Hollywood Part One: The Biopic


I have long been a fan of biographies of famous and infamous people. I read biographical and autobiographical books, love to watch the biography channel and usually enjoy watching biographical movies.The Hollywood biopic is a hit and miss genre. When it’s done well, there’s nothing better, when it’s done poorly there’s nothing worse. While casting is important in all film genres, it is perhaps most important in the case of the biopic. The actor or actress must, not only look quite similar to the original subject, but they must walk alike, talk alike and have their mannerisms down to the smallest detail, so that even the most discerning of fans can be transported for the length of the film into that person’s life. It’s a genre that can make or break an actor’s career. This past weekend I watched two movie biographies, one that was critically lauded and one that was critically panned. In my opinion, they had more similarities than differences. Let’s start with the, made for Lifetime TV movie, Liz and Dick.

Lindsay Lohan and Elizabeth Taylor

I went into this movie expecting it to be a glorious train wreck and I was somewhat disappointed. Oh, it was an awful movie, don’t get me wrong, but I was expecting it to be bad in a much more campy and funny way. While this movie failed on many levels there were things in it that should be praised, like the hair, make up and costumes, the sets, the classic cars. The whole look of the movie was very well done. Theresa Russell, (an actress who, in my opinion never got her due) as Taylor’s mother gave a solid performance. Grant Bowler (of Ugly Betty fame) was fairly good as Richard Burton, although he could have worked a bit harder on the Welsh accent as his natural New Zealand accent won out more often than not. The entire supporting cast really did their best to rise above a terrible script and a truly horrid performance by the lead actress. The script sounded as if it were written by a 10-year-old with lines like “I don’t loathe you, I hate you!”. Now I am not against the telling of the unvarnished truth, warts and all, but this seemed to have been written for the express purpose of sullying the memory of Taylor and Burton. It was all warts… no all. Speaking of the lead actress, Lindsay Lohan didn’t even seem to be trying to portray Elizabeth Taylor as much as she seemed to be trying to connect some of the events in Taylor’s life to her own. Elizabeth Taylor had a high-pitched, almost childlike, feminine voice, Lohan sounded like a ninety year old Jewish woman sending back soup in a deli. To be fair, that is Lindsay’s natural voice, but when you are portraying someone else, you MUST, at least try to, sound like them… especially when you are using the part as a comeback vehicle. Lohan was too skinny, too freckled and too immature for the part. I suspect that the only reason her name was brought up for the role was that she had previously done a pictorial for Interview Magazine where she was done up as Taylor. There is a vast difference between posing like an icon while in the right styling, make up and lighting for a still camera and actually portraying that person for a motion picture camera and Lindsay does not look enough like Elizabeth Taylor to suspend the viewer’s disbelief. I understand that Lifetime is a small budget network known for schlocky movies of the week, and casting Lohan in this role was, in itself, quite the marketing stroke of genius. They knew there would be millions of people (like myself) tuning in just to see her fail and that was something they could sell to advertisers. After all, there’s nothing the public likes better than to see an actress who is already on the decline, make a fool of herself. To Lohan’s credit there was actually one believable moment in the movie. There is a part where Richard Burton is trying to comfort Elizabeth Taylor who is crying after storming out of her 40th birthday party because a couple of the catty guests said she was no longer a movie star. Lohan as Taylor utters the line, “I’m not a star, I’m a joke.” In this moment Lohan actually connected with the truth, perhaps ironically, but it was a moment of truth in an otherwise hopeless performance.

The other biopic I finally got around to watching this weekend was My Week With Marilyn, a film that received two Oscar nominations and a host of other accolades

Michelle Williams and Marilyn Monroe

As a fan of Marilyn Monroe, I went into this film with mixed emotions. I have read almost everything there is to read about her life. I have seen literally all of her films multiple times. I have watched interviews with her, talking about her life and her work. It was going to be difficult for me to be able to suspend my disbelief enough to give Michelle Williams a fair shake. The movie, as a whole, was not terrible. Like Liz and Dick, the attention to detail was very good and the supporting cast rose above a bad script. Dame Judy Dench was perfection as Dame Sybil Thorndike. Julia Ormond absolutely became Vivian Leigh. Dougray Scott was wonderful as Arthur Miller (although his part was small and poorly written). Kenneth Branagh as Sir Lawrence Olivier was transcendent. The script was an amateurish, mean-spirited and one-dimensional portrayal of every character, especially Monroe, but most of the actors were able to bring more to their portrayals than what was on the page. The story could have easily been written by someone who had never even met Marilyn and had just heard the gossip and rumours of her behavior on set (another case of all warts and no all). It came across as the deluded bragging of a young man who thought himself the only person who could understand Marilyn Monroe. That being said, Michelle Williams’ portrayal did nothing to give any real depth to the part, focusing solely on her insecurities, fear of abandonment and need for approval. Another case of bad casting. Now I am not saying that Williams is a bad actress, quite the contrary, I have enjoyed her in many other movies. It is simply that this role was too big for her, both figuratively and literally. Williams, (like Lohan) was too thin for the part… and the opening scene with her dancing in a sheer gown was distracting if only because of the OBVIOUS padding of her hips and bottom. I couldn’t help but think, several times while watching this movie, that HBO would have done a far better job with it. In fact, I would have given this film much more slack if it had been made for TV, but as it was not and as it was so acclaimed, I was more critical of every little detail. Unlike, Lindsay Lohan in Liz and Dick, Michelle Williams did not ever seem to connect with Monroe (even ironically). The whole performance was a pale imitation and a let down.

Tippi Hedren and Sienna Miller

There have been biopic movies that I have thought were well done. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren in The Girl, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady, Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis Jr. and Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin in The Rat Pack, Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change. With the possible exception of Sienna Miller (it was almost creepy how much she looked like Tippi Hedren), none of these actors looked exactly like the person they were portraying, but they were able to get past the persona to the person inside and transform themselves into those iconic roles.