Biopics: I Say Epicky, You Say Opicky

By Stan Persky | January 29, 2005

Oliver Stone, Alexander (2004)
Martin Scorcese, The Aviator (2004)
Taylor Hackford, Ray (2004)

Very occasionally, Hollywood gives its “Best Picture” Academy Award to a film with something on its mind, like Marty (1955), Annie Hall (1977), or A Beautiful Mind (2001). Mostly, though, it prefers to give the award to something epic, say, Gone With the Wind (1939) or last year’s Lord of the Rings (2003). If it can’t get something epicky, it’s willing to settle for something opicky — biographical pictures, or biopics as they’re known in the trade. If it can get something both epicky and opicky — Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), or Gandhi (1982) — all the better.

This year the epics have flopped, and Hollywood has been making its money on biopics, an unusual number of which have hit the screens, from Martin Scorcese’s film about aviator Howard Hughes to studies of R&B master Ray Charles, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, singer Bobby Darrin, Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, songsmith Cole Porter, and world conqueror Alexander the Great. I’ve seen about half of them and duly noted the Academy Award nominations for Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator and Taylor Hackford’s Ray, which will probably scoop up the major share of the Oscars at next month’s award ceremonies. But it’s a bad pic about an ancient warrior, rather than the box office boffos, that raises some artistic questions worth pondering.

The first of 2004’s soon-to-be-forgotten epics, Troy, a sword-and-sandals affair based on Homer’s Iliad, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, and armed with a budget that launched a thousand digitalized ships, quickly sank from view. Troy tried to capitalize on the Oscar-winning Gladiator (2000), but sword and sand isn’t much of a thrill in these days of digital special effects that can conjure up everything from Middle Earth to Jurassic Park dinosaurs to Star Wars.

The epic-biopic, also in the sand and spear genre, that was actually anticipated with some interest is director Oliver Stone’s Alexander. It was released in the U.S. around American Thanksgiving, and arrived in Europe for Christmas, so those of us on far side of the pond were adequately forewarned.

You could chart the flop in the successive punning movie review headlines. It started with a lot of “Alexander the Not So Great” reviews (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times), went on to “Alexander the Grate” (Rick Groen, The Globe and Mail), was speared by the gay press as “Alexander the Str8” (Chris DeVito, XtraWest), and eventually was roasted as “Alexander the Turkey” as it played to empty cineplexes.

Alexander differs from Troy in that it is about a semi-documented piece of history, circa 350-330 BCE, rather than a great semi-historical myth, and it is directed by someone who has made interesting movies in the past (Stone’s Salvador and JFK, among them). What goes wrong with Alexander is quickly pinpointed by critic Roger Ebert: “Here is an ambitious and sincere film that fails to find a focus for its elusive subject.” Ebert points out that Stone “is fascinated by two aspects of Alexander: his pan-nationalism and his pan-sexualism. [Stone] shows [Alexander] trying to unite many peoples under one throne while remaining equally inclusive with his choice of lovers.”

The problem is that “it remains unclear if Alexander has united those peoples or simply conquered them, and his sexuality is made murky by the film’s shyness about gay sex,” says Ebert. In the end, “we welcome the scenes of battle . . . because at least for a time we are free of sociopolitical concepts and the endless narration of Ptolemy the historian,” lugubriously portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in a desperate bid by Stone to impose some narrative coherence on the sprawl. 

The real problem with Stone’s movie, and one that makes it difficult to make an interesting Hollywood-style biopic about Alexander, is that if you spend $150 million to line up all the spear-throwers and elephants, you’ve got to get a lot of 15-year-old boys (or, okay, 15 to 25-year-old boys) to come to the movie theatre and pay for the damn thing. And that means you’ve got to tailor the movie to the tastes and interests of its adolescent audience.

I knew we were in trouble, at least on the sex thing — we might as well start there, and leave the tricky geopolitical issues for later — when young Alexander (Connor Paolo) and his boyhood pal Hephaistion (Patrick Carroll) are presented as cute Macedonian teenagers in a wrestling school scene. Naturally, as the son of King Philip (energetically played by Val Kilmer), the backcountry warlord who conquered the Greek city states, Alexander has to be trained in warrior stuff, along with the other sons of the local aristocracy. Stone hauls in the great old character actor Brian Blessed to play the wrestling coach and give the usual Old Gipper pep-talk, while the kids roll around in the dust. As some of us know, Macedonian and Greek kids rolled around in the dust stark-nekkid, but in Alexander they’re garbed in something that look like Depend Diapers for elderly incontinent folk. Well, of course they’re not naked, you say.

