100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Biopics, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.

5) Marie Antoinette (2006), directed by Sofia Coppola – featuring Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette begins with the transformation of Maria Antonia of Austria into Marie Antoinette of France. Shipped with a couple of friends and one of her trademark lapdogs to a tent on the Franco-Austrian border, she is forced to give up everything Austrian about her so she may become the Dauphine of France. Her loose hair is transformed to a neat coif. Stripped entirely, her old clothes are replaced with a ritzier French outfit, and she’s made up to suit the fashion of her new home. It’s surprisingly moving not just because it’s obvious that the young Maria is unprepared for what it will mean to be the Dauphine, but because the movie presents this change without batting an eye. Losing the dog is sad (and is meant to be sad, I suppose), but it’s by and large a straightfaced sequence punctuated only with a couple of choice comments from Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson tossed onto the same heap where they’ll presumably pile Maria’s Austrian doohickeys. From the name on down, a new woman is set to appear at Versailles, one who has not given any real thought to the responsibilities set to be thrust upon her, perhaps unaware that there will be any serious responsibilities. The movie never acts as if Marie Antoinette is a fool, but it does point the finger at the society infantilizing her. No piece of the plot covers as much ground or lasts so long as the “will they won’t they” vibe of the conjugal act which Louis won’t perform. The fact of an heir is given as her responsibility, not his, and not merely because she is the one who will have to birth the brat; Louis’ reticence to seal the deal places their marriage in a perilous state, and yet it cannot be Marie who initiates the contact. There are self-proclaimed comedies of manners which don’t negotiate their situations with the deftness present in scenes where Marie Antoinette reservedly tries to interest her totally clueless husband. (Louis XVI is the role of a lifetime for Jason Schwartzman.)

Aside from certain signposts, which function more like chapter titles than links to Wikipedia pages, Marie Antoinette is basically unconcerned with history. As much as anything else, that makes the film a great biopic. The movie knows that “Let them eat cake” is a made-up quote (which is delivered in an imagined scene where Marie, in the bath, wears lipstick twice as dark as anything else she’s had on), but it knows that the quote sums up something about the person that has genuine resonance. Marie and her friends go to parties, flirt, drink, try on clothes, gossip, and generally hang out. They live a life of unaccountable leisure, expressed in garish terms, and one hardly has to express a cakey thought to have lived an enormously cakey existence. Rose Byrne and Kirsten Dunst emphasize, in scene after scene of carefree luxury, the vapid joy of the unexamined life; in the end, of course, examination time comes in the gloaming when the mob appears at Versailles and the Capets pack up and leave their palace. At this point, the movie has moved nearly two decades beyond that day when Maria became Marie, and much of that time has elapsed more or less without our supervision. For all the bonbons and shoes and pop music that she’s consumed, she appears to be, in the movie’s final twenty minutes, a real person. As frivolous as the movie might appear to some eyes, it was always leading up to the day when Marie Antoinette would have to pay the piper; as unexpected as those last twenty minutes are, they do deflect much of the caprice of Marie’s younger years.

4) Reds (1981), directed by Warren Beatty – featuring Warren Beatty as John Reed

Reds is a movie in three minds. The first half belongs to one of them—call it “Louise”—in which the ultra-leftist elements of the bohemian American intelligentsia circa 1915 coolly envelop a woman desperate to break free from her bourgeois background. In so doing, she opens the key to a fascinating life which, in return, eliminates any possibility for a peaceful life. The entire movie is watched by the third mind—”Witness”—in which a chorus of real old people (you can read that emphasizing whichever adjective you want and it’s true) tells the story of the world as they remember it. But the second half belongs to what the movie believes to be its primary mind—”Jack”—who is really just as bourgeois as his wife and has much more riding on his Communist persona. Two of those minds are engaging, maybe even enthralling. But it’s Jack Reed who is the focus, and the focus on Jack is like wearing a pair of contact lenses which are no longer the right prescription. There’s a good case to be made that Reds is one of those strange biopics in which the personal biography of its protagonist is its weakest piece. Weak is, of course, a relative term, because there are plenty of other biopics that would give their eyeteeth to have a performance as strong as Warren Beatty’s. But it is endlessly fascinating to me that the movie wants to spend so much time building up to an impromptu battle outside a train somewhere between Baku and Moscow. Reed, an idiosyncratic American among a very European group, demands that his propaganda be left alone even if it does not precisely align with Zinoviev’s Party line. “Revolution is dissent!” Reed cries, forcing out his catchphrase (“You don’t rewrite what I write!”) as the train car shakes and the glass shatters on the floor behind him, throwing Reed forward. After watching the battle rage between the revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionaries, Reed decides to take his chances. He runs. It’s a great moment, but it’s the only great moment of Reds which is just for Jack Reed.

That moment does play into a telling theme, I think, namely the push to be seen as a serious person. In that sense the movie is more about Warren Beatty than about Jack Reed, which was probably already true, but it’s a guiding force for Reed’s character nonetheless. As a journalist who is not a delegate to the Socialist Party’s convention, Reed is shouted down when he tries to ask questions of its imperious but kinda shrimpy master of ceremonies. (Alas: William Daniels gives up better than half a foot to Beatty, which is used to comic effect at one point.) “You have no credentials here!” he is told, and while it’s literally true it seems to nurse his subconscious with venom. With the proletariat of the new Soviet Union, he learns that credentials are given to anyone who wishes to speak; through a translator, he tells an excited crowd that the American worker is waiting for the good example of the Russian worker to lead the way. (Durn skippy.) The publication of Ten Days That Shook the World, probably the most important contribution Reed made to history, is surprisingly muted in the film; even so, the fact that this gave Reed international credentials for his journalism is spoken to by a witness. The movie splits its focus in that second half, showing on top of Reed’s burgeoning political career how he can never really validate his marriage with Bryant with the usual set of indicators: consistency, presence, primacy. Whether or not it’s really possible to have adequate credentials for everything in one’s life is answered in the negative by this film.

3) Milk (2008), directed by Gus Van Sant – featuring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

The real source material for many biopics isn’t the life of the person in question but the book which has already done the legwork. Milk leans heavily on The Mayor of Castro Street, Randy Shilts’ political biography of Milk, as well as the marvelous documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. With those advantages, Milk starts life on third base; add in Van Sant and a group of performers who, for the most part, have never been better, and this is simply one of the best biopics ever made. The movie is certainly formulaic; it makes the buildup to Prop 6 and the sheer wonder of the victory for gay rights more triumphal than it needs to be, for example. The montage of counties being colored in green as Milk and his team get the good news has too much Al Michaels in Lake Placid in it, especially after the movie has done the rags-to-riches narrative for Milk’s political career. It even cuts a flashback into the movie to make sure we remember that Harvey was right when he turned forty: he told Scott he’d never hit fifty. (If Harvey Milk had not, in fact, been an opera lover in real life, then that extended sequence with Tosca would be just unbearable.) But even if this movie is the meatloaf of biopics, then Van Sant sure can cook. He reminds us every now and then, unobtrusively but effectively, that he’s not scared of high-concept shots. Cleve Jones calls one person from a telephone booth, and while he’s making that call more boxes open on screen, showing people making their own calls, until there must be hundreds of people in hundreds of boxes. The shot where Harvey confronts a cop in the reflection of a whistle about a gay man who was beaten to death and carrying the same whistle as a way to call for help is brilliant. Form follows function: the story means to emphasize that desperate plea for safety, and chooses to do so by shooting a smudgy reflection in what is ultimately an impotent tool. Even footage in that home video style, which usually annoys me, is seamlessly integrated; of course the movie from New York to San Francisco, from business to hippie, is documented in this warm, optimistic, fuzzy tone.

