Friday, March 26, 2021

Biopics: Hailing Two Great Ladies of Song

Hollywood always seems ready to launch another biopic. In the early days of talkies, studios rushed to immortalize famous men on film, resulting in the fawning treatment of such historical figures as Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln, and waltz king Johann Strauss. Accuracy was not exactly the goal: a 1929 flick starring George Arliss made a long-ago prime minister of Great Britain sound like an action hero: “Benjamin Disraeli outwits the subterfuge of the Russians and chicanery at home in order to secure the purchase of the Suez Canal.” As the decades wore on, America’s top actors vied to play high-achievers whose lives were picturesquely tortured. Kirk Douglas, portraying Vincent Van Gogh in the 1956 biopic, Lust for Life, was honored with an Oscar nomination. And Anthony Quinn, as Van Gogh’s frenemy, Paul Gauguin, went home with a Supporting Actor statuette for the same film.

  Which suggests there’s gold to be gained by playing a real historical figure with a compelling life story. Like Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan: both Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft (yes, Mrs. Robinson herself) won Oscars for their roles. More recently, biopics of major entertainment figures like Richie Valens (La Bamba, with Lou Diamond Phillips), Jim Morrison (The Doors, with Val Kilmer), and Ray Charles (Ray, an Oscar-winning role for Jamie Foxx) have heaped accolades on actors while reminding us of the huge talents we have lost.

 Just two years ago, Rami Malek nabbed an Oscar for his flamboyant portrayal of Queen’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Not long thereafter, another gay rocker, Elton John, was vividly portrayed by Taron Egerton in Rocketman. These things go in cycles: now it seems to be the turn of African-American musical divas with complex family histories.

Of course I’m thinking about this year’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday, for which singer/songwriter Andra Day has already picked up a Best Actress Golden Globe. She’s also now an Oscar contender for this role. It’s a powerhouse performance, one that asks her to approximate Holiday’s unique singing style while also conveying the lady’s painful life. This is hardly the first time Holiday has been portrayed on the big screen: back in 1972, Diana Ross starred in Lady Sings the Blues, for which she too earned an Oscar nom. (In that same landmark year for Black women, Cicely Tyson was nominated for Sounder, but both lost to Liza Minnelli’s iconic performance in Cabaret). The focus for Ross’s portrayal was on Billie Holiday’s heroin addiction. This year’s film, by contrast, tells the fascinating true story of how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI went after Holiday (even sending a young Black agent to pose as a super-fan) because of the political implications of her show-stopping ballad, “Strange Fruit.” It’s a tale worth telling, but director Lee Daniels, never known for subtlety, crams the screen with intertwining subplots, so that we’re never entirely certain who’s doing what to whom.

While Andra Day is lighting up the screens of whatever movie houses are open these days, the talented Cynthia Erivo is portraying Aretha Franklin in a multi-part segment of the cable-TV series called Genius. Less glamorous than Billie Holiday, Franklin lived a life that had its own challenges, including a domineering father who was a superstar preacher. I saw the first episode, which introduced us to the child who grew up to be the Queen of Soul as well as the young woman whose grasp of how she wanted to sing was already secure. And an Aretha biopic starring Jennifer Hudson is on its way to the multiplexes this summer. Genius indeed!



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