Stay with me on this for a minute. Why are they not naked? Because you can’t show naked teenage boys in a movie. Well, at least not in a Hollywood movie. Or at least not in a Hollywood epic movie that depends on teenage boy moviegoers to cover the budget. And why can’t you show naked teenage boys to teenage boy moviegoers? Because you, well, you just can’t. Why not? I don’t know. It has something to do with sexual suggestion, I suppose, because if the boys are naked, and if when they grow up (into Colin Farrell as Alexander and Jared Leto as Hephaistion), they become or continue to be lovers, then . . . well, maybe some group like Focus on the Evil Family will come stomping down on Mr. Stone’s movie like a herd of elephants for encouraging teenage boys to engage in you know what. And god only knows what’ll happen in those darkened movie theatres when the teenage boys see the giant naked teenage boys up there on the silver screen. At which point, it turns into a porn fantasy, and nobody decent wants to go there, right? All of this is a relatively small detail, but it’s emblematic of what goes wrong with the whole thing.

There’s a subsequent scene in which young Alexander tames the untamable wild horse in plain view of his proud dad and the other Macedonian cowboys, and that’s perfect for the teen lads in the movie theatre. That’s what they and Focus on the Family and the National Rifle Assn. have come to see. As for the homo stuff, Stone discreetly reduces it to a little obscure speech delivered by the boys’ tutor, famous old philosopher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), and you have to listen really closely to hear Aristotle, fresh up from Athens, say that homosex is okay if done for the right noble reasons. Presumably this, and a lot more goes over the heads of the teen moviegoers. After that, once Alexander and Hephaistion get to be young grownups, the homo stuff is confined to Sensitive New Age Guy Hugs. It’s possible that Stone shot a lot of sexy Farrell-Leto scenes that ended up on the cutting-room floor but, if so, they’re not in the movie, even though the movie was slyly promoted as a big breakthrough on the homo issue. In any case, there’s not so much as a same sex kiss, and what sex there is is truly ludicrous.

There’s a bizarre performance by Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother, Olympias, performed with a strange accent and snakes slithering all over her body that is meant to suggest something Oedipal, I think, and there’s a weird bed scene in which Alexander and his foreign bride, Roxane (Rosario Dawson) enthusiastically wrestle around naked with a knife. It’s one of those scenes that’s supposed to embody every 15-year-old boy’s fantasy of a sex scene. You want to cry out, Come back, Hephaistion! No, wait, that’s Shelly Winters in Lolita (1962) calling out for her dog, “Come back, little Sheba!” (And Stanley Kubrick’s little masterpiece didn’t even get a Best Pic nomination in the year that Lawrence of Arabia swept through the desert.) As you can see, Alexander is one of those movies that causes the mind to stray.

Critic Ebert may have welcomed the scenes of battle. I found them pretty boring. Even with the horses and elephants rearing in slo-mo in the forests of India, and the leaves of the trees turning magenta to represent the consciousness of a wounded Alexander, they’re pretty pale compared to what you can do with special effects in the afore-mentioned Middle Earth, outer space, and dinosaur parks. As for the geopolitical issues, you can’t expect teenagers to sit still for all that, so Stone breaks it up as much as possible, with cutaways to Ptolemy/Hopkins periodically delivering gobs of exposition. About the only thing amusing is watching the extra who plays the inkpot carrier chasing after the scribe who’s writing on a portable parchment as he follows a peripatetic Ptolemy around the palace patio. Late in the movie, there’s a very awkward flashback to pick up the assassination of Al’s dad, Philip, but by then it’s too late to stitch together the tattered tale.

What are the geopolitical issues? One of them is, Why conquer the world? It’s an issue on which the scholars are divided, including Robin Lane Fox, Stone’s resident adviser on the pic, and the author of Alexander the Great (Penguin, 1973). All of the scholars are working from Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. Arrian was a second century CE Greek-speaking soldier, Roman Empire administrator, and historian in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. Arrian read the biographies of Alexander written by Ptolemy and other contemporaries some 400 years earlier (all of which are now lost) and produced a judicious redaction of the conqueror’s career.

Living in a world in which the boundaries of the known world are fuzzy terra incognita, the suggestion is that Alexander wanted to conquer the world in order to establish its bounds. Alexander’s head was filled with the stories of Achilles that he’d read in Homer, partly thanks to his tutor Aristotle — remember, all of this is happening a mere generation or two after the death of Socrates — and maybe if you could establish the world’s boundaries, it might allow a mortal to cross over into godhood. Anyway, that’s the poetic version.

The more practical geopolitical issue, and one that persists to this day is, Once you conquer the world, how do you administer it? That question seems to have an answer: multi-culturalism. Macedonia was the Greek outback, and the Greek-speaking Macedonian warlords were pretty much regarded as semi-barbarians, both by the Glory That Was Greece (the now diminished city states of Hellas) and by the major kingdom in the region, Darius’ Persia. It’s Persia that has to be conquered. And Alexander does it. This is one of those stories of, How ya gonna keep’m down on the farm, once they’ve seen gay Paree? In this case, Paree is the Persian capital of Babylon.

