Terence Blacker: We love to see a tragic end to a creative life

The famous, whether talented or just lucky, play out little parables for an international congregation
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the smaller frustrations of contemporary fame must be that, increasingly, the great pay-off occurs when it is rather too late be enjoyed. Such is the new obsession with the biopic, dramatised versions of a real life, that the obituary columns now provide as much inspiration for future film product as the bestseller lists. Suddenly, it seems, all the world loves the story of a dead celebrity; ratings-wise, cold is hot.

With the late Johnny Cash and the late Truman Capote lording it on the big screen, the late Kenneth Williams having just minced and gurned on TV, and with the late Peter Cook and the late Dudley Moore being enacted on stage, the line-up of deceased stars is already impressive and varied, but there is much more on the way. Among the biopics currently "slated", as they say in Variety, are portraits of Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, Brian Epstein, Lana Turner, Lewis Carroll, Marvin Gaye and Dusty Springfield.

It is perhaps not surprising that tales of the late and famous should appeal to producers. Marketing a film is relatively easy when its premise is already known and the pitch has been made by a much publicised life. There is the further advantage, so important in 2006, that the story and characters are based in reality, rather than simply being made up. And now that everyone plays at being a critic, an acting performance that is one of impersonation rather than invention makes judgement simpler. There might even be an element of modish morbidity involved.

None of these things, though, are quite enough to make a satisfactory biopic, TV dramadoc or play. An essential ingredient in the mix is tragedy, whether it be in the form of talent wasted, a ghastly personal life or a descent into self-destruction. The creative life, of course, can be relied upon to provide unhappiness. Whereas the professional lives of those in the outside world will either involve a slow trudge to the sunny uplands of relative success, followed a dignified decline, or alternatively a slide into failure that muddles along drearily, the careers of great singers, actors, comedians and writers tend to have failure written into the script from the start.

Just occasionally, a person who is exceptionally talented when young will later ease their way towards a comfortable, dull maturity, but most of them are not so lucky. Under the pressure of having forever to compete with their more brilliant, youthful selves, they grow desperate as the fire grows dimmer and colder over time. They drink, they abuse, they behave badly and die disappointed.

It is these imploders whose lives we particularly enjoy hearing about. The rise and fall of, say, Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield provide more entertainment than anything that might one day be offered by survivors like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. It is Keith Moon we want, not Paul McCartney, Brian Epstein not George Martin, Sylvia Plath not Ted Hughes.

In this sense, public taste is unattractive. It seems that we want not only to be reminded of how funny someone was, what astonishing music they made, how beautiful or successful they were, but we need to see what we have come to assume is the other side of the coin: the private disaster behind the public success. Hooked on cliché, we long for the fix that is that familiar story of doomed genius. It conforms to the way that we have learnt life should be.

In a biopic, the knowledge that its star is heading for premature extinction of one kind or another retrospectively adds edge and depth to their early triumphs. The innocent energy of young Elvis, the routines of Peter Cook in his early twenties, the baleful characterisation of Tony Hancock are all given an extra dimension by our knowledge of how the story ended. Who could be surprised that it is these characters upon whose lives writers and producers fall upon and pick over after they have died?

Like any great popular religion, the cult of celebrity has a moral substance to it. The famous, whether they are talented or just lucky, play out little parables for an international congregation, and each of their stories provides a sort of guidance for lesser folk. This is how you end up if you take too many drugs or drink too much alcohol. This is how alone and bewildered you will be if you live a life of self-indulgent promiscuity. This is how sad and saggy you will look if you were once famously beautiful and are now growing older.

Frustratingly for the high priests of the cult, working at the tinselly end of the media, these morality tales tend to be open-ended. Hanging over many a press profile or snapped photograph in the Sunday papers is the scent of sour journalistic disappointment that, in spite of the urgent wishes of the outside world, a famous person has managed to live a passably happy and normal life.

The biopic provides that all-important climax, a sense of shape and symmetry that a life still being lived rarely offers. The greatness of the individual is celebrated, but then so is his or her subsequent decline. For the great majority of people, who never reach the heights of creative expression, this message of glory and pain brings comfort.

The subject of the biopic has suffered for us in order to learn. Talent, the message goes, comes with a price-tag attached. We emerge from the cinema feeling touched by greatness and yet faintly relieved at our own ordinariness.