Here’s the deal:
Biopics rarely do it for me. I’ve found most either play too fast and loose with the truth, disrespecting their subjects, or are too slavish to the truth, creating a pretty boring point A to point B type of story. A better third option as I see it is when a biopic takes the truth and elevates it, making a person’s life represent something meaningful. You could make a biopic of Mr. Clean for God’s sake as long as his life was representative of our fight against decay and entropy or something.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood did an excellent job of finding this meaning. The story presented in that film wasn’t simply “Here’s Ed Wood’s life,” but rather a story of delusion and dedication. While Ed Wood may have been a terrible filmmaker, he loved film, and Burton chose to focus on that aspect of his life to great rewards (that ending scene outside the theater, whether based in fact or not, was a beautiful way to end the film).
So if like me you see Ed Wood as a great example of biopic filmmaking, and you’re interested in some counterparts, here you go. Watch Gods and Monsters and Shadow of the Vampire.
Gods and Monsters is a small film from the ‘90s which features the great Ian McKellen as James Whale, the director of the classic horror films Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. Brendan Fraser plays Whale’s gardener and eventual confidant, as Whale recounts his life, his career and his homosexuality.
It’s a very intimate portrait of one of Hollywood’s great monster-makers, and together with McKellen’s (obviously) amazing performance, the filmmakers are able to show Whale’s outsider status connected to that of the creature in Frankenstein. A score by Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell completes the picture, making it a very sad and sublime piece.
Another small film along similar lines is Shadow of the Vampire. Released on 2000, it stars John Malkovich as silent film director F.W. Murnau, the director of the horror classic Nosferatu. In this fictionalized version (I think) of the making of Nosferatu, Murnau is so obsessed with realism that he hires a real vampire for the film, played brilliantly by the almost-certainly-a-real-vampire Willem Dafoe.
While this movie strays more from documented fact than Gods and Monsters (which itself was still fictionalized in part), the idea of “monstrousness” displayed in Dafoe’s vampire and Malkovich’s unhinged, calculating director make this much more appealing than any regular biopic of Murnau ever would have been.
Shadow of the Vampire is currently available on Netflix, though you might need to do some digging (fittingly enough) to unearth Gods and Monsters. Both are excellent Halloween fare, but are admittedly more thoughtful than scary.
But seriously, in fifty years someone’s going to have to figure out how to describe David Lynch.