The interesting development historically is that while Alexander’s cowboy warrior chums are perfectly happy to go back to the farm, educated Alexander realizes that Persia is the superior civilization, and sees that if he’s going to run an empire, he’s going to have to integrate the Persian ruling class into his military and administrative regime. Alexander’s Macedonian homeboys don’t mind if Alexander sleeps with Persian boys (that, after all, is natural), but they’re definitely pissed-off to have Alexander consorting with the fruity Persians, adopting Persian diplomatic customs, developing a mixed-blood Macedonian-Persian army corps, etc. So, in addition to founding a string of cities in his own name (the most famous of which is Egypt’s Alexandria), one of the first franchise chains in Hellenic history, Alexander adopts multi-culturalism as an administrative tool.

A little of this, not much, is conveyed by Stone’s movie, and the Persian boy (his name is Bagoas, and he’s played by Francisco Bosch) is relegated to the dancing sidelines, reduced to smouldering glances and no speaking part. As Ebert observes, Stone fails to find a focus for any of this, sex or politics, and the movie is a hash, to say nothing of the box office flop.

Maybe it’s a story that can’t be told. That might be a good guess, except for the fact that somebody’s done it. Mary Renault’s novel about Alexander, The Persian Boy (Vintage, 1972), presents the whole story through the bedroom eyes of Bagoas, a well-born Persian teenage eunuch. The novelist Gore Vidal thought it was a pretty good book. When he reviewed it in 1973, he campily asked, “Can your average beautiful teen-age Persian eunuch find happiness with your average Greek world-conqueror who is also a dish aged only 26?”

But camping and war-camping aside, Vidal’s praise for Renault was genuine, as well as sound literary judgment, given that her novel of the ancient world holds up pretty well three decades later, especially in light of Stone’s inchoate blockbuster. In his review of The Persian Boy, Vidal observes, “We are able to see the Macedonian troops as they appeared to the Persians: crude gangsters smashing to bits an old and subtle culture they cannot understand, like today’s Americans in Asia.” Vidal was prescient: today’s Americans are smashing to bits a culture in old Babylon itself. Vidal himself, by the way, went on to write a successful ancient world novel, Creation (1981), also from the Persian perspective.

Personally, I’d prefer to see a non-Hollywood version of The Persian Boy, say, directed by Pedro Almodovar, to Stone’s botched biopic. It would have some spectacle-like filmic bits: in Renault’s novel, Bagoas’s family fortress gets overrun in an internecine Persian political squabble, heads get chopped off and tossed into saddlebags, the boy is kidnapped and then gruesomely castrated before being put to auction on the slave market, etc., eventually ending up in the tent of Darius for a while before settling down with Alexander. But Renault leaves aside the battle scenes (helpful for reducing the film’s budget) and concentrates on the camp followers.

There are some mushy purple passages, but Renault is good, psychologically astute, and even decorous on the sex scenes. Not lurid, but no flinching either. There’s just enough gossip in the ancient texts to suggest that Bagoas might have been an historical character, and in the novel, the main thing Renault tries to work out is the relationship between Bagoas, Alexander’s teen bedmate, and Hephaistion, Alexander’s former teen bedmate and lifelong love. It’s a difficult triangular portrait to pull off, and Renault is more than minimally plausible.

She’s particularly good on the multicultural issue, and the interesting epic scenes are not the bloodbaths with casts of thousands of extras on the plains of Persia or in the jungles of India, but the gruelling desert march back to Babylon. Her Persian boy survives the wars — Alexander, in the end, doesn’t, dying of fever at 32 — and, in Renault’s version ends up as a retainer at the Egyptian court of Ptolemy. All in all, she shows that a coherent story can be told, even though it perhaps can’t be filmed as a Hollywood epic for teenage moviegoers.

Well, once you’ve crunched your popcorn over the problems of Alexander, The Aviator and Ray are easily dispatched. Martin Scorcese has yet to win a director’s Oscar, despite a quarter-century string of interesting movies, from Taxi Driver (1976, when it lost the best pic and director Oscars, for godssakes, to Rocky!) to his recent Gangs of New York (2003). He now has Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Howard Hughes, sometime movie director, aviation mogul, and obsessive-compulsive disorder nutbar. The Aviator, set between the 1920s and 1950, features Hughes’ romances with actresses Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and comes complete with sensational airplane crashes, great nightclub set-scenes from the 20s, political skullduggery, and the gathering darkness of mental illness. Despite all the razzle-dazzle, more than one critic has noticed that there’s something hollow at the core of this spectacle.

Scorcese has great in-joke fun portraying Hughes as a detail-obsessed movie director who took three years and a chunk of the family Texas tool factory fortune to make an aviation war saga, Hell’s Angels, at the end of the 1920s. Hollywood laughed at the Texan upstart, and Hughes’ films were hardly great art, but their director had an instinct for making money at the box office. His Western, The Outlaw, which was mainly about Jane Russell’s mammaries, was also bankable.

In DiCaprio, Scorcese has a better actor than most critics allow. DiCaprio could always act, even when he was best-known for being a pretty boy. In his early films, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) and The Basketball Diaries (1995), there was both presence and thespian skill. There was never any doubt about the looks — see Agniezka Holland’s film Total Eclipse (1995), in which DiCaprio plays bad-boy poet Arthur Rimbaud, for a glimpse of the actor at the