I recently went to a gala preview thingy for A Liar’s autobiography, which was immediately shunted out on DVD to, it strikes me, very little press coverage or acclaim. I think that’s a shame, so I wanted to write something about it and use it as an excuse to look at film biographies of troubled comedians, which is a genre seldom explored. ALA walks a bit of a tightrope in this genre. You could argue that it’s a documentary but I think it just about qualifies as a dramatization due to the manner of its production. Anyway, buckle up for some tears and giggles…
A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2013):
This is as strange and unquantifiable a film as its subject clearly deserves. The long-dead Graham Chapman narrates his own life story, which is played out in a series of animated sections with the rest of the still-living Pythons playing the voices of every other role. It’s a beautiful curiosity. Filmmakers Ben (son of Terry) Jones and Ben Timlett created the voiceover from the audiobook version of Chapman’s autobiography, rather charmingly mixing it up with the out-takes from that session. They then turned it over to 14 different animation studios, all with their own very distinct styles, methods and aesthetics to bring it to life in whatever way they felt best. The animation is hit and miss, some sections feel like pretty shoddy CGI, whilst others are like works of fine art. The section detailing Chapman’s cold turkey withdrawal from substance abuse, achieved through painting on panes of glass is a thing of wonder. Likewise some of the silly stuff, especially the section detailing his sexual appetite leap of the screen (literally if you see it in 3D – which I recommend) in both narrative approach and animation achievement. Sometimes the silliness and the constant visual assault on the eyes takes away slightly from giving you a bit more of a serious insight into the man himself but you somewhat feel that might be the point. He remains a bit of an enigma in death as he was in life and really rather than scrape around for his inner demons, this film revels in celebrating the spirit of a true eccentric.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS (2004):
This is another odd film and not entirely a successful one, despite being worth watching and having quite a lot of interesting things going on. The casting of the film is both its success and its failure. Geoffrey Rush is simply the wrong choice to portray Sellers. I’m not sure why. It could be his age, his shape, his general demeanor which doesn’t feel quite in tune with the piece. Films like this are tricky, the central actor has quite a task ahead of them in channeling the spirit of the subject without just doing an impersonation. I think an audience is always prepared to suspend disbelief as to how much they look or sound like their inspiration, as long as they feel like them. Rush, who does a valiant job, aside, the rest of the casting is impeccable. Steve Pemberton and Ed Tudor Pole are inspired choices as Secombe and Milligan. Stanley Tucci plays a wry Stanley Kubrick and John Lithgow brings a wired energy to Blake Edwards. What I really like about this film is the approach it takes to its central figure. It plays big on the notion that Sellers didn’t really have much of a personality of his own and was as confused as anybody else by his own choices and behaviour. It leads to some fabulously bizarre scenes like the one where we has dinner on the set of Dr Strangelove with his mum (Miriam Margolyes) but conducts the whole meal in character as Strangelove. Rush does do justice to Seller’s private rages and the scenes of his homelife are horribly sad, complemented by really great performances from the very young actors playing his children and suffering his manic fury. The direction is excellent, with some really odd misdirections and unexpected storytelling moves. It’s not perfect but it’s so worth a watch.
NOT ONLY BUT ALWAYS (2004):
So, here is the opposite phenomenon, a film, perhaps less ambitious in storytelling scope, but whose central figures are impeccably cast. Rhys Ifans was practically born to play Peter Cook, with his disconnected yet cutting gaze and heady mix of arrogance and umbrage. Aidan McArdle, an actor I’m unaware of outside of this film is the perfect Dudley Moore – the put-upon stooge who finds his confidence, much to the chagrin of his arguably more talented partner. Written and directed by playwright Terry Johnson, this really catches that fantastic tension that made Cook and Moore so special. Cook is incredibly cruel to Moore but never in a way that could be considered anything less than hilarious. It shows the hell that a troubled genius is to other people and captures that aloof pain in all of Cook’s relationships. It resists the chance presented to paint Cook as some kind of monster or fuck-up and it’s this dignity which it affords all participants which marks it out as a particularly classy film.
One of those films where all of the elements are perfect. Dustin Hoffman at his absolute prime, playing Lenny Bruce, probably the most brilliant comedian ever and unarguably the father of modern stand-up, directed by the rarely-recognised genius Bob Fosse. This film is so raw and so voyeuristic that it feels like documentary. It doesn’t feel acted. Bruce was essentially hounded to death by the police and authorities on constant obscenity charges for his act which, by today’s standards seems positively tame. The swearing and sexual references which are pretty much tired and passe now were revolutionary when he employed them and he became a martyr for not so much free speech – he was a comedian, not a political campaigner – but the right to express oneself freely and use the words they choose. The final courtroom scene where an exhausted but frenzied Bruce is subjected to a complete dissection of his act removed entirely of context, is a masterpiece of frustration. Bruce actually has some faith in the judge and complete belief in the value of what he himself has to say, he is convinced that if he is just allowed to perform his own material to the judge, then it will be understood. Dismissing his representation and trying desperately to express himself honestly, hitting a zenith when he says ‘Your honour, I so want your respect…’ only to be threatened with contempt of court. He is broken down to nothing, it’s the perfect illustration of the system crushing an outsider. As he’s dragged off, he cries ‘you need a deviant! you need that madman to stand up and tell you when you’re blowing it!’ His last line, a wretched, sincere, childish plead of ‘please don’t take away my words, they’re not hurting anybody!’ it’s an incredibly emotional film which pulls you through the wringer a bit, leaving you frustrated and sad but aware that you have just experienced a work of incredible quality.
MAN ON THE MOON (1999):
And this is my favourite of the genre. One of my favourite films of all time, really. It nails it in every way the preceding films do individually but with even more emotional depth and cogent analysis. Andy Kaufman was not one of the most famous comedians even of his time and endures as a cult figure but I’d argue not a particularly well-known one. Most famous for playing Latke on the sitcom Taxi and less-so for a string of performances on Saturday Night Live, he’s probably best remembered now in the world of wrestling for his bizarre gatecrashing of that sport with his inter-gender bouts and his feud with Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler. This film, directed by Milos Forman and written by the two guys who are simply the best at biopics – Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (they also wrote Ed Wood and The People vs Larry Flynt), engages so deeply with Kaufman’s character and insecurities. The film was made with the total involvement of Kaufman’s family and friends, many of whom appear in the film in cameos or even playing themselves and this lends the piece a huge amount of heart. When I heard the film was being made, I was excited, when I heard Jim Carrey had been cast, I was despondent. Ace Ventura. He was an obvious choice but would undoubtedly trash it. I was so wrong. Carrey nails this part so perfectly that he’s completely lost in it. To me, he is directly channeling the spirit of Kaufman. He is Kaufman. It’s a heartfelt performance of a man who was never afraid to experiment, never afraid to test himself. No matter how many times I see this film, it still reduces me to tears by the end. It deserves to be seen. It deserves to be talked about more.
So, what do you think? How do you feel about biopics? What are your favourites? can they ever do their subjects justice? Which comedians are crying out to be eulogised with a film like these? Post a comment!