Private property?

As two new biopics create a furore, Geoffrey Macnab asks why directors can't leave this much-maligned genre alone
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The Independent Culture

Asked if there was any genre he couldn't stomach, that cinematic jackdaw Quentin Tarantino admitted last week that he "just couldn't get into biography movies... they don't create interesting cinema. They create great performances because there is a great character for someone to play, but there are few people whose whole life is interesting enough to make a great movie. If I was ever to do a biography, I'd follow someone for three days. If I was to do a movie about Elvis Presley, I'd do it about the day he walked into Sun Records and that would be it."

Others dislike biopics for more emotional reasons. The singer Norah Jones is apparently furious that a Bollywood director has started work on a film about her and her father, Ravi Shankar (who was absent for most of her childhood). "He [Dev Anand] has no idea of our story," she told reporters, "and he's not going to represent it in a truthful way, I'm sure. It's sad because it's personal stuff and nobody's business but ours."

Sylvia (which will close this year's London Film Festival) has caused similar bad feeling. Frieda Hughes, the daughter of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, lambasted the producers for making capital out of her mother's suicide. She even wrote a 48-line poem in Tatler attacking the makers. ("Now they want to make a film/ For anyone lacking the ability/ To imagine the body, head in oven/ Orphaning children", read one stanza.)

It was hard not to think of these lines during the recent LFF press launch, when the trailer for Sylvia was shown. With its shots of Gwyneth Paltrow's Sylvia, looking like a cross between Doris Day and Joan of Arc, and Daniel Craig's mercurial Ted punting languidly together in Cambridge or having intense, high-minded literary discussions, the footage was neither lurid nor sensationalist - just a little tweedy and self-conscious.

The dangers in tackling biopics are evident. There is always some relative or colleague on hand to impugn the motives of the film-maker.

"I did have trepidation about [Sylvia]," admits its producer, Alison Owen. "I knew that Hughes had been very private about their time together. That made me hold off attacking it, but the publication of Birthday Letters, in which Hughes returned to the subject shortly before his death, felt to me like a tacit granting of permission to look at the subject. At that point, I felt morally OK to set about making the film."

She says she met Frieda Hughes and had dinner with her before embarking on the project at all. "She was absolutely delightful, very straightforward, very clear that she would rather the film wasn't made. But she also accepted the inevitability of someone making a film." She adds that she wasn't surprised by Frieda's subsequent poem. "The idea of someone saying they're going to make a film is very different to the reality of it actually being made. It doesn't surprise me that that provoked stronger feelings than even Frieda thought she was going to have."

The producer Andy Paterson sympathises with the Sylvia team after his experiences with Hilary and Jackie, his 1998 film about Jacqueline du Pré. For the music establishment, the great cellist (who was struck down by multiple sclerosis) was an icon. Many decided the film was beyond the pale before it was even complete. The fact that Jackie's family collaborated with the film-makers was no protection.

"The question you ask yourself is; should you do it? What is it about telling the story that justifies the risk of inaccuracy implicit in any artistic endeavour?" Paterson asks, five years on. But once they decided to go ahead, they were determined to be as "truthful as possible".

Being truthful here meant laying bare the rivalry between Jackie and her sister, touching on sexual jealousy and adultery, and revealing that du Pré sometimes behaved in an unscrupulous and manipulative way. "We were vilified for suggesting that she may have had more than one side to her," Paterson recalls. "The criticism came from two sources. It was from people who hadn't seen the film, didn't think it should have been made and believed what they read in the press. And then there was the musical establishment, who simply couldn't bear that we had done it."

Nobody seemed to ask whether Hilary and Jackie passed muster as a movie. The facts that Frank Cottrell Boyce had fashioned a lithe and sophisticated screenplay and that Emily Watson gave a brilliant performance were overlooked. The media was only interested in how Daniel Barenboim (du Pré's former husband) felt, and that Julian Lloyd Webber called the film a disgrace.

Biopics weren't always so controversial. In the 1930s, when Warner started making its big-budget biopics about great men of history (and the occasional woman), the storytelling was stiff and pious, straitjacketed by chronology and the dead weight of facts, facts, facts. The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) were prestige affairs; tasteful, hidebound and very reluctant to delve too deeply into the seamier side of their subjects' private lives. There are no accounts of Pasteur's relatives complaining that Hollywood played fast and loose with the doctor's pasteurisation experiments, or of Zola's descendants fretting about Paul Muni's bombastic performance as the novelist with a social conscience, doing his bit for Dreyfuss.

Nor have reverence and simplicity entirely gone out of fashion. Lord Attenborough, for example, admits: "What interests me is the example of those who've gone before or contemporaneously, those who stand in a floodlight of attention and can have the most extraordinary impact in relation to other people with whom they come into contact. It is those human relationships and values that permeate everything I do."

There's still a place for epic Attenborough-style accounts of inspiring historical figures (his next subject: Thomas Paine), but the secret of the best biopics is surely that we don't recognise them as such. Scorsese's Raging Bull, about boxer Jake La Motta, and Ron Shelton's wonderfully debunking and acidic Cobb, profiling the meanest baseball player ever to hit a homer, are rarely described as biopics, yet they stick relatively close to the facts. Whether it's war epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Patton), paranoid political thrillers (most of Oliver Stone) or bloody accounts of serial killers (10 Rillington Place), there are countless lively, often brilliant films based directly on real people. Citizen Kane itself, often voted the greatest movie ever, is a loosely-veiled biopic of William Randoph Hearst.

This, then, is not a genre that will ever go away. Nor are the ethical dilemmas facing the film-makers likely to be resolved. How much dramatic licence are they allowed? How closely do they consult the friends and family of their subject? There are no definitive answers, but as a rule of thumb, for a biopic to stand the test of time, the rougher, the ruder, the less pious the better - even if it does upset the relatives.