A few years ago, the Hollywood biopic finally seemed to be coming of age. It was the fall of 2004 — a season that gave us not one but two of the most thrilling biographical dramas ever made, the jumpin’ and impassioned Ray and the bold and brilliant Kinsey. (No, that’s not Kinsey at left — it’s Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt — though it’s probably a ménage he would have approved of.) The fact that these two movies came out within one month of each other was a coincidence, yet I marveled, at the time, at what they had in common: They were warts-and-all portraits that understood, in different ways, that they didn’t need to tidy up their heroes, didn’t need to soft-pedal their quirks and peccadilloes and, yes, their complex human failings. The flaws — like, say, Ray Charles’ promiscuity, his compulsion to juggle relationships as if they were simultaneous marriages — weren’t just part of what made these men fascinating; the flaws were part of what made them great. (Without Ray Charles’ outsize appetites, he would never have had the fearlessness to alchemize the godliness of gospel into the earthy fervor of rock & roll.)
One year later, Walk the Line, a solid if not quite as inspired movie, gave Johnny Cash the same open-eyed, scarred-soul, addiction-is-the-fuel-of-creativity treatment, and Capote created high drama out of the merciless, nearly spooky manipulation of his subjects that Truman Capote was willing to stoop to to create the world’s first nonfiction novel. And once again, audiences responded. The door to a freshly candid and exciting age of biopics had been swung, and propped, wide open. And then? Then, just about as quickly as it had arrived, the trend began to fizzle. Yes, in 2007, there was La Vie en Rose, and there are other examples here and there, but really: Where have all the biopics gone? By which I mean, the great ones.
Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want to see Hollywood do is to make a slew of profoundly overwrought and mediocre melodramas in which young actors, hungry with opportunism, latch onto playing this or that famous person because they think it’s going to win them an Academy Award. Yet what I’m missing — in fact, I’m really missing it right now, in the early stages of this awards season — is the high egomaniacal wallop, the irresistible theater, of a truly fantastic biopic performance. And no, Hilary Swank caressing her noble vowels in Amelia doesn’t count.
It’s worth noting that back in my formative film-buff years, the ’70s and early ’80s, the biopic was widely thought of as a cheesy, second-rate form. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses as films, it was hard to pretend that a lively and affectionate B movie like The Buddy Holly Story (1978), a sepia-toned common-man pamphlet like Bound for Glory (1976), a David Lean wannabe like Reds (1981), or a soap opera from hell like Frances (1982) was giving you a psychologically rich, true-to-life portrait. Here, as in so many other biopics, the famous protagonists mostly came off as plaster saints. Raging Bull (1980), of course, was a rare unvarnished masterpiece of the form, and The Doors (1991) looks better every time you see it, but I think that the artists who really revolutionized the biopic were Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
They were the screenwriting partners who wrote Ed Wood (1994) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), movies in which the heroes were so disreputable, so famously and fundamentally defined by their flaws — worst filmmaker of all time, scurrilous glossy-magazine pornographer — that the films were like a visionary new genre: biopics about the very sorts of people Hollywood would never stoop to make a biopic about. You couldn’t hide the flaws; the flaws were the point. Yet there was an odd morality to these films. As heroes, Ed Wood and Larry Flynt achieved an ironic, touching valor because they were so far from being up on pedestals, and the movies allowed Johnny Depp and Woody Harrelson to attain new heights as actors.
Alexander and Karaszewski wrote one other loopy-inspired biopic, and I do believe that it’s one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of the last 20 years: Man on the Moon, the Andy Kaufman story that presented comedy’s infamous stunt maverick not as some avant-garde “postmodern” prankster but as the very soul of showbiz — a man who turned everything he touched into theater, thus turning himself into a hollowed-out messiah of the Entertainment Age. But Man on the Moon was not viewed as a success, and neither was Auto-Focus, Paul Schrader’s audacious and powerful 2002 biopic of Bob Crane — Hogan’s Heroes star, C-list celebrity, and pioneering video-voyeur sex addict. (Though not written by Alexander and Karaszewki, the movie was very much conceived in their style.)
Then came Ray, Kinsey, and Capote, with their memorably messed-up, driven-genius heroes. And I’m still waiting for more biopics that are as vivid, true, and enticing to watch. Early next year, Kristen Stewart stars as the young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Whether it proves inspired or lame, I can think of a million more movies like that one I’d love to see. When you really sit back and think about it, the possibilities are endless.
So who would you like to see a biopic devoted to? And by that I really mean…think outside the box. What real-life person would make a great movie character? Even if — or maybe because — they’re the last person on earth you’d expect to see a movie about?