All biography is ultimately fiction,” said the novelist Bernard Malamud, and you know what? The old boy was right. Why would Hollywood continue to bother with the venerable biopic if filmmakers couldn’t sand the ornery edges off a real person’s existence and repackage it for general consumption? Whether directorial choices are made for artistic or commercial reasons, they still have to be made — otherwise we’d be watching scrupulously faithful 657,000-hour reenactments of the lives of the famous instead of the two-hour compressed versions our rear ends can safely accept.
Or the three-hour fanny warmers that win Oscars, because, let’s face it, voting members of the actors’ branch of the Academy have always dearly loved it when one of their brethren takes on a biographical role. This year’s no different, with both ”Ali”’s Will Smith and ”A Beautiful Mind”’s Russell Crowe receiving Best Actor nods for playing true to life — more or less (in the case of the controversial ”Mind,” way less). Either man could easily win, but what’s interesting in the long Hollywood view is how these two roles — Muhammad Ali and John Nash — represent the established twin poles of the biopic genre: the Great Man and the Brilliant Basket Case.
Of the two, the Great Man movie has been around far longer. As early as the 1929?30 Academy Awards ceremony, stage veteran George Arliss won Best Actor for re-creating his Broadway smash ”Disraeli,” in which he portrayed the 19th- century British prime minister who helped establish the Victorian empire and (here, anyway) played Cupid to young lovebirds. As creaky as ”Disraeli” looks today, it was a huge popular hit that briefly established ”The First Gentleman of the Talking Screen” as a top-rank star. Both film and performance were also exactly the kind of upscale fare the Academy had been formed to honor — perfect for proving, in the words of the town’s moral watchdog, Will Hays, that ”good taste is good business.”
Ironically, the next Great Man biopic to garner a Best Actor was 1933’s randy, raffish ”The Private Life of Henry VIII” — filmed in England, where the censorious Hays Office rules didn’t apply. A box office sensation in both countries, ”Henry” also made a star out of Charles Laughton, who, as the notorious Tudor king, roistered his way through six wives and, as The New York Times accurately stated, ”looks as if he had stepped from the frame of Holbein’s painting of Henry.” Paul Muni was also nominated that year, for ”I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” but he was so sure his British rival would win that he didn’t even bother to show up. ”Why go?” he beefed. ”Americans don’t like American actors.”
Three years later, Muni proved himself wrong by donning whiskers and winning an Oscar for ”The Story of Louis Pasteur,” a hit that sprang the actor out of the gangster-movie ghetto and into a new career as the ”King of the Biopics.” Lives of Émile Zola and Benito Juárez followed, but, as costar Bette Davis later wrote, ”it was sad to see him slowly disappear behind his elaborate makeup, his putty noses, his false lips, his beard. One of the few funny things Jack Warner ever said was, ‘Why are we paying him so much money when we can’t find him?”’
As World War II loomed, the Great Man biography took a more topical turn with Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Alvin York, the World War I pacifist-turned-war-hero subject of ”Sergeant York.” The top-grossing film of 1941, ”York” was also one of the first biopics to tackle a living person, a fact that gave Coop pause. ”York himself came to tell me I was his own choice for the role,” he said, ”but I still felt I couldn’t handle it…. He was too big for me, he covered too much territory.” That laconic humility suited the part, of course, and it surfaced again at the Oscar banquet that took place in February 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor. ”It was Sergeant Alvin York who won this award,” Cooper said after Jimmy Stewart, in military uniform, handed him the statue. ”Shucks, I’ve been in the business 16 years and sometimes dreamed I might get one of these things. That’s all I can say.”