Monday, June 30, 2008


Last week, I reviewed the 1957 James Cagney vehicle, Man of a Thousand Faces, with Jane Greer and Dorothy Malone for DVDVerdict. A biography of the great Lon Chaney, one of my all-time favorite actors, apparently Cagney jumped at the chance to portray one of his screen idols in this Hollywood lovefest. The movie isn’t very good; Cagney never was a very good actor, but the review has become the least popular I’ve done since I bitched about Peter O’Toole’s crappy acting in the Jehovah-awful miniseries Masada. Maybe it wasn’t my best work. It’s totally possible, though I’ve written worse for better movies and received plenty of positive feedback. Instead, I think that it was my main reason for disliking the film that caused the negative reaction. It isn’t like I’ve received a bunch of hate mail and death threats, but I’ve had a few people questioning my intelligence and capability to write a review. They could be completely right but if so, I’m still writing them so I’m okay with it.

In a way, my argument against Man of a Thousand Faces isn’t exactly fair to the film. Basically, the film is a series of re-enactments of famous scenes from Chaney’s films (the standing scene in The Miracle Man, the unmasking in Phantom of the Opera, etc.) combined with a typically whitewashed hackneyed story about Chaney trying to get his son Creighton (who would become Lon, Jr.) to love his father. It’s ridiculously boring and full of histrionics and the only reason anybody could enjoy the film is to see Cagney act like Chaney. In 1957, most fans of Chaney from the silent days hadn’t seen his films in some thirty years and I’m sure it was a treat to see those old movies replayed from a vaguely behind-the-scenes angle. That’s great for 1957, and I’m happy that those people got to see that, but this is 2008 and the home video market is open enough that I have seen nearly all of the films represented in the biopic. My question remains: if I can watch the original performances any time I like, why would I watch second-rate approximations accompanied by a badly done biographical story that has little to no basis in reality?

The larger point, and the one that caused the negative reactions, is that I hate biographical films about people whose lives, or at least the parts we care about, have been thoroughly documented. I don’t have such a problem with biopics about older historical figures. The Shakespearean-style histories of old kings are roles up for interpretation based on available sources, the stories in which are often spurious. This is acting. What is done in Man of a Thousand Faces and, more importantly, modern award-winning biopics of people like Ray Charles, Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, Andy Kauffman, etc is little more than imitation. The actors study all the available footage and mimic what they see as best they can. If this is so great, why doesn’t Rich Little have a closet full of Oscars? It seems pointless to have a film like Ali when I can see all the boxer's major fights, along with interviews and commentary, every week on ESPN Classics. His story has been told a million times through his own words and others. More in depth studies like the fantastic documentary When We Were Kings make the feature film that much more irrelevant in the case of Ali.

Apparently, readers didn’t appreciate me dumping on their favorite biopics, but I can’t understand the point. Can anyone fill me in on what’s so great about these films?