Lives in the balance

Biopics tend to be spurned by studios but embraced by Oscar

A bumper crop of movies based on the lives of the famous has turned 2004 into the year of the biopic.

It’s not so much the number of productions based on life stories that’s significant — it’s the number being tipped as contenders for top awards.

Rising to the top this year are “Finding Neverland” and “The Aviator” — designated Nos. 1 and 2 by the National Board of Review — along with “Ray,” “Kinsey” “Hotel Rwanda” and “Motorcycle Diaries” (each also recognized by the NBR) and “Beyond the Sea.”

Is there something in the zeitgeist to explain the sudden preeminence of big-screen biographies? It might boil down to coincidence. Many of these movies have experienced long gestations. Most are independent productions that struggled to find financial backers. The truth is, the major studios have in recent years seemed indifferent, if not downright hostile to making bios.

“In 2001, 2002 and 2003 biopics were persona non grata at the studios,” reports Kevin Spacey, after a long crusade to make “Beyond the Sea,” his Bobby Darin biopic. “No one wanted to touch them with a 10-foot pole.”

“For some reason there’s been a real bias against this form,” notes Bill Condon, the writer-director of “Kinsey.”

Condon’s producer, Gail Mutrux, spent nine years trying to get a greenlight for “Kinsey,” but was repeatedly rebuffed by studio suits, who would point her toward HBO. She finally succeeded in funding the theatrical feature with a crucial assist from Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope.

Oliver Stone started working on “Alexander” in 1989, and its estimated $150 million budget is essentially independent financing pieced together abroad.

Taylor Hackford did his first draft of a screenplay for “Ray” 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2002 that “Ray” could begin pre-production, after Philip Anschutz, the multibillionaire head of the Regal theater chain, agreed to pop for the film’s $35 million budget.

The exception has been Miramax, which was quick to back “Finding Neverland” and “The Aviator,” being released abroad by Warner Bros. Those decisions put have put the mini-major with the biggest Oscars track record in the thick of the race for this year’s Academy Awards.

Screenplay gold

The film biography has long been a Hollywood staple, so it’s hard to figure why studios have gone cold on them. The quick answer is that they’re perceived as box office duds, but there are exceptions: “A Beautiful Mind,” for example, took in $312 million worldwide after its 2001 release, for the decidedly unsexy story of a mentally ill math professor. “Amadeus,” “Schindler’s List” and “Patton” were also weighty, challenging biopics that enjoyed substantial business.

For screenwriters, biographies have constituted a treasure-trove. Scores of Oscar nominations and 18 Academy Awards for original screenplay or adaptation have gone to scribes who tackled real-life characters. Think “Citizen Kane,” “The Life of Emile Zola,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Beckett,” “Gandhi,” “The Last Emperor” and “Gods and Monsters.”

Actors, of course, have a great deal to gain from the form — consider career-enhancing performances such as Charlize Theron in “Monster,” Gary Cooper in “Sgt. York,” Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live” and Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List” and now, “Kinsey.”

In large part, that’s why biopics keep getting made — a certain life story becomes the obsession of an A-list actor or filmmaker. Occasionally, studios play ball to nurture the relationship. And remarkably often, they wind up with Oscar dividends.

The best picture Oscar has 10 times gone to films telling the story of memorable individuals, from 1936, when “The Great Ziegfeld” won, to “A Beautiful Mind.” For screenwriters, biopics offer a great opportunity. A popular movie can become the definitive version of a famous person’s life, trumping even a wheelbarrow full of biographies. Think of what “Aviator” could do for a new generation’s perception of Hughes, or for that matter, the impact of “The Passion of the Christ.”

Of course, it’s not easy getting a biopic right. Successful screenplays have to get under the skin of an often facinating person. The writer has to decide what part of a person’s life and career would make the most compelling movie.

When John Logan (“Gladiator”) was asked to take on “Aviator” at the behest of Leonardo DiCaprio, who had long been interested in the life of Howard Hughes, he says, “I felt in my bones that this was a great story.”

