Aaannnddd, we’re getting a…Moulin Rouge-style Elton John biopic? Perhaps this is just me, but if we’re talking about movies about gay people, Elton John is actually a pretty boring subject for a biopic. He came out, at least as bisexual, relatively early, married then divorced, has been with the same person since 1993, and has a kid. He’s had alcohol and drug problems and struggled with bulimia. While all of these are personally interesting struggles, and John has made a lot of music and a lot of money, I’m not sure why he’s necessarily a more emblematic of his times than anybody else, or why his life story is inherently more compelling than any other struggling famous or non-famous person. The upcoming Liberace biopic has vastly more promise.
Today in The Atlantic, I consider Humphrey Bogart from the perspective of Stefan Kanfer’s new biography of the man, Tough Without a Gun:
He might have argued that the kind of masculinity Bogart represents is simply unreproducible (though there is always promise: Tom Hardy, the British actor vaunted to American stardom by his turn as a forger in Inception, looks like he could smack around a dame or two). But the argument wouldn’t stand up against the obvious shift in the American experience that made Bogart’s weariness less relatable, and in the economics of entertainment that put ticket-buying dollars in younger hands, something that Kanfer acknowledges.
Kanfer says at the beginning of the book that “impersonators don’t ‘do’ Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale et al. because these actors don’t have distinctive voices or faces.” But is that shift truly because Bogart was a more distinctive man and actor than the craftsmen who followed him? Or is it because actors like Pitt, DiCaprio and Bale have a wider variety of roles available to them, and thus are less easily pigeonholed? Or because trends in acting have come to favor Method-like absorption in parts, a technique that Kanfer says Bogart disliked but nonetheless learned from and put to good use in The African Queen? Is Bogart simply the last man of his type that we value? Gods can end up being less relevant to our day-to-day existence than our flawed, vital, fellow men.
The book is decidedly imperfect, but it’s an interesting example of the challenges of celebrity biography, and the pitfalls of trying to quantify that most intangible of qualities.
Ta-Nehisi isn’t interested in seeing The Conspirator. But I think I might be:
I’m torn on this. I think it’s worth asking whether, if the only way to get a movie made about the serious problems of military trials of civilians was to make a movie about an undeniably guilty Confederate traitor and to cast her as a victim, whether it’s worth making said movie at all. I don’t really have an answer, and I think it may be impossible for me to have an answer without seeing the movie and seeing how it comes down on the question of Mary Surratt’s guilt. If the movie makes a clear case that she was guilty and the cause for which she thought she was fighting evil, but also insists that the trial that lead to her hanging was wrong, then I think it may turn out to be worth it. But if the movie’s a piece of Confederate apologia, then Ta-Nehisi may be right.
But I do think that military trials are going to something that we have to find a way to deal with, and deal with directly, in our mass entertainment. We’ve seen movies about rendition, about torture. But we haven’t seen, in our mass culture, what a military trial looks like. We’re so attached to our cultural understanding of what courtrooms look like, and what it looks like to see justice and injustice done there. Beyond the standard petty and profound miscarriages and perversions of justice that are done in our courts regularly, a defendant who is brought to court in goggles and earmuffs is a huge challenge to that image and those narrative and dramatic conventions. But maybe we could use that sort of upset, even if comes in a historical form, if it will let us put our courts on screen with greater nuance and understanding.