I remember a pretty macho guy I know lapping it up, convinced that we needed to bury those m-fers in Iraq. He saw the show he wanted, not the same show I saw.
    I jsut saw a fascinating documentary as part of my participation in The Film of the Month Club, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. I didn’t realize what it was about until I sat down with it today. It documents the attempt of a Japanese survivor of New Guinea to bring individual soldiers to account for murders they committed in New Guinea, probably to cannibalize their comrades in order to stay alive, and to force them to tell their stories (violently if necessary) to help end war. It’s a mass of contradictions, but shows a very real attempt to change the power structure by forcing the truth into the open. I think biopics’ essentially false nature makes them an instrument in the continuance of this lotus-eater world in which we live. Watching the Japanese soldiers deny their crimes, only to have to reverse themselves by being shamed and kicked into it, shows how deep and pleasurable denial can be.
    Thanks for responding.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    26th/05/2008 to 10:06 pm

    Oh, no doubt we collude in our own illusions … I didn’t mean to say that we don’t. We are products of our environment, most of us weaned on the American dream, and we act accordingly. We are what we eat, and denial is, as you say, very pleasurable. However, and this is a big however in my book, the purse-strings, the means of force, and the means to control information are in the hands of the few.
    And I loved that documentary as well (I participated with a post and several comments), but I’m not sure that, with the obvious manipulation of the subject and the bias toward its subject by Hara that it’s all that much more objective than the average biopic.
    Great discussion.

  • Fox spoke:
    27th/05/2008 to 10:02 am

    Hi Marilyn-
    Good post.
    First, I think documentaries distort history more than Hollywood biopics. With biopics, there is an understood veil of fiction hanging over the film. However, with documentary, audiences have been conditioned to believe the information they are presented to be the truth simply because the camera films real time.
    Secondly, I don’t like biopics that simply tell an abbreviated story of the subject’s life, whether it be Alfred Kinsey (*Kinsey* getting my vote for worst biopic…) or Ray Charles. These are shallow TV movies in my eyes. I prefer the biopics, as you noted, that use the subject as a jumping off point for something larger…
    Examples:
    *The Diving Bell And The Butterfly* uses the tragedy of Jean-Dominique Bauby to celebrate the gift of memory and imagination.
    *The Flowers of St. Francis* uses Francis of Asissi to express selfless generosity, kindness, and charity.
    *Young Mr. Lincoln*, which at first appears as a straight-up life story, progresses as a film about the foundations of justice. Undeniably there is myth hanging on this film, but as someone on The Simpson’s once said, sometimes we need myths.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/05/2008 to 12:16 pm

    Rick and Fox – You make an interesting point about the greater ability of documentaries to deceive–but I don’t buy it. True, documentaries aren’t objective, but in the case of profiles such as that in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, we have a chance to see the real human being. No matter how much manipulation he or the filmmaker contrive, I think the man’s actions are allowed to speak in ways neither man perhaps wanted them to be.
    A biopic is scripted, subject to the numerous rewrites Hollywood is heir to, but I would argue that people do see these films as true, or the kind of true they can endorse. When real people’s legacies can be distorted as a commodity to sell, how can factual history be maintained for the public at large. Biopics are myth-making of a rather pernicious sort.

  • Yossariam spoke:
    27th/05/2008 to 3:32 pm

    I can’t agree less with respect to the two films you selected as examples of the best and worst of the genre. Pride of the Yankees was indeed a remakably hokey film, but there seems to be very little question that Lou Gehrig was the sort of decent, heroic-in-spite-of-himself sort of person who deserved a film biography calculated to perpetuate his memory. The Song of Bernadette, in contrast, is about, as you suggest it might be, “a lie made true by the faithful”. Further, you can’t really say too little about a movie starring Jennifer Jones; it’s difficult to see how she won an Academy Award for this, or anything else.
    If, by the way, you want a good Memorial Day biopic, I would suggest that you rent (or attempt to rent) a thoughtful if somewhat overwrought biopic of Admiral Halsey called The Gallant Hours, starring James Cagney. There’s very little overt heroism (no combat scenes), the Japanese are portrayed as intelligent, resourceful and human, and a consistent theme throughout the movie is that getting killed in one’s late teens or early twenties sucks, and war sucks for everyone involved. The score can be a bit much, but all in all it’s a decent and humane war film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/05/2008 to 3:42 pm

