When I started this blog, I assumed that the easiest part of the job would be writing the two-sentence plot summaries, but I quickly realized how wrong I was. My problem was that I felt bad if my summary of a comedy didn’t make it sound funny. Or if my summary of a tragedy didn’t feel a little sad. Or if a thriller-summary wasn’t thrilling to read. I realized that it was one thing to simply dissect a movie and then show people the guts, but another thing entirely to produce a miniaturization of a movie’s plot that somehow kept its essence intact.
And this is the same problem that confronts the bio-pic writer: how to capture the essence instead of the innards. Most of the time, biopics are about greatly admired figures. In such cases, the writers need to have their own version of the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. The lives of great people rarely match up to the rhetoric that made them famous. You have to ask: do I want to present the most dramatic possible version of this person’s life, even if it makes them look like crap, or do I actually want to capture their appeal?
This is especially difficult if you’re writing a bio-pic of an artist. Artists tend to be total jerks towards everyone in their private life. And maybe all you want to do is make them look bad, in which case you’ll have an easy time of it. But if you want to capture their appeal, you have a much harder job: you have to show why their particular artistic innovation was needed so badly in their cultural moment. You have to show how and why they broke through an artistic ceiling that held back their peers. Crucially, you have to show how awe-inspiring and empowering great art is to its fans—which means that you have to inspire that same awe in your own audience.
Chaplin made Charlie Chaplin seem totally unappealing—How many people left the theater dying to see one of his movies? How many people left Walk the Line in love with Johnny Cash? What ammunition did The Doors give to people who might want to defend Jim Morrison against his many detractors? You may say, well, that’s just honesty for you, you have to show these guys warts and all. But I would argue that it’s not really that honest. Chaplin, Morrison and Cash made art that still inspires and gladdens their fans every day, years after their deaths. If you can’t re-create that achievement onscreen, why make the movie? Show their flaws, certainly, but show them as the ironic context for their memorable achievements.
Which all brings me to one of my all-time favorite bio-pics, which is tomorrow’s Underrated Cheesy Movie…