I want to begin by saying that I love biopics. Though they get a bad rep, there are so many incredible ones that manage to transcend the genre and become not just great biopics, but great films. Still, when I heard that David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace was being made into a movie, I thought, “Oh no.” As it turns out, I’m not the only one. Wallace’s estate recently stated that they “have no connection with, and neither endorse nor support” the film. Whether that’s a reaction to the general idea of a DFW biopic or to just the photo above is anyone’s guess.
There is still hope that all who signed on to the film will awake from their fugue state and halt production. In a perfect world, Jason Segel would take off his bandana, turn to Jesse Eisenberg and say, “Dude, what were we thinking?” Of course we do not live in a perfect world, and it’s just a matter of time before we have to deal with copies of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself featuring the words “Now a Major Motion Picture!” on the front cover.
Until then, let’s reminisce on the terrible biopics of yesteryear and remember that life still went on, the sun still rose and all will be OK (yes, really!) if Jason Segel butchers the role of David Foster Wallace.
1. Factory Girl
In the name of honesty, I feel I should tell you this: I saw Factory Girl the night it came out in 2006 — but even at 15, I understood that it was just not very good. Guy Pearce didn’t really act the part of Andy Warhol, but rather impersonate him. It was as if your friend who is pretty good at impressions got cast in a major motion picture.
For decades, there have been rumors that Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan had a sordid love affair, but for reasons blind to both my then 15-year-old self and my current 22-year-old self, the filmmakers of Factory Girl decided to blow up the affair into a relationship. Due to legal pressure, they opted never to mention Dylan’s name and instead call him “Billy Quinn.” Sienna Miller was actually quite good as Sedgwick, but unfortunately Sedgwick was never really a very interesting or important person. If you’re going to make a film about someone’s life, that person better have a story worth telling.
2. The Audrey Hepburn Story
Audrey Hepburn: one of the most iconic movie stars of all time, a symbol of elegance and grace, an internationally acclaimed actress — so basically the Jennifer Love Hewitt of yesteryear. All snark aside, Hewitt is a beautiful woman and, though I’m not sure she has Hepburn levels of talent, Can’t Hardly Wait is a pretty solid movie. She also worked on The Audrey Hepburn Story as a co-executive producer, so kudos to her, but that fact would be even more impressive had it been anything resembling a good movie. Instead, it’s corny and cringe-worthy, the bread and butter of bad biopics. As an additional treat, the above clip also features Michael J. Burg as Truman Capote. Guess Toby Jones was busy that week.
3. Greetings From Tim Buckley
Listen: No one is a bigger Penn Badgley supporter than I. Easy A? Big fan. Gossip Girl? I own season one on DVD. I’ve liked Badgley since his WB series Do Over, and I’ve seen him around New York so many times (we frequent the same taco truck) that I’ve started to wonder if he is my guardian angel.
I say all of that to prove that what I’m about to say is in no way throwing shade at Penn Badgley — but whoever thought Penn Badgley could pull off playing Jeff Buckley, one of the most talented and tragic singers of our time, must’ve been hitting the sauce. Stick with the teen comedies and following me around New York, Penn.
I might think that I love biopics, but do you know who really loves biopics? Oliver Stone. JFK, Nixon, Alexander, The Doors — with so many swings, there are bound to be a few misses, but there is perhaps no worse miss on Stone’s list than W. Now, it wasn’t all bad. First off, who doesn’t love Josh Brolin? Dude was in The Goonies! The second pro is that, you know, Stone made another movie and making a movie is super hard. (Have you made a movie? I didn’t think so.)
Now on to the negatives: Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush? Really? Oh, and did anyone tell Thandie Newton (a caricature of Condoleezza Rice) that the film wasn’t ending with the line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” so maybe take it down a notch? Perhaps the strangest aspect are the moments that Stone decides to zero in on. There’s a scene where Bush chokes on a pretzel, yet there’s little to no mention of 9/11. No one’s life is worth capturing completely, even someone as confounding as our 43rd president, but the best biopics know which moments to illuminate and which ones to leave out all together — and yeah, 9/11 > pretzel choking hazard.