    Yossariam – Obviously, we disagree about the films. I don’t question whether Lou Gehrig deserved a biopic–he did. But the one he got gets just about everything wrong about him and put Babe Ruth, who didn’t speak with Gehrig for 6 years, front and center. That’s disrespectful in my book.
    As for Bernadette, the film doesn’t really take on whether the visions are really miraculous; I’ll respectfully decline to bash religion, though I’m not a believer. They were real to Bernadette, and as such, the film does a great job of putting her in her historical context and stays true to her life as she lived it.
    As for The Gallant Hours, I’ve seen it and agree with your assessment of it.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    28th/05/2008 to 8:20 am

    I hate being late to the party. Now no one will read my brilliant insights. Oh wait, I don’t have any. Whew, that was close.
    I’ll cede the floor to everyone above on all the points made and try and go in a different direction. I think biopics are popular in the same way any other genre pic is; they offer a different mode of story-telling. I approach biopics as fiction films that use historical figures for their characters.
    Of course, I still avoid biopics of figures I admire or have a keen interest in because the fiction doesn’t work for me the more I know about the real figure. I much prefer to read about an event or person or see a biodoc on them after seeing the fictional biopic. If it’s the other way around the movie usually pales in comparison to real life events and thus doesn’t interest me.
    Where I think biopics usually falter is that they provide dramatic license where none need be applied. Having a keen interest in the history of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard, of whom I’ve written about on my blog, I have always found their lives and the events surrounding their lives to be so intrinsically dramatic and tragic (in the true Aristotelian sense concerning the hero’s tragic flaw) that no dramatic license is required. Simply tell their story as straightforward as you can and it will be gripping. And yet Roland Joffe and producer/star Paul Newman didn’t believe this and filled Fat Man and Little Boy with more distortions, additions and deletions than would seem humanly possible for a two hour biopic. If you have geekily read every book on the subject ever written (as I have, really I think I have) you will know that there is almost no reality in that movie. As such, the tragedy of those characters is lost.
    In Day One based on the Peter Wyden book, which I reviewed months ago and ended up getting into an argument over Hiroshima with Bill in the comments section about (we’ve since stopped political opining with each other on the blog – probably for the best), they tell the story of Oppenheimer, Szilard and Groves according to the almost exact details of history. As a result the film ( a made for tv movie no less ) is at least ten times more interesting to watch than Fat Man and Little Boy.
    Of course, even so it has its problems. One being that it is so adherant to the facts that often times, unless the viewer knows the history, they will be confused as the story shows processes that actually occurred but fails to explain the thoughts behind them in an effort to get every fact crammed into the three hour running time. The scenes dealing with Haakan Chevalier asking Oppie for info on what he’s doing so that the Soviets can be included made little sense to my wife when she watched it with me because so much of the backstory of Chevalier and Oppie could not be included. The scenes were absolutely accurate but seemed confusing to the average viewer.
    And now that takes us to where, as Fox said, sometimes documentaries can be more problematic than biopics. In the documtary, The Day After Trinity which I also reviewed and loved, there are interviews with Chevalier. I even made a trailer for the doc in which I include the clip of Chevalier reading the letter he sent Oppenheimer after Hiroshima. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I love the documentary and admire it very much, it’s director, Jon Else, let’s Chevalier off the hook.
    Chevalier knew from general confirmations from others close to the situation that Oppie was working on constructing an atomic bomb. He knew that Oppie was heading up the project and couldn’t be connected with any hint of espionage in any way and yet Chevalier continued to prod him for info to get to the Soviets and tried to get Oppie to crack until finally, at the party shown in the movie (an event that did occur), Oppie had to be forceful and tell Chevalier that he could not be involved and that Chevalier needed to stop asking now. He let Chevalier know that he was not unsympathetic to those ideas but that Chevalier was going too far with it and he needed to back off. Chevalier wanted to get the info to George Eltenton who had direct ties with the Soviets.
    Oppie, as the books on him show over and over again, was stunningly brilliant but hopelessly naive. He reported that George Eltenton was trying to get info on the project out of Los Alamos but refused to identify how he knew this, not thinking that the Government wouldn’t stop until they knew how Oppie had found out. He said three people had been approached because he didn’t want Chevalier’s name to come into it and… well, it’s all very confusing. The point is mistakes and misfires of judgment were made on both sides and Day One shows this, however confusingly, while The Day After Trinity the documentary, leaves out all of the above info on Chevalier and makes it seem as if one day Oppie just decided that he would start making up lies about Chevalier. You get nothing on Eltenton, nothing on Chevalier prodding for info to give to the Soviets. Chevalier comes off in the doc as if he has no idea how he is connected with any of this. Surely Else knew how he was connected but chose not to pry.
    So I haven’t really said anything but took up a lot of space saying it. Sorry. After all that I think all I was trying to say is that biopics work better when you don’t know anything about the subject and even better when they stick to the facts.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/05/2008 to 9:16 am

