Monday, November 14, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH BIOPICS

John Huston once famously said that 90% of a film’s success comes down to the casting. No matter how good the script is or how expert the talent is behind the scenes, if an audience doesn’t believe the people saying the lines, the picture is doomed. In the case of the movie J. EDGAR that just opened, bad casting does it in. While the film is a noble effort, polished and well-produced in many regards, Leonardo DiCaprio simply is too young and earnest and frankly, too handsome, to play the role of the small, ugly prick that J.Edgar Hoover was. His casting doomed the film before a frame of film was run through the camera.
Leonardo DiCaprio buried under heavy makeup to play J. EDGAR (2011)
But it isn’t all DiCaprio’s fault. There are many other problems with the movie as well. Clint Eastwood’s natural laconic inclinations don’t really fit the story of a man who is so shamelessly driven and obsessive. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay misses huge chapters of Hoover’s sins, particularly his denial of the existence of the Mafia for the better part of 40 years. And the old age makeup used on the players is distracting and does no favors to any of them. In fact, J. EDGAR may serve as a poster child for all the problems of biopics. It is one of the trickiest genres to do well and almost all of those that fail do so for the same obvious reasons. Here then are the five biggest issues that every biopic flails and fails because of.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2004)
CASTING THE WRONG ACTORS
Someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti would not only have been better for the role of J.Edgar, but they even evoke him more physically. Again, DiCaprio is too young, too tall and attractive to pull off the role of the bulldog of a man. Neither Hoffman and Giamatti are typically handsome leading men and I’ll bet that insight would have enabled them to understand how Hoover felt standing on the outside looking in, while the handsome Kennedy’s ruled. DiCaprio is a very good actor but he has been cast a number of times in movies that require age or perspective that he clearly doesn’t have yet. Or isn't able to translate. His has been a charmed life since his youth and it's hard to conjure villainy or desperation when you're that successful so young. His role as renegade Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2004) was only a partial success as he couldn't quite capture all of Hughes' take-no-prisoners style in his younger days or the outsized craziness of his waning years.
DiCaprio with Armie Hammer in J. EDGAR (2011)
SUFFOCATING ACTORS UNDER HEAVY MAKEUP
You know how when you watch a really good Pixar movie, you can’t help but forget it’s animated after 10 minutes because its story is so involving? Well, it’s exactly the opposite when movies trap young actors under ridiculously heavy makeup. One can’t help but dwell on it the whole time as it makes actors look so different as to appear alien. Or worse! In the case of Armie Hammer, his old age makeup in J. EDGAR made him look like a burn victim. He was buried under so much rubber he could barely register any facial movement. And DiCaprio didn’t fare much better. The huge baldhead piece he wears pinches his features into the center so that he looks like a dyspeptic Halloween pumpkin. It created laughs in all the wrong places. 
Max von Sydow, before and after THE EXORCIST (1973)
One of the best make-up jobs at aging someone was done for THE EXORCIST (1973). The legendary Dick Smith aged the fortysomething Max von Sydow into the seventysomething Father Merrin. Smith didn’t add layers and layers of rubber but rather merely added a thin layer of dry wrinkles contoured to the natural planes of von Sydow’s face. It’s still one of the best aging jobs ever. And a lesson lost on the immobile faces in J.EDGAR. They are almost as fake and frightening as the mask Ryan Gosling wore in DRIVE this year.
Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
TELLING THE STORY CRADLE TO GRAVE
Any time a biopic starts with an old geezer recounting his story and then flashes back to childhood, the movie is usually already in trouble. The simple fact is that most movies only have a couple of hours to tell their story and to try and cover a span of 70-80 years is a foolish undertaking. Rather than cram that much story into a movie the filmmakers would be better doing a TV miniseries where a narrative of 4-8 hours can cover that many decades efficiently.
Peter O'Toole in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
The best biopics are those that use only a portion of a subject’s life to inform us of the person’s history. Movies like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), CAPOTE (2005), heck, even THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), were better film biographies because they highlighted a small section of their subject’s life. 
George C. Scott as the title character in PATTON (1970)
TOO MUCH SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Another great shortcoming of J.EDGAR is that it tries to create too much sympathy for an utter scoundrel. He was on the wrong side of so much of history: he bugged the bedrooms of civil rights leaders JFK and MLK; he railroaded too many suspected of being anarchists or Communists; he turned his back on organized crime for decades. It’s hard to feel a great deal of pity for such a man. Even if he was closeted and torn up inside by his own secrets. Yet Black’s script and Clint’s tinkling maudlin piano score treat Hoover as a rather tragic figure. Well, he’s no Nixon, a villain who you can’t help but pity. Hoover’s closer to Patton - a prick and a half who took righteousness and turned it into something dark and awful. Despite all the patriotic trappings of the movie PATTON (1970), the film made no mistake about painting its out-of-control general as an egotist run dangerously amuck. Movies about bad-asses can make just as fascinating biopics as telling the story of saints. But filmmakers feel the urge to round out their characters and sometimes that renders them either false or wishy-washy. Hoover was monstrous but that conceit doesn’t come through nearly enough in the movie.
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in WALK THE LINE (2005)
FAKE VOICES REEK OF HIGH SCHOOL PLAYS
One of the things I loved about WALK THE LINE (2005) is that director James Mangold didn’t force stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon to lip-synch the songs of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Instead, he let them use their own voices to sing and that got at the essence of the music without becoming an outright imitation. When J.EDGAR starts out with DiCaprio doing a crotchety old man voice, it rings false. If Eastwood had simply directed DiCaprio to use his own voice but soften it some and slow it down in the more mature scenes of Hoover, I think DiCaprio would have given a much more effective performance.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in CAPOTE (2005)
Sometimes an actor should imitate the subject's voice, particularly if the voice is so well-known. But even in the case of an impressionist’s favorite like Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman opted for a subtler rendering of the famous man’s lisp. He modified his own voice to make it more feminine but he never caricatured Capote into a mincing queen or a Vegas parody the way comics David Frye and Rich Little did in the 70’s.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in MILK (2008)
Allegedly, period pictures are more difficult to get greenlit in Hollywood because of their expense and the inability of the teen movie audience to relate to anything older than 10 years ago. That may be true, but I think that too often period pictures ask the filmmakers and actors to put themselves into the shoes of people they don’t know very well, and to do so they rely on all sorts of crutches or tricks like affected speech, silly costuming and distracting makeup. I hope that the failures of J. EDGAR don’t discourage other film biographies from being made. Dustin Lance Black's Oscar winner MILK is proof that if you cast ‘em right, you’re 90% there.

2 comments:

  1. Wait'll you see IRON LADY. It's J. EDGAR all over again with a female protagonist, though I will say the make up is much better. But it's another over reaching, underwhelming screenplay and just about as much of a mess with regards to its storytelling. And obviously Streep is far more successful as Thatcher than DiCaprio as Hoover. Loved this piece, especially your line about a dyspeptic Halloween pumpkin. Classic.

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  2. Yikes! Sounds like none of these bio pic writers avoided the obvious biopic pitfalls. Too bad. I will look forward to seeing THE IRON LADY as anything with Streep is usually worth a look, but sad to hear it's so disappointing otherwise. Geez.

    And glad you enjoyed this post, Ron. Leo sure did look like a pumpkin. Not good.

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