Screen biographies, from Schindler's List to Gandhi, have swept the board at the Oscars. But, Christopher Tookey argues, four recent releases testify to the wretched state of the genreby Christopher Tookey / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ever since movies began, screen biographies have aroused controversy and acclaim. The best, such as A Man for All Seasons and Schindler’s List, have achieved huge popularity. Even less distinguished examples, such as Braveheart, Gandhi and The Last Emperor, have followed suit.
This year has already seen the arrival in Britain of two big biopics, Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Mario Van Peebles’s Panther. November saw the release of two more: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and James Ivory’s Surviving Picasso. All four illustrate, in different ways, the wretched state of screen biography.
Anyone who attends Surviving Picasso in the hope of understanding Picasso will be disappointed. It is more concerned with his sex life. Really, it is the story of Fran?oise Gilot, who was Picasso’s mistress from 1943 to 1953 and bore him two children. For all Anthony Hopkins’s efforts in the lead, it is hard to see beyond his cruelty and egotism. The filmmakers have drawn heavily on Arianna Stassinopoulos’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, a book which suffered from the delusion that only nice people create great art.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon (also starring Hopkins) suffers from a ham-fisted attempt to empathise. Stone is interested only in the qualities which he believes he shares with the former president: difficulties with parents, a feeling that the rest of the world is against him, and a need to assert himself through struggle against the “establishment.”
Stone cannot understand Nixon’s rightwing politics, nor is there the slightest sign of the intellectual who wrote 20 books, 19 of them after he left the presidency. It is no surprise that Stone turns out to be out of sympathy with a subtle political operator rooted in the depression of the 1930s and the cold war of the 1950s; indeed Stone came from a rich, liberal establishment background and is steeped in the hippie 1960s attitudes which Nixon most despised. Sitting through three and a qua…