    Jonathan – That was a really great comment, and I agree that some lives are dramatic enough. Why creatives think they have to be tinkered with, I don’t know.
    I think it’s the responsibility of an filmmaker–biopic or documentary–to ensure that a viewer coming cold to a story can follow it. Sometimes that means cutting extraneous material, adding title cards, or creating a dramatic bridge. The faithful may quibble, but in the end, we can admit that it was for the best.
    And thanks tremendously for this capsule about the Manhattan Project. I have a passing knowledge of it, but nothing nearly as indepth as you provide. I’ll seek out your reviews now and see what more you’ve got to say.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    28th/05/2008 to 10:00 am

    I hope you do. It’s a subject I love discussing, it’s just that most people don’t want to have the discussion outside of black and white determinations. I’ve had many a fight erupt over it, and usually (and this is going to sound egotistical but I swear it’s not) it’s because people don’t bring a factual knowledge to the argument and for the most part (usually just a few minutes in) they realize they’re losing and start getting mad. Witness the comments under the “Day One” review. Just put ‘Oppenheimer’ in the search box at the top and they should both come up. Hope I’m not coming off as pushy with this. It’s a subject I care deeply about and for which I have an intellectual fascination. I still haven’t reviewed the next two docs I was going to because I keep pushing it back. I figured after the first two reviews people needed some space before more preaching from Jonathan Lapper about nuclear weapons.

  • Charles spoke:
    28th/05/2008 to 7:11 pm

    I’m a big consumer of written biographies, and as their very poor cousin (in terms of actual content) I do like biopics. I think the reason they have endured is simply that they are typically a pleasing story arc – subject of movie has talent, no one believes in him, struggles to be heard, finally breaks out and is successful, then often is victim of own success before getting his life together again.
    I liked Walk the Line, apparently reasonably accurate but selective in some areas (the role of religion in Cash’s life mostly left out, his wife made pretty unlikable, not accurate according to her children), Paul Muni made a couple of decent biopics, the Louis Pasteur story for one, sketches out the highlights fairly well anyway.
    I think there are a couple that fit your description of using a real name to hang a fictional story on – The Glenn Miller Story is supposedly not accurate, and I’m guessing Domino, beyond the fact that she was Laurence Harvey’s daughter and was a bounty hunter, was nearly all fiction. I don’t like this sort of spin on the biopic.

