Still, I have a soft spot for these films. When an actor truly embodies the familiar figure who’s being, er, biopicked, there’s no doubt it can be riveting; I could watch Meryl Streep make boeuf bourguignon all day long. And biopics can even be fascinating when things go wrong, in a Bobby-Darin-must-be-rolling-over-in-his-grave kind of way.
I thought I’d revisit a few of both kinds in order to mentally prepare myself for the moment when Hilary Swank goes down over the Pacific. By the way, if I’m already dead when they begin looking for someone to play me in the story of my life, please tell them: definitely Zac Efron.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942): I went through a period in my youth when I was a little obsessed with old James Cagney movies. (Name me one other actor as handy with a tough one-liner as he was with a gun or a grapefruit.) It wasn’t until later that I came across his one Oscar-winning performance, in Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy — wasn’t he going to shoot anybody?
I have no idea if this movie is at all close to what George M. Cohan’s life was actually like, but when you’ve got Cagney hoofing it up, who cares? His oddly compelling singing-speaking (which apparently mirrored Cohan’s own style) and his light-footed dancing — which still looks like a special effect — make you forget all those times he mowed down people with tommy guns, though I admit it might have been something special if he’d blown up at the end.
I can only imagine what audiences at the time thought of Cagney’s change of pace. I mean, what would it be like in this day and age if Mickey Rourke suddenly turned up in a sequel to Hairspray? On second thought, I’d really love to see that.
Incidentally, Yankee Doodle Dandy goes down in history as the last musical biopic in which the biographee doesn’t engage in a downward spiral of drugs and women and wind up dead in a bathtub. (See: The Doors, below.)
Gandhi (1982): I’ve always been a big Gandhi guy. The nonviolence, the passive resistance, the homemade dhoti — I can get behind all of that. His “salt march” in 1930 sounded exhausting, but an Indian’s gotta do what an Indian’s gotta do.
Gandhi, the 1982 Oscar winner for Best Picture, strikes me as the biopic all others should be measured against: it’s a complex, gripping, somehow amazingly complete tale about one of the truly great men of the past century. Richard Attenborough’s epic hits all the right notes, and Best Actor winner Ben Kingsley, in his first big-screen role, is truly stunning in his portrayal of Gandhi over 55 years of the pacifist’s life — determined, quietly heroic, seemingly possessed of an inner radiance. (Yes, even more so than in Species.)
If they don’t screen this film every year in high school social studies classes they certainly should, especially if they’re still making time for those movies about how LSD makes you see giant caterpillars. But, you ask, should Gandhi really have beaten out E.T. for Best Picture? No, because that had Drew Barrymore.
La Bamba (1987): This is going to make me sound like a horrible person, but I wasn’t crazy about the ending of La Bamba when it came out in the summer of ’87. As I recall, my girlfriend at the time cried her eyes out, but I found it a little heavy-handed (unlike the more subdued The Buddy Holly Story), what with the melodramatic coin toss to get poor, ill-fated Ritchie Valens on the plane, and the montage of friends and family reacting to the news of his death. Look, we get it, alright? It was sad.
It wasn’t until I saw the movie again recently that those scenes really moved me, probably because I’m old now and it doesn’t take much to get me going; these days I get choked up at dog food commercials. (If you really want to be reduced to a blubbering idiot, watch the Behind the Music episode about “The Day the Music Died.” Oy.)
But no matter what you think of the ending of writer-director Luis Valdez’s labor of love, La Bamba offers the performance of a lifetime from Lou Diamond Phillips, who went on to star in a bunch of movies featuring killer werewolves, and a compelling back story centering on Ritchie and his tough-guy brother, played by Esai Morales. Not to mention there’s some fantastic music from Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, and Brian Setzer, who all appear on-camera in various roles. Makes me wish that girlfriend hadn’t wound up with our joint copy of the soundtrack.
The Doors (1991): Ah, The Doors. How could it have been any worse, really? By the fourth or fifth time a suicidal Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) was shown hanging out of a window or off a fire escape, I felt like yelling, “Just let go already!”
Still, even though Oliver Stone’s walk down memory lane is bloated, loud, confusing, and affected as all get-out (he should’ve stuck with Vietnam), it does offer some fantastic concert scenes that’ll probably work well on your high-def TV if you find yourself possessed to buy the Blu-ray. Also, the cast is first-rate, notably a pre-Entourage Kevin Dillon in ’60s curls and Crispin Glover’s he-was-weird-but-I’m-still-weirder take on Andy Warhol.
Was Stone trying to satirize or fetishize the Doors era? The fact that we’re still not sure indicates he probably should’ve taken a different approach. And the less we say about Meg Ryan’s against-type performance the better, although she does have one good line about ol’ Jim’s lack of discrimination regarding where he puts his naughty bits. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that 18 years after The Doors “Weird Al” Yankovic has managed to say all that needs to be said about the band in four minutes and 50 seconds.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007): I realize I’m cheating here since Dewey Cox isn’t a real person, no matter how desperately we might wish the contrary. But Jake Kasdan’s brilliant parody, cowritten with Judd Apatow, should be required viewing for anybody who’s even thinking of making a biopic, so that we can forever avoid spoof-able tropes like characters who awkwardly insert their age into every other sentence so the audience knows how much time has passed between scenes.
In an era where cinematic parody seems to consist of characters who sort of look like characters from other movies, except they’re farting, Walk Hard is a welcome return to Naked Gun-level lunacy, concocted by people with brains. It’s a spot-on spoof of rock-star biopics and a deft skewering of basically every musical icon since Roy Orbison. John C. Reilly is uniformly hilarious as Dewey, whether he’s singing a dirty duet with “backup singer” Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer) or meeting the (riotously self-referential) Beatles.
In fact I kind of wish Kasdan and Apatow were the team behind Amelia. Then at least we could count on one good “going down” pun.