Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

You Ought To Be In Pictures (originally published 2/05)

Making a biographical movie can be a tricky proposition, especially if the subject of the biography is still living. Anyone whose life becomes the subject of a film during their lifetime is likely to be a celebrity. That means that their face, voice, and mannerisms will be well known to audiences, all of which complicates the job of the actor who portrays them.

There is, however, another option. Once in a while an intrepid producer will sidestep the whole problem by hiring the actual person to play the part, carrying typecasting to its logical conclusion, you might say. That's what Showtime has done in their original series, "Fat Actress," which stars Kirstie Alley as Kirstie Alley. For an overview of earlier films that used the same ploy, look for these titles on video.

"The Fabulous Dorseys" (1947). Swing era bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey play themselves in a musical dual biography. We see them as feuding siblings who are ultimately reconciled by the common tragedy of their father's death. Fellow bandleader Paul Whiteman also appears as himself. The real star of the show, however, is the music.

"The Jackie Robinson Story" (1950). The man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball portrays himself in this sincere recreation of his struggle against racial prejudice. The script was wisely crafted to demand little from Robinson in the way of acting. His thespian limitations are more than made up for by the excellent performances of Ruby Dee as his wife and Louise Beavers as his mother. They are able to carry much of the story's emotional content, while the film's thematic thrust is largely carried by Minor Watson as Branch Rickey, the man who hired Robinson to play for the Dodgers.

"To Hell and Back" (1955). Among the celebrities who have portrayed themselves on film, Audie Murphy is unusual in that he had already established himself as a movie star before being asked to re-enact for the camera the events outside of show business that made him famous. Renowned as the most decorated veteran of World War II, Murphy parlayed his notoriety into a movie career, beginning with a 1948 Alan Ladd picture called "Beyond Glory." Three years later he won his spurs as a real live actor (as opposed to just a movie star) with his critically acclaimed performance in John Huston's film adaptation of "The Red Badge of Courage." In chronicling his own war exploits in "To Hell and Back," then, he was able to combine the authority of having lived the events with the camera confidence of an experienced film actor.

"The Greatest" (1977). When the time came to make a movie out of Muhammad Ali's modestly titled memoir, there could be little doubt as to who would play the lead. Ali was no actor, to be sure, but he was a seasoned performer just the same. His successful self-promotion had been built around the creation of an outrageous public persona, and no one knew better than he how to put on that persona for the cameras.

"Sophia Loren: Her Own Story" (1980). Here we have the fascinating spectacle of a movie star starring in a movie about her own movie career, but without the sense of irony that informs Alley's turn in "Fat Actress." It's either the most natural thing in the world or the most perverse, depending on your point of view. Actually, it reminds me of Marlon Brando's comment when he was asked some years ago to discuss his movie roles in detail for publication. He declined, saying that it would be "like picking lint out of your navel and smoking it." In any case, if you can't get enough of Sophia, this is the movie for you. In fact, she ups the ante by portraying not only herself but also her own mother.

As you watch these autobiographical performances, keep in mind that this ultimate form of typecasting is not generally conducive to great cinema. It is, bottom line, a parlor trick. As Samuel Johnson said of the dog that dances on its hind legs, it is not that the thing is done well but that it is done at all that is remarkable. Viewed in that light, these are all fascinating and remarkable movies.

No comments: