Hollywood Gets Real

By Gregory M. Lamb writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Hollywood Gets Real


Gregory M. Lamb writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The silver-screen version of reality TV is invading theaters this fall and on into next year. That old Hollywood staple, the biopic, is back ... with a few twists.

While early Hollywood screen biographies tended to tell the stories of famous Dead White Men (from Napoleon to Abe Lincoln to Alexander Graham Bell), today the variety is boggling. The fictional hero of the Oscar-winner "Gladiator" has resulted in a scramble to put the lives of real-life ancient military leaders such as Hannibal and Alexander the Great on the screen. But filmmakers also think audiences will flock this fall to see the stories of:

* a Mexican artist ("Frida")

* debauched sitcom star Bob Crane ("Auto Focus")

* spaced-out game-show host Chuck Barris ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind")

* murdered Irish investigative journalist Veronica Guerin ("Veronica Guerin")

* chameleon-like con man Frank Frank Abagnale Jr. ("Catch Me If You Can").

One of the most-honored biopics of all time, "Lawrence of Arabia," the story of a tormented and mentally unstable adventurer, T.E. Lawrence, has also been spruced up for a rerelease this fall.

Of course, playing a troubled character doesn't always result in box-office gold (witness Jim Carrey's "Man in the Moon").

But Hollywood's megastars often leap at a chance to appear in these movies, since the depth and complexity offered by a real-life character can be a juicy part that leads to Oscar-night attention (a la Russell Crowe in last year's "A Beautiful Mind," Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," or Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot").

Greg Kinnear in "Auto Focus" seems born to play "Hogan's Hero" star Crane, whose wholesome screen presence belied a turbulent personal life; and indie-movie veteran Sam Rockwell will try to channel Barris, once the host of "The Gong Show," a quirky, psychedelic '70s version of "American Idol."

In development for possible release next year are even more tales of strange or unsavory characters: Grown-up child star Macaulay Culkin will play New York nightclub party organizer Michael Alig, who boasted about committing murders.

Rising star Hayden Christensen ("Star Wars: Episode 2") will portray Stephen Glass, a high-flying writer at The New Republic whose supposed reporting was found to be mostly fiction.

And Leonardo DiCaprio will play eccentric and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," directed by Martin Scorsese.

Big-screen bad guys

Plenty of crooks and other villains will get their own films too. Young Australian star Heath Ledger will retell the story of Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly. "Indecent Exposure" will show movie mogul David Begelman in full Enron/Tyco scandal mode.

David Mamet has signed a deal to write the script for a film about gangster John Dillinger. And "Max" (with John Cusack in the title role) will tell the tale of a wealthy Jewish art dealer who tries, and fails, to help a struggling young Austrian artist by the name of Adolf Hitler.

Earlier this year, movies about serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer hit theaters.

Author Joyce Carol Oates called literary efforts to tell the stories of troubled or just plain evil figures "pathographies."

Cultural historian George Custen, who teaches American Studies at the College of Staten Island, says this kind of biography looks at either down-and-dirty aspects of already established lives, [such as] the affairs of John Kennedy instead of [his] statesmanship . …

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