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
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 quarter hours of Stone on Nixon is like being harangued about politics by Forrest Gump’s girlfriend.
Panther does not lack sympathy for its leading figures, and is from the same inspirational school of biography which produced Gandhi and Schindler’s List. The founders of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, are presented as kindly, unpaid social workers with an idealistic belief in community politics.
Uninformed viewers would never imagine that the impeccably law-abiding Newton of the movie was in real life a cocaine-addicted murderer-or that many Panthers were drug-addled gangsters who committed multiple felonies and crimes of extortion, and launched unprovoked gun battles. In a hilarious excess of political correctness, the notoriously macho Panthers are even portrayed as non-sexist.
Nor is there so much as a hint that the real Panthers were communists committed to the violent overthrow of capitalism. The writings of Mao Tse-Tung are portrayed not as inspiration for the movement, but simply as booklets to sell to gullible, white college students in order to raise money.
The racist rewriting of history has seldom been taken to such melodramatic extremes. The Panthers are young and attractive. The whites are old, fat and sour-faced. The film paints racial integration as a sham, law and order as cynical devices to keep blacks in their place.
As its climax, this film presents as fact a conspiracy theory which even Oliver Stone might find implausible-that America’s ghettos are drug-ridden today because, in the late 1960s, the FBI, police and Mafia hatched a plot to flood the black community with drugs.
Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, although the most entertaining film of the four, is torn between depicting Collins as a tragic loser-the man who let the genie of Irish terrorism out of the bottle in 1916 and was eventually killed by it in 1922, at the age of 31-and a romantic, revolutionary hero, like William Wallace in Braveheart.
Collins himself has been sanitised and “dumbed-down.” The promiscuous man of reality has been changed into a one-woman guy. The politics of the period have been reduced to a tale of goodies versus baddies. You would not guess from Jordan’s movie that Ireland was a democracy before Collins began his terror campaign, still less that in 1912 the British parliament had promised Home Rule for Ireland.
Nowhere in Jordan’s film is there any suggestion that Britain’s delay in implementing Irish Home Rule until the end of the first world war was motivated by fear that a government under de Valera would collude with the Germans.
The dispiriting truth about the four leading biopics of 1996 is that they lack genuine empathy with the figures they describe, the courage to depict them honestly, and the integrity to place them in a historical context which does not insult the audience’s intelligence.