My life as a film

Oliver Stone's Nixon is a reminder that a biopic can be many things: psychodrama, pastiche, caper, epic. What makes a life into a story worth telling? By Kevin Jackson
Half-way down the road of its hero's strange career, Oliver Stone's Nixon offers us a neat monochrome pastiche: a fake "March of Time" newsreel, documenting Nixon's improbable rise from small-town poor boy to minor lawyer to major political contender. At this point, even younger members of the audience may start to suspect that Stone is drawing attention to one of his film's most illustrious ancestors: Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's great imaginary biopic, which begins with just such a pastiche newsreel about the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, and then purports to go far deeper than the cliches of cine-journalism to discover how a successful man may come to gain the world but lose his soul - or at any rate, his sled.

It's cheeky of Stone to invite comparisons between his new movie and Welles's classic, which has won the laurel of "Best Film of the Century" with comforting regularity, but that "March of Time" sequence might also be viewed as a tacit admission of how formally conservative Nixon is at heart, despite all its razzle-dazzle barrage of jump cuts, reframings, multiple stocks and surreal matte effects. Though suffused, as one would expect, with Stone's familiar conspiracy-theorist conceits about the sinister cabal that is really pulling the strings of history, Nixon is also a classic example of the biopic as psychodrama. Like many such instances, it carries a very simple burden: to illustrate how the (emotionally deprived) child is father to the (overachieving, endlessly frustrated) man.

Thus, Citizen Nixon's "Rosebud" is demonstrated to be his guilt over the deaths of his two brothers - their departures meant that his family could afford to put little Richard through law school - and about his betrayals of the deeply religious mother who told him never, never to lie. (At one point the mother even appears before him like Banquo's ghost: Stone isn't afraid, it seems, to court comparisons with biodramatists still more distinguished than Welles.) Such simplistic ideas of human development might be crude psychology, but it is hard to deny that they can sometimes make rattling good movies.

Critics have accused Stone of being a paranoid - someone who looks at life and sees nothing but plots. While there's some justice in the claim, it may be that Stone is simply suffering the occupational disorder of the biopic director - a person who looks at a life and sees a plot. For the biggest problem confronting anyone making a biopic is that lives that are rich in vivid incidents, juicy supporting characters, agonising dramatic reversals and dazzling triumphs do not necessarily offer the classic (screenwriting gurus call it "Aristotelian") three-act storyline of satisfying movies. A great life, in a phrase, is not enough for a great movie, as one tends to witness when film-makers try to tackle an entire life-span as a biographer would. If Richard Attenborough's vigorous, youth-to-deathbed portrait Gandhi pleased audiences who may never have even heard of the Mahatma, his similarly compendious Chaplin proved too dramatically shapeless to please almost anyone.

The screenwriter William Goldman, who among other accomplishments managed to make absorbing drama out of a story everyone already knew in his quasi- biopic of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President's Men, has recently mused that it might have been better for Attenborough's film to concentrate on Chaplin's earliest years, to end at just the point where he discovers the "little man" persona. Whether or not this formula might have rescued the film, there's no doubt that Goldman's suggestion has the weight of experience on its side.

Most successful biopics have had to simplify their accounts drastically, either by concentrating on a relatively minor slice of its subject's life, or by borrowing the tricks of drama, often by making some childhood event seem to precipitate the rest of the action, much as a murder kicks off a detective film. (In The Doors, Stone's biopic about Jim Morrison, the precipitating event is particularly absurd: young Jimmy witnesses the death of an old Indian in a car crash; we are to infer that the old man's spirit passes into the boy's body, accounting for his Dionysian talent later in life.) This is the convention amusingly guyed by Steven Spielberg in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we see how young Indy acquired his hat, his whip, his fear of snakes, his need for adventure and triumph (Pa ignored him) and even - cute touch - that little scar on the face of Harrison Ford, who plays the grown-up Indy.

And many biopics follow the doubly simplifying route Goldman suggested for Chaplin, dramatising some real, semi-real or wholly imaginary incident from the hero's youth and allowing the audience's historical hindsight to supply the required piquancy to the disasters and triumphs. In such films, the events of youth prefigure those of maturity much as the Old Testament prefigures the New. This is the case of John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln and Richard Attenborough's Young Winston, and, in a different key, of Wim Wenders's surprisingly enjoyable Hammett: here, a final montage of superimposed flashbacks and flailing typewriter keys suggests how the characters and events of a fictitious caper from Dashiell Hammett's years as a detective yielded him the stuff of The Maltese Falcon.

More frequently still, the slice of life chosen is the period of struggle and breakthrough (or, in the case of Van Gogh in Lust for Life or Frances Farmer in Frances, struggle and breakdown). Lawrence of Arabia, for example, an outstanding example of the biopic as epic, concentrates almost wholly on his two years of Arabian guerilla warfare, thus, unlike Terence Rattigan's bio-play Ross, omitting all mention of some even more fascinating periods from his later life (a want partly supplied a few years ago by the Ralph Fiennes vehicle A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia).

On the whole, the effect of such radical simplifications has been to give us an intensified version of the kind of pleasure we are looking for in biographies, or novels in biographical form: the aesthetic and moral reassurance that all the chances and indirections of our lives may indeed add up to a coherent pattern, the faith that a life is indeed a life story. And on many occasions, the cinema has taken over from literature the job of supplying us with such reassurances. Throughout this century - since, say, AJA Symons's The Quest for Corvo, the fascination of which depends as much on Symons's account of his own research as it does on the eccentric figure of Frederick Rolfe, "Baron" Corvo - written biography has grown ever more complex, more speculative and more knowing: Peter Ackroyd's Dickens, for example, with its dialogues between the author and his subject.

With relatively few exceptions - Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is one - Hollywood's biopics have remained immune to such literary sophistications, and have continued loyally to plough much the same furrows cut by the Warner Brothers "prestige" productions of the 1930s, such as The Life of Emile Zola and The Story of Louis Pasteur. On the fringes of Hollywood and in the international art cinema, however, the past decade or so has seen the rise of a type of biopic that does try to find ways of rendering the complexity and chaos of life without forfeiting all the old seductions of narrative.

Among these have been Caravaggio and Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman; Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - an extraordinary attempt to dramatise not only the life but the imagination of the Japanese author; and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the eclectically inventive structure of which was inspired by Bach's "Goldberg Variations". None of these has exactly rivalled Lawrence or Gandhi at the box-office, but each one points to ways in which the commonly corny ploys of the biopic might be transcended or redeemed. They suggest, in short, that the biopic still has life in it.

n `Nixon' is reviewed by Adam Mars-Jones overleaf