I’ve written at length before about how Milk takes so much of its strength by surrounding its title character with foils:

Each of its foils for Milk—Smith, Cleve Jones (Hirsch), Jack Lira (Diego Luna), and Dan White (Brolin)—functions to show how Milk is within and without them, to borrow a phrase; in other words, how each of them is an intrinsic piece of Milk’s successes, and how none of them could become as great as Milk.

There are enormous casts in about half of the biopics I’ve selected here—including MilkThe Diary of Anne FrankRedsThe Aviator—but alone among those is the relative brevity of Milk. In a slim movie of a little more than two hours, those foils are squeezed in and moved at speed, never spending too much time on any one person and yet never walking away from an individual until he has served his purpose. If Milk really differs from other Point A to Point Z biopics, it’s in a willingness to cast aside characters before they die. It seems, upon first viewing, that Scott Smith should be by Harvey’s side until the end because we’re used to seeing our Great Men given a consistently suffering and faithful presence at home. After multiple viewings, of course Scott must fall away. He only suits the first Harvey, the one who is much too generous to enter the literally murderous world of big city politics. His later appearances in the movie are always surprising and never unwelcome; he shows up when Harvey is succumbing to the blues at his birthday bash, or to counter Harvey’s Machiavellian (but ultimately effective) plan to show straight Californians they know gay Californians. The lesson of Milk is a hard-earned one: you can’t hold onto everything good.

2) The Aviator (2004), directed by Martin Scorsese – featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes

From the beginning of The Aviator, the idea of “quarantine” is brought up again and again. As much as it’s associated with Hughes’ debilitating OCD, which dominates so much of the movie’s attention and our imaginations, it would be true of Howard even if he were psychologically whole. At a hearing meant to cripple his public standing and ultimately force him to give in to a commercial airline monopoly, he tells off his nemesis’ lapdog, Senator Ralph Owen Brewster. “Now, I am supposed to be many things which are not complimentary,” he says. He is mustached now, still showing the effects of the experimental airplane crash which scuttled his good looks and the mental illness which did the same to his youthful vitality. “I am supposed to be capricious—I have been called a playboy—I’ve even been called an eccentric.” All three of those are true, and all three are likely to isolate someone in the long term. His interests may be pretty steady, but it is impossible for even his closest business associates to keep track of what he’ll choose to do next. (Penny’s? Woolworth’s? Sears?) There’s no doubt that his possessive dispositions around women, picking them up like pennies off the street and disposing of them with the same kind of carelessness. He signs a young actress, Faith Domergue, to be under personal contract to him. He is in a long-term, relatively stable relationship with Kate Hepburn, whose relationship with Howard is extraordinarily warm. Yet the scandal rags are still filled from stem to stern with pictures of him going out with every actress in Hollywood. The eccentricity is probably the real killer, even though his taste for being seen with beautiful women is the last straw for Katherine, whose own star is fading. The line between “eccentricity” and “crippling mental illness” is thinner than paper, but it’s hard to believe that even without the OCD Howard Hughes would be a normal dude. Normal people don’t insist on flying their own planes in dangerous experimental flights. Normal people don’t make a massive movie epic and then reshoot it for sound once it’s done. Normal people don’t put everything they have at risk just to prove a point. Normal people don’t plan to build the biggest plane ever and then spend their time worrying about installing the right wheel.

