First published in Little White Lies.
On the release of JFK in 1991, Norman Mailer noted that film had the power to make new history. With multiplexes overrun with stories borrowing from the great and the good, what counts for truth in cinema?
The popularity of the filmed biopic with both producers and audiences shows no sign of abating, with over 30 movies in production and Awards ceremonies most recently championing Natalie Portman’s performance in Jackie. This is far from a recent development, with representations of real life having long fed the insatiable fires of Hollywood. In the course of his research for a book on history and celebrity, critic George Custon observed a commonality across over a hundred film biographies that had been shot between 1927 and 1960. In every single example, the lives being portrayed on the screen featured narratives that charted triumph over adversity. This adversity was contrived from childhood trauma, or born of personal relationships, substance abuse, economic difficulties or the conquest of bigotry. In each of the films he looked at – with subjects ranging from Joan of Arc to Al Jolson – hinged the development, achievement and decline of their protagonist to one event; a singularity of history.
In his study of historical film, Mark Carnes noted that “Hollywood history sparkles because it is so historically ambiguous, so devoid of tedious complexity,” an observation as true to Defiance, Daniel Craig’s recent portrayal of Jewish resistance in the eastern provinces of Poland during World War Two as it is to Stephen Soderbergh’s Che. As Marnie Hughes-Warrington observed, “mainstream film is characterised as offering a closed, completed and simple past.” History has to be simplified in order to cram the entirety of being into a two-hour running time; multi-faceted lives recast into an easily digested narrative.
This codification has the power to disseminate entirely new myths of figures and events some distance from history and, perhaps more surprisingly, serve to reconstruct their subjects’ identity entirely. The private and public lives of celebrities cross-pollinate, and life and performance blur. On the release of Eight Mile where Eminem played rapper B-Rabbit, critics leapt at the film as autobiography. Representation had become interchangeable with reality. This assumption has been cemented by that veritable stamp of cinematic authenticity, the Academy Awards, drawn to iopics year after year like moths to a flame – from Sissy Spacek’s Patsy Cline in the Coal Miner’s Daughter, to Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and Marion Cottilard as Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
Sam Riley’s performance as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control epitomised the importance of this perceived authenticity to audiences. The overcooked, high contrast black and white cinematography was intended to reflect both the period and the spirit of the moment, while the music within the film was notably played by the actors rather than making use of original recordings. Despite all of this, the band’s Stephen Morris commented to the NME after the film’s premiere that, “none of it’s true, really.”
“The great thing about a biography is that you can’t escape the facts,” explains Nick Moran, who brought the story of British record producer Joe Meek first to the stage, and later adapted the work to the screen in Telstar. “The history of our country is full of amazing stories from incredible characters. So many truly great British movies tend to be biographies, from Lawrence of Arabia to Elizabeth, that I think fiction should be a last resort for us – let the Americans do that, they’re great at making stuff up.”
The film charts Meek’s decline from his revolutionary work in the recording studio, to the tragic decline though drug addiction and a terrible paranoia which eventually resulted in the murder of his landlady, Violet Shenton, and his own suicide. “The best way to pick Joe’s life apart was through the work,” he explains, detailing the process of writing the script. “I like to think we got close to what happened in the last moments of Joe and Violet’s life. Obviously no one really knows what happened, but we had the facts, the state of mind, and we know the conclusion. If you go through the songs it becomes clear what was going on in his life and in his head, especially if you look at what was going on in the world outside the flat. His character seemed to permeate every aspect of his life, and his homosexuality was something that informed his every decision. The great thing about a biography is that you can’t escape the facts, and when that biography features a musician, audiences are able to connect that story to something that they may already know about, or have an emotional attachment to. The Meek story is totally unique, stranger than fiction, and has all of those timeless themes of Shakespearean tragedy; love, loss, and the fall of a king.”
More recently Jackie is one of a slew of films centered around the US presidency. Ron Howard, no stranger to historical film having directed Apollo 13 and Hunt/Lauda biopic Rush, brought the historical legacy of Richard Nixon back into the realms of popular culture with Frost/Nixon. Much as David Frost’s televised interviews – on which Peter Morgan’s stage production and adapted screenplay for Howard were based – had achieved on their initial broadcast thirty years earlier. As with Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which leapt from actual footage from the seventies to Sean Penn’s portrayal of the titular character, Howard’s film outlines the complex relationship with past and present by blending historical record with speculative conjecture in its opening few minutes. Fictional footage is mixed with documentary and news archive, together with audio recordings taken from the White House taping system. David Edelstein noted in an article for New York Magazine that Morgan’s script elevated the interviews into “a momentous event in the history of politics and media.” Howard’s film worked hard to embellish the events with lines of dramatic dialogue that both ramped up the tension and the very significance of the interviews themselves.
An entirely fictional scene, where Nixon telephones Frost in the middle of the night, was crucial in its foreshadowing of Nixon’s admissions in the final interview. The scene had a sense of truth, seeded from the many late night telephone calls Nixon made during his career, but the call sat uncomfortably in the film as a whole. It borrows its confused, dutch-angled aesthetic from Oliver Stone’s earlier biopic Nixon, and the conversation serves to reinforce this cinematic reality of Nixon, making the suggestion that he was dependant on drink and drugs and raise doubts as to his memory and integrity. In his study, George Custon suggested that the biopic serves as an accessible version of history, satisfying an audience’s desire for “a loose code of realism”. He stated that films that recounted historical events made only an assertion of truth, but that this an assertion has the power to become embodied in popular culture. This vision of Nixon, crazed and irrational, rather than thoroughly rational and acting criminally, is elevated and concretized by Frost/Nixon.
In a strange slip of its own self-referentiality Sam Rockwell, playing Frost advisor Jim Reston on whose book both play and film were loosely based, observes in the closing scene that television simplifies, and film simplifies even further. He suggests that the many failings of Frost’s original interviews would not only be forgotten, but cease to exist entirely. Much to the despair of historians, in Reston’s terms film takes the place of folklore with the shared experience of the past represented in cinema constantly in flux and, more often than not, in opposition to history.
Stone’s account of Nixon attempted to exempt itself from the critical scrutiny which had been applied to JFK, stating a disclaimer in the titles that the film made “an attempt to understand the truth based on numerous public sources and on an incomplete historical record”, making much of the missing minutes of the Whitehouse tapes. Jean-François Richet does the same in Mesrine each part of which opens with a simple title which acknowledges, “All films are part fiction. No film can faithfully reproduce the complexity of a human life. Each to his own point of view.”
The greatest danger of the historical film is perhaps best expressed by that master of the form. In an interview with Newsweek, James Cameron stated his hope for Titanic; “will become the truth, the visual reality that a generation will accept.”