  • Daniel spoke:
    29th/05/2008 to 12:03 pm

    I agree with all of these comments, and it’s a hugely interesting topic that I unfortunately can’t dive into head first at this time.
    In early April I wrote a post about the lack of an MLK, Jr. biopic. I basically pleaded my case that King is as deserving as anyone else to have his story told on screen. I suggesting some casting and directing choices. This was really meant for fun, but I was serious about the oddity of King missing from the current biopic trend.
    The comments, almost 60 of them, ranged from jokes about the casting choices to praise of Dr. King to, in at least one case, outright racism and charges that the “true” King story couldn’t be told without including some of his less saintly personal characteristics – to which I fully admitted in the post.
    Anyway, my point is that some figures are maybe just larger than life; their stories can’t be fully told in a film without creating controversy. This much is obvious. But, as you mention with Crazy, even the smaller biopics (about people whose stories aren’t well known) can miss the mark. What do you do?
    I’ll admit that my impression, or at least the physical image in my head, of many historical figures is painted by some films. Is that bad? Maybe. But I think I’ve probably gained more accurate information than inaccurate information from those films. Some responsibility needs to be placed on the viewer in understanding that they’re not necessarily watching a factual documentary.
    I’ll stop here because I’m all over the place, but somehow I was just reminded of Downfall, which is not necessarily a biopic but effectively captures, in my opinion, a life experience of a highly complex historical figure.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/05/2008 to 12:36 pm

    Charles, I, too, have read quite a few biographies. I know that one of my motives for reading them was the search for a role model. The first biography I can remember reading was of Clara Barton, a crucial role model for a 10-year-old girl.
    You’re right about the story arc, and I think most filmgoers understand that liberties are taken. I guess I had a fit of conscience when Debra Garland contacted me. I gave Crazy a good review, even while acknowledging that it was basically a “standard” musician’s biopic. I don’t find that arc nearly as pleasing anymore because I’ve seen so many of these films and think they could be so much better if they weren’t such an exercise in formula.
    Thanks for stopping by.
    Daniel – Very insightful comments. I think the absence of a King bio is also strange, but understandable. Perhaps it needs to be made in another country so the U.S. studios will be shielded from taking a hit from the public.
    I would never rely on a biopic to tell me anything of importance about a person. If I want to know more, I’ll turn to a biograpy or history book. I agree with Charles that the story arc is the draw. Unfortunately, real people often are hurt in the process of making entertainment. That’s where the moral dilemma comes in.

  • Pat spoke:
    29th/05/2008 to 6:27 pm

    I’m way late to the party but I’ve been mulling this for a few days since first reading your post.
    I don’t know that I have any deep thoughts to share, but since I’ve just recently re-watched “Marie Antoinette” a couple of times, this is what occurred to me: I think some biopics get made because the filmmaker wants to use a historical personage to comment on contemporary society. With all that 21st century dance music on the soundtrack, you couldn’t help but get the sense Sofia Coppola was drawing parallels between the bubble-headed decadence of the 18th century French court and the revelries of today’s “celebutante” crowd.
    I’m sure there are other films which fall into this same category, but my tired brain isn’t coming up with their titles just now.
    Random note: One biopic I have always loved is “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones are so wonderful. The scene where pregnant, 14-year-old Loretta says goodbye to her father at the train station – that shot of the train rolling in to carry her off to Washington State (and adulthood), then the cut to a close-up of Spacek, wide-eyed and anxious as she hugs her daddy for the last time – that’s a scene that still haunts me.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    29th/05/2008 to 11:14 pm

    Hi again, Marilyn:
    What happened to your post over at “Film of the Month?” I enjoyed it, and thought you made your case cogently.
    By the way, I agree with you that documentaries are generally more objective than biopics; I don’t trust biopics in general, either, except as entertainments. In the case of the Hara doc, I think he was fundamentally on the side of Okuzaki, and slanted the film in his favor. That’s ok, every documentarian has a point of view, it’s not possible to be otherwise. It’s just a matter of the degree to which their biases creep into the finished product.

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