Film Studies: Don't work with children, animals (or biopic subjects who are still alive)

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Bobby Darin died in 1973, a year from the "Ancient Period" for many kids, while Alexander the Great checked out in 323 BC (before cinema). So, really, does it matter that their movie biopics honour every known fact about their momentous lives? Still, Oliver Stone was anxious to let us know that his Alexander (Colin Farrell) sounded Irish because Alexander was a rebel and an outsider - and not just because that's the way Colin Farrell talks. Given that you've persuaded yourself to do the Alexander story, and do it in English rather than Greek, why should Farrell have to put on an English accent or sound like Richard Burton from the 1956 version? No one would have wanted to recollect that epic because it was such a dud.

Bobby Darin died in 1973, a year from the "Ancient Period" for many kids, while Alexander the Great checked out in 323 BC (before cinema). So, really, does it matter that their movie biopics honour every known fact about their momentous lives? Still, Oliver Stone was anxious to let us know that his Alexander (Colin Farrell) sounded Irish because Alexander was a rebel and an outsider - and not just because that's the way Colin Farrell talks. Given that you've persuaded yourself to do the Alexander story, and do it in English rather than Greek, why should Farrell have to put on an English accent or sound like Richard Burton from the 1956 version? No one would have wanted to recollect that epic because it was such a dud.

Come to that, why did Kevin Spacey feel compelled to admit that yes, of course, he is a good deal older than Darin when he died, but that's not the point? The real point of Beyond the Sea, he says, is that Darin's music is timeless. That's why Spacey's grown man talks to the boy Darin and cheerfully takes his toupee on an off to show switches in time. It's a silly device, but it doesn't get in the way of what is a shameless vanity trip: Spacey simply wanted to sing and dance like Darin, because Spacey loves impersonation more than anything. And during the classic numbers, the film works. Otherwise, it is ridiculous.

In theory, I suppose, Spacey is reviving thoughts of Bobby Darin because he admires his singing. In which case, why should Spacey feel bound to do the singing himself? The answer, I think, is that of one ego being stronger than another and finding the challenge irresistible. I should add that, in promoting Beyond the Sea (a campaign that had no success), Spacey actually went on tour with the orchestra from the film, doing his Darin act.

When the biopicRay came to be made, the real Ray Charles made very sure that the movie would use his songs on the soundtrack (and pay a suitable consideration into the bank of Ray Charles). Beyond that, Jamie Foxx does a good job as Charles, partly because he put on contact lenses for 14 hours a day that left him blind. Of course, you could also surmise that the presence of the original, and of his son as a co-producer, ensured that the real Ray's drug-taking and womanising were kept within tasteful bounds. Nevertheless, some fans are angry at Ray in that it makes it harder for them - they say - to love Ray Charles.

Whenever a great star is the subject of a biopic, the project has huge difficulties maintaining fan support and competing with the vivid uniqueness of the star in question. Yes, Judy Davis did an uncanny Judy Garland on television a few years ago, but Garland does it helplessly better in the several documentaries about her life. Ray Liotta faced the same problem doing Frank Sinatra. And even Will Smith's canny impersonation of Muhammad Ali foundered because he had to work so hard at the act, while Ali lives in our collective memory as a hip presence, a voice and an attitude.

So it's easier in most respects if the audience has a much reduced sense of how a person looked or sounded. Today, only a few people have an intimate memory of Howard Hughes, and in The Aviator Leonardo DiCaprio has eschewed impersonation and simply tried to make himself someone other than Leo. It's a valid attempt, and often impressive. The problem of The Aviator is making us care enough to follow the line of Hughes's increasingly blank life.

The most successful American biopic this season, I think, is Kinsey, where hardly anyone watching the film knows (or cares) what the real Alfred Kinsey looked like. Liam Neeson has made a gesture towards the real man's crew-cut and bow tie, but the film works as well as it does because it's a picture about the ideas in Kinsey's life and work, not the mere imprint of a celebrity. It's a film about sexual candour, a topic Kinsey pioneered in his work and had a lot of trouble with in his own life. The film is fascinating in that writer-director Bill Condon has seen that conflict as an essential form of drama. Indeed, the film would have worked if Neeson had made no effort at all to look like Kinsey.

But sometimes, careful imitation and a deeper dramatic purpose come together, and that is the case in the best biopic I have seen lately - I refer to Downfall, in which Bruno Ganz plays Adolf Hitler. No, that is not type-casting. Ganz is not just one of those actors cherished for his common humanity. He also possesses the kindest eyes you will ever see. He is, of course, a great actor - his Faust, on stage, has been a sensation in Germany. He was very uneasy about playing Hitler, and it was only when he saw the 1955 film by G W Pabst, Der Letzte Akt, that he felt a way of doing the part. After that, he read everything he could (as opposed to seeing every Hitler on film - and there are so many), he took advice on the hand already afflicted by Parkinson's, he changed his face a little with small pouches, he combed his hair forward and dyed it, and he trusted Hitler with his eyes.

The result is not quite a great film (or not until the scene in which Magda Goebbels disposes of her own children), and it's not as if we didn't know the story of the last days in the bunker by heart. But the dread of it all never goes away, and Ganz has had a triumph in letting us see the madman, the idiot and the monster of cruelty locked up with a man who still has twinges of compassion and ordinariness. The film is seen very much through the eyes of a young secretary - naive, admiring and horribly disillusioned - and it is legitimate that she should see and feel the odd humanity in Hitler's eyes.

I don't think there's an overall conclusion. I suspect Spacey could be brilliant as Hitler, while Ganz would be hopeless as Bobby Darin. I reckon films on great stars whose achievement is already on film and record are forlorn - and I speak as someone who has been labouring with a film about Louis Armstrong. What still puzzles me is that there is an audience always eager for that forlorn, and redundant attempt.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Ray' is out on Friday, 'Kinsey' is released on 4 March and 'Downfall' on 25 March

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