5. Patch Adams
For those of you not in the know, Patch Adams (Robin Williams) is a medical student who believes that patients need friends as much as they need a doctor, or, as he puts it, “Our job is to improve the quality of life, not just to delay death.” The film is based on Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, who devoted his life to using humor to help those in pain. It is a truly inspirational story. Dr. Adams is an incredible man. Unfortunately, the whole thing is so saccharine sweet that it makes Equal taste bitter. I mean, jeez, at one point Williams literally climbs a mountain while an orchestra swells in the background. Come. On.
6. Norma Jean & Marilyn
There’s no way around it: Norma Jean & Marilyn is insane. The film, which stars Mira Sorvino as Marilyn Monroe and Ashley Judd as Norma Jean Dougherty — who, lest we forget, is just young Marilyn Monroe — premiered on HBO in 1996. Though both Judd and Sorvino are excellent (they were both nominated for Emmys), the film itself has such a bizarre premise that it was bound to fall flat. Monroe is met by her former self, who often taunts her, telling her that no one loves her, that even her fans will forget her. The above scene features Dougherty insulting Monroe while she pops pill after pill. It is, indeed, an original take on the story, but originality does not always win out. Sometimes, especially with a biopic, it’s best to just tell a straightforward story about somebody’s life.
Bob Woodward’s 1984 biography Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi is great. If you have any interest in comedy, the perils of fame, addiction — certainly if you have any interest in Belushi — then you should it read it. What you shouldn’t do if you’re interested in any of those topics (or if you’re just a human being who enjoys good movies) is see the film version of Wired. I can’t even begin to touch on how many mistakes it made: They wrote Bob Woodward into the script for reasons that are never explained (though, if you listen closely, you can hear someone saying, “It worked for All the President’s Men!”), they added a guardian angel, and they cast Michael Chiklis as John Belushi. Yes, the Michael Chiklis from ... one episode of Miami Vice. It’s not only a jumbled mess, but a disservice to Belushi’s story.
One of the many things unsuccessful biopics do is, rather than create a seamless narrative, they jump from one timeline marker to the next. It’s the cinematic equivalent to hearing a story that’s told in the format of “And then this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened, and then that happened.” You have to make it a story, which is unfortunately not what Jobs did. Everyone else in Hollywood must have realized the script was lacking because they had to resort to Ashton Kutcher to play Steve Jobs. David Fincher is set to release another Steve Jobs biopic, so perhaps we can all soon forget that Jobs even happened.
They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but that’s exactly what screenwriters Ross Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan tried to do with Amelia. The better part of the film shows Hilary Swank’s Amelia Earhart telling us how much she believes in herself, how she is sure that she can be the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, how — all her doubters be damned — she knows she can do it. We’re gearing up for an inspiring story, but anyone who has ever taken fourth grade American history knows that (spoiler alert for all you third graders) Earhart didn’t make it. Or maybe she did. But she probably didn’t. Nobody knows.
So, in part it’s not Bass and Phelan’s fault that Amelia is such a dud. However, this could have been a really dark film had the screenwriters been willing to go to that dismal place. This could have been a film about how sometimes believing in yourself isn’t enough, having a plan isn’t enough, having money behind you and people believing in you is just simply not enough to combat nature. The lesson here is this: When you’re making a biopic, you have to respect what actually happened. Yes, you will have to narrativize it a bit, but you have to respect and honor the tone of reality. Earhart’s story has a tragic ending, one that Amelia doesn’t even skim the surface of.
10. Little Ashes
I saved the best for last. Even the guardian angels of Wired can’t compete with Edward Cullen as Salvador Dali. Little Ashes came out in the spring of 2009, nearly a year after the first Twilight film was released. It’s a testament to how bad it is that even teen Twilight fanatics were like, “You know, we love Robert Pattinson and all, but no thanks.” Pattison is an awkward and unconvincing Dali, but the biggest question is: Did no one realize that that is not at all what a Spanish accent sounds like?
Did we miss your favorite bad biopic? Do you want to defend any of the ones above? Do you, too, love Patch Adams? Tell us all about it in the comments below!