FROM THE PULPIT
F RANK M C L YNN
Napoleon (1927) could do more than skim the surface. Alfred Hitchcock once explained why great novels could not be satisfactorily filmed. In order to provide a visual equivalent of the texture
THE PERFECT BIOPIC
I NTHEIRRELENTLESS search for the crock of gold, cinema’s moguls and fat cats seem to have decided that the so-called ‘biopic’ might be where El Dorado is located. In the last twelve months there have been biographical treatments of figures as varied as Alfred Kinsey, Howard Hughes, Alexander the Great, J M Barrie, Che Guevara, Ray Charles, and the singer Bobby Darin. It is a safe bet that the vogue for biopics will fade away like all the other Hollywood crazes once the paying customers vote with their feet, as they surely will. But the biopic will never entirely go away, as the genre is as old as the movies themselves – Georges Méliès produced an ‘epic’ on Joan of Arc as early as 1899. Yet it remains the case that the stories of great and even not-so-great lives have not fared well on the silver screen. Warner Brothers, always the most serious of the Hollywood studios, made a valiant attempt in the 1930s to popularise the biopic. Their doyen of the biographical art was Paul Muni, who played Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, Benito Juárez and Pierre Radisson (the Arctic explorer) as well as (in Seven Faces) an entire biographical gallery including Napoleon, Schubert, Svengali and Don Juan. Yet the public reacted coldly, and Muni’s critics said what they later said of Alec Guinness’s performances – that the directors suffered from the delusion that heavy disguise was itself great acting. In my opinion, it was the scripts, not the make-up, that were the culprit. Biographical screenplays habitually suffer from two main faults. If they attempt ‘womb to tomb’ completeness they become merely tedious – a very good recent example of this is the over-reverential treatment of a feminist icon in Frida (Kahlo), starring Salma Hayek. Or they become mere hagiography, as in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, where the eponymous hero is virtually canonised on celluloid, with no mention of his dark and bizarre side (the daily enemas, the habit of sleeping with naked girls to test his chastity, etc). A recent example of the ‘hero as saint’ genre is Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which contains no mention of ace mathematician John Nash’s bisexuality. Since cinema is above all a story medium, biography by definition provides a linear narrative, and the best stories are always the true ones, there appears to be a conundrum here worth solving. Why are there so few decent biographical movies? It seems to me, as both biographer and cinephile, that the superficial convergence of the biography and the movie masks profound differences. Great lives usually fall into two groups: those where the hero’s (or heroine’s) significant actions occupy a relatively brief moment in time, and those where so much happens that the biography, if presented as fiction, would warrant the objection ‘far too much, way over the top’. To take the latter case first, not even Abel Gance’s famous six-hour-plus film of
and nuance of, say, a Dostoevsky novel, a proper film of The Brothers Karamazov could not be produced at a running time of less than twenty hours. Now who would sit through that, even with intervals for the calls of nature? By extension it follows that the best films are always made from second-rate novels (often thrillers or westerns) or short stories (the great 1975 John Huston masterpiece The Man Who Would Be King is the best example). The other problem about full biographical treatment in the movies is that many people achieve great things young and then live out their lives in mediocrity – one thinks of such characters as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Sir Richard Burton, or Sir Fitzroy Maclean. On the other hand, movie structure requires a progression over three acts, with the famous ‘arc of the character’ ever in the ascendant. In other words, the world of contingency (biography) is in conflict with the world of necessity (movie structure). There emerges the paradox that movies are either too much or not enough when it comes to biography. The solution is to concentrate on people who truly lived (in the full sense) only at certain moments in their life, provided that these moments occurred after mid-life. This narrows the list of eligible candidates considerably and would edge out one of my own favourites, Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St Louis (1957), with James Stewart as an over-age Lindbergh on his famous solo transatlantic flight of 1927. My choice as most successful biopic to date is Franklin Shaffner’s outstanding Patton(1970). General George Patton was a phantom brought to life only by the warfare of 1942–45. In this film the whole of Patton’s personality is truthfully and correctly distilled in the depiction of his controversial performance in Tunisia, Sicily and the Ardennes. For once the equilibrium point between life and the movies, contingency and necessity, is reached, and George C Scott’s Oscar-winning performance in the title role is the icing on the cake. Those seeking a more modern example might care to check out the current release Capote, directed by Bennett Miller and also boasting a probable Oscarwinning turn, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. Truman Capote reached his creative apogee in the years 1959–65 when he was researching the Clutter murder case in Kansas for his finest book, In Cold Blood. He never wrote anything significant thereafter and lurched into alcoholism and drug-taking. Miller took the correct decision to present the life of Capote as encapsulated in a mere six years. Whether the paying public is interested enough in Capote to make the film successful at the box-office is an entirely different question.
LITERARY REVIEW February 2006