He spent five years on the project, doing 15 drafts. “It took a year of my life just chasing down the multifarious Mr. Hughes. I had to research old Hollywood, commercial and military aviation, his feud with PanAm and the obsessive-compulsive order that dogged him his whole life.”

To turn these diverse strands into a compelling narrative, Logan decided to make Hughes’ involvement with airplanes the dramatic spine of the film. The script follows from the filming of 1930 aeronautic spectacle “Hell’s Angels,” the most expensive movie of its day, through a romance with Katharine Hepburn to the early 1950s, when he fought his obsessive-compulsive disorder while battling Washington and PanAm to get international expansion rights for his airline, TWA.

Oliver Stone is no stranger to biopics (“The Doors,” “JFK,” “Nixon,” “Born on the Fourth of July”), but the life of Alexander the Great stymied him. “We started thinking about this movie in 1989 but I could never solve the script,” he told the New York Times. “He lived a five-act life, but we had to bring it down to a three-act movie.”

Stone worked with Christopher Kyle on the screenplay. “A giant box of research materials arrived on my doorstep,” recalled Kyle. “It included every biography of Alexander from Plutarch to the present.” (Laeta Kalogridis also gets a script credit for a different version she did with Stone.)

The decision by Stone to depict Alexander’s life in detail, from his youth to his death at 33 in Babylon, caused Kyle to resort to long explanatory episodes at the start and end of the film: Narrator Anthony Hopkins as old Ptolemy weighs, ponders and assesses Alexander’s life and mind.

“There was such a vast amount of material and we thought the audience couldn’t keep up without using this device,” said Kyle.

New source material can also set the wheels in motion for a biopic. Robert Redford got interested in doing a film on Ernesto “Che” Guevera when his sketchy notebooks from a youthful excursion through South America emerged and were turned into a book, translated into English in 1997. Redford optioned the book, which depicted an unfamiliar side of the revolutionary icon, who later hooked up with Fidel Castro and died violently at 33. Redford hired Brazilian director Walter Salles, and Jose Rivera to do the screenplay.

Rivera had done plays, but this was his first film script. “The diaries Che wrote were very episodic; they weren’t written like a novel,” says Rivera. “There were hundreds and hundreds of incidents, so the adaptation was a challenge.”

Thematic climax

To make the film more than a picaresque and picturesque road adventure, Salles chose a nervy swim across the Amazon by Guevera on his 21st birthday as a high point. This is preceded by a touching speech he gives at a birthday party thrown by a group of medical workers who have sheltered him and his friend. The sequence becomes a rite of passage and hints at the charisma and eloquence that will become Guevera’s hallmarks.

“The swim is only mentioned in four or five words in the diary, but Walter really wanted to make it the centerpiece of the film, and that helped me structure the script,” notes Rivera. By contrast, the speech that follows is nearly word for word from what Guevera wrote in his diaries.

“Finding Neverland” repped the first screenplay for writer David Magee. It emerged from a play, “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” by Allan Knee, in which Magee participated as an actor. He started with dialogues from the play and compressed the action into a few brief months. “I didn’t want to deal with having the children growing up over a decade,” as the play did, Magee notes.

Another member of the company sent a draft of the screenplay to producer Richard Gladstein, and the project was set up at Miramax. Besides acting, Magee had been recording children’s books, and was asked to edit them into shorter versions. “That’s how I first learned to write screenplays,” he says.

When it comes to capturing tumultuous historical events, it’s sometimes best to work through the prism of a single individual at the center of a wider cataclysm. That’s what writer Terry George did in “Hotel Rwanda,” which he produced and directed, about the African genocide that took over a million lives in the mid-1990s.

George was struggling with how to tell the tragedy in cinematic terms when his collaborator Keir Pearson, who had worked on a Rwanda documentary for PBS, came across the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed and saved over a thousand Tutsis during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda.

George decided to make this man the fulcrum of the story. “Within Paul’s story you had an Everyman, who was at the core of what was happening because he knew all the major players,” he says.

Despite the grimness of the subject matter, George believes this focus on a real-life individual gives the film a dimension that’s inspiring. “No matter how interesting your subject,” he notes, “you’ve got to give moviegoers a reason to plunk down $10 for a ticket.”

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