“Capricious,” “playboy,” “eccentric” we can vouch for, but there is one characterization that Hughes does not much care for. “I do not believe I have the reputation of being a liar.” As much as his caprice, sex life, and eccentricity work against him in his life, it is his straightforward speech that makes him dangerous. He is willing to call the government’s intent to make Pan Am the national airline of the United States a “monopoly” born of inside dealing between Brewster and Pan Am leader Juan Trippe. Even though he is fabulously rich himself, he is not much given to the niceties or hobbies of other rich people. Juan Trippe, who looks and smells like old money even though no one talks about his background, is Corporate Enemy No. 1 for Howard. Same goes for Political Enemy No. 1, Brewster. (Hughes likes the long game when he fools with people, especially as a Texan fighting off condescending Yankees, and there’s a great scene where Howard finds some ammunition he’ll use later. “What is that?” he asks, pointing to a painting Brewster has on the wall. “Is that a yak?” Brewster is flustered. “No…that’s a llama,” he says. “Son of a gun,” Howard replies. “A real llama.”) The real scorched earth comment he lays down on Katharine’s family, who sneer at people who have to work. Hughes is rightly proud of the aeronautic engineering he and his team are doing, only to have Katharine’s mother make a reply about birdhouses. He reads the trade journals, as one might expect from a man in his position. The Hepburns read books. Upon hearing that the obviously wealthy Hepburns don’t care about money, Howard can no longer stomach it. “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it,” he says. Eccentric, yes. Liar, not at all.

1) Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), directed by Todd Haynes – featuring dolls as Karen Carpenter

Pick your reason why Superstar has been banished to the wilds of the Internet: it’s unauthorized by the family (sure), it uses Carpenters songs without paying them (legally true), Richard is totally gay in Superstar (I think we’re getting warmer!). All the same, Superstar is one of the great biopics ever made. In less than an hour, Haynes rewrites the rules for what a biopic can do. The 1989 TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story featured Cynthia Gibb as Karen, and the movie had significant trouble walking the line between depicting Karen’s eating disorders and keeping Gibb healthy; part of the reason Gibb was cast was that she naturally had a slight build, but all the same the movie cannot go to the lengths that Haynes does with his Barbie dolls. Karen’s body changes through the film because one can cut away at a doll without breaking basic moral codes, and so even in the grainy footage that remains of Superstar, we can see the havoc that Karen wreaks on herself. The oeuvre of the Carpenters veers dangerously close to muzak and steps over that boundary from time to time, but Karen’s actual singing voice—which was exceptional and powerful—stands up for itself in the way that the movie’s Karen never does. It also takes on chilling symbolic meanings. Since seeing this movie, I’ve never been able to listen to “Top of the World,” a thoroughly cheerful little tune, without associating it with the anorectic thrill of denying oneself food. Haynes finds those intersections and tears them wide open, finding the darkness in the sunshiny California lives of the most wholesome duo any parents could conceive of. In the name of the movie itself, Haynes finds the deep sadness in Karen that is too often elided or worse, ignored, in her music. “Superstar” is a melancholy song, self-effacing in its chorus in a way that no other Carpenters song can match. The film watches Karen efface herself with a combination of “dieting,” Ex-Lax, ipecac. There are wheels within wheels in what Haynes shows us here in a very short film, and what he packs into that time is nothing short of stunning.

“As we investigate the story of Karen Carpenter’s life and death we are presented with an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity. We will see how Karen’s visibility as a popular singer only intensified certain difficulties many women experience in relation to their bodies.” So says a surprising interstitial in the movie, which presents the central thesis of Superstar about as bluntly as it can be. Movie biopics eventually turn into questions of fame in the same way that movies have a better shot at winning Oscars if they’re about moviemaking; this is the case in several of the movies I’ve highlighted already. Superstar reads fame as something which can be read at a level beyond the personal, or, in other words, finds ways to privilege discourse about fame without rooting it in the star personae of the actors (or directors). Reds, for example, can’t help but reflect Beatty and his twenty years in the spotlight; his Jack Reed has the all-consuming need for control that characterized Beatty as a filmmaker. The Aviator takes one of the world’s biggest stars and shows his journey into the spotlight, how he burned underneath it, and then came back stronger but very different; it’s not unlike DiCaprio’s own career path up to that point. Superstar, with a basically unknown director at the helm and no stars to steal the spotlight, has the leeway to think about how stardom, combined with “contemporary femininity,” pushed Karen onto a path she could not extricate herself from.

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