Yesterday, HBO Films announced plans for the upcoming movie The Day the Laughter Stopped, based on the true story of Fatty Arbuckle, the wildly popular silent movie comic (second only to Chaplin) whose career was brought to a screeching halt when he was falsely accused of raping and murdering a starlet named Virginia Rappe at a Labor Day party in 1921. Though he was ultimately acquitted of the crime, Arbuckle’s reputation was ruined forever, and in the wake of the scandal, Hollywood studios cracked down on both on-screen sex and the off-screen lives of their stars.
Good movie material, yeah? We’ve thought so for years, and look forward to seeing what John Adams writer Kirk Ellis, You Don’t Know Jack director Barry Levinson, and Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet (we’d always seen Oliver Platt in the role, but that’s neither here nor there) come up with. Meanwhile, the recent, surprise release of the West Memphis Three has provided filmmaker Atom Egoyan with an unexpectedly upbeat ending to his already-in-the-works WM3 film. Both of these tidbits got us thinking about some of the real lives we’d like to see get the biopic treatment:
Our first three are perhaps cheats, since they’re projects that actually are in some form of development — but they’ve been talking about them forever, and we’re ready to just see the damn things already. First and foremost is the project that cinephiles have been drooling over for more than a decade: Dino, Martin Scorsese’s film biography of Dean Martin, adapted from Nick Toches’ book by screenwriter Nicolas Pileggi, Scorsese’s collaborator on Goodfellas and Casino. Scorsese bought the rights to the book clear back in 1992 and Pileggi had a script ready a few years later; word circulated that Scorsese was courting an all-star cast that included Tom Hanks (Martin), John Travolta (Frank Sinatra), Jim Carrey (Jerry Lewis), Hugh Grant (Peter Lawford), and Adam Sandler (Joey Bishop). But either due to the cost or availability of that dream cast, the project never came to be; talk of the project died out altogether in 2009, when word circulated that Scorsese was making a Sinatra biopic instead. That one is still languishing as well. Either one will be fine, Marty. Whenever you get the chance.
The innovative stand-up comic and film star made his own biopic, sort of, with the flawed but fascinating 1986 comedy/drama Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, though Pryor insisted it was not an autobiography (sure, Richard, it was about some other groundbreaking comic from the Midwest who rose to fame in the ‘70s and set himself on fire). But a full-on biographical film has been rumored in several forms since Pryor’s death in 2005. First, and most interestingly, Eddie Murphy (who frequently cited Pryor as his primary influence and wrote the co-starring role in Harlem Nights for him) was to star in the film, which would reteam him with Bill Condon — whose Dreamgirls was about the only Murphy film of the last decade that didn’t suck out loud. However, Murphy ensured that his hot streak of terrible cinema would continue by leaving the project (“creative differences,” so interpret that as you will). Mike Epps was briefly considered for the role as well, but cooler heads prevailed, and Condon eventually cast Marlon Wayans as Pryor, after being blown away by his audition tape (and before you snicker, remember: this is the Wayans that was in Requiem for a Dream). That was the last we heard about Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?; it was slated to shoot last fall, but then Condon was hired to shoot the two-part conclusion to “The Twilight Saga” (seriously, that’s what they call those movies?), Breaking Dawn, and the Pryor picture went on the back-burner. Here’s hoping he gets back to it soon; Condon is a sure hand with biopics (he wrote and directed Gods and Monsters and Kinsey), and Pryor’s story is a truly fascinating one.
Various film versions of the life of immortal soul singer Marvin Gaye have been rumored for years, and for good reason: it’s a story of incredible highs (at Motown, Gaye created some of the most exhilarating soul music of all time) and dramatic lows (failed marriages, drugs, and finally, his murder at the hand of his own father in 1984). Several directors, including F. Gary Gray and Cameron Crowe, have tried to get the project off the ground, and Usher coveted the role for some time, to no avail (thankfully), as did Terrence Howard. But the project most likely to hit screens appears to be Sexual Healing, a dramatization of Gaye’s final years, from comeback to death. Jesse L. Martin was originally set to star in the film (with James Gandolfini in a supporting role) back in 2008, but it fell through. Last spring, Julien Temple (director of The Filth and The Fury, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, and Absolute Beginners) was announced as director, with Martin and Gandolfini no longer attached, but the project appears to have stalled again. Get it together, Hollywood.
HBO’s recent documentary portrait, Gloria: In Her Own Words (promoted above), was an outstanding look at the renowned feminist and activist; how’s about we go a step further and give her the biopic treatment? Her story has everything: political awakenings, sweeping social changes, government harassment, arrests, even battles with breast cancer and trigeminal neuralgia. Think of it as a Milk for the women’s rights movement, Hollywood; sign up Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) to direct and we’ll buy our tickets now.
It’s rather astonishing that writer and activist Davis has never been the topic of a biographical film; within her narrative is the story of the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, red-baiting in the late ‘60s, and prison reform. And, of course, there is the incredibly dramatic story of her pursuit (after placement on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list), arrest, and ultimate acquittal in her notorious 1972 trial for involvement in the Marin County courthouse incident. We’d love to see Viola Davis in the role (but we’d love to see Viola Davis in pretty much everything).
If HBO’s willing to gamble on a feature biography of a silent comedian, may we politely request they take a look at Harpo Speaks, the wonderful 1961 autobiography of Harpo Marx, the red-headed, harp-playing, mute arm of the Marx Brothers? It’s a charming tale of the last days of vaudeville, the early days of talking cinema, and the Hollywood of yore. But best of all, Harpo was the sole crossover member of the 20th century’s two most famous round tables: the Algonquin (where he sat with such wits as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Wolcott, Harold Ross, Marc Connelly, and Ruth Hale) and the Hillcrest (whose members included George Burns, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, the Ritz Brothers, and Harpo’s fellow Marx Brothers). Those crowd scenes alone would be worth the trouble; though Robert Altman is no longer with us to direct and his protégé Alan Rudolph already took on the Algonquin with Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, maybe Altman heir apparent Paul Thomas Anderson could give the sprawling story a shot?
Nico (nee Christa Päffgen) was a ‘60s renaissance woman: singer, actress, model, composer, and all-around Superstar. She died in 1988, not yet 50 years old, but left behind music, films, and above all, a legend. There’s high drama in her story: the Factory years, her time with the Velvet Underground, her innovative solo albums, long battle with heroin addiction. Cast Michelle Williams as Nico, and maybe re-team her with her I’m Not There director Todd Haynes (whose Far from Heaven and Mildred Pierce proved him ideal for telling stories of strong female protagonists), and off you go.
Nothing makes for an entertaining biopic like a little sex and scandal, and the story of Mae West has got both of them in spades — she was arrested for “corrupting the morals of youth” with her 1927 Broadway play Sex, banned from radio by NBC, and all but single-handedly brought about the revision and enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in light of the smash success of her saucy 1930s movies. But she wasn’t just a lighting rod for controversy; she was also a driven and independent artist who wrote and directed her stage productions, penned her own screenplays, and became Hollywood’s highest-paid performer. Who knows who could actually play West — she was truly one of a kind — but Simon Louvish’s terrific biography Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin would make an ideal starting point for a West biopic.
Fade in: a drunken, 52-year-old George Jones (Billy Bob Thornton) tears through his Texas home, upending tables, searching through change bowls, unable to find the keys to his car so that he can go buy more booze. He realizes that his wife has hidden the keys to all of his vehicles, so as to keep him from driving the eight miles to the nearest liquor store. Furious and hopeless, he looks out a nearby window. There, bathed in a pool of light, he sees a ten-horsepower John Deere riding lawn mower. Cut to: Jones tooling down the highway at five miles an hour, on his way to the liquor store.
Well, we’d watch that movie. Wouldn’t you?
Pat Livingston and Bruce Ellavsky
Unlike the other entries on this list, you probably haven’t heard of Livingston and Ellavsky. If not, get thee to a copy of The Other Hollywood, Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne’s “uncensored oral history” (tee hee) of the adult film industry. There, you will find the story of “MIPORN,” an FBI undercover operation that ran from 1977 to 1979, investigating the porn industry and its underworld ties in Florida. Forty-five defendants were indicted as a result of the investigation, which would have been a big score for the operation, were it not for one thing: Livingston went too far undercover. He became intoxicated by the sex, drugs, and crime they were surrounded by, and when the investigation ended, he didn’t want to go back to his normal life. In 1982, Livingston was arrested for attempting to shoplift $157 worth of designer clothes from a department store; the name he gave to the arresting officer was his undercover pseudonym, Pat Salamone. As a result, the MIPORN convictions were ruled tainted by Livingston’s testimony and many were thrown out; those that were not had to be re-tried, with only Ellavsky testifying. Sounds to us like a perfect mix of Donnie Brasco and Boogie Nights.
So that’s our biopic wish list; who would you like to see immortalized in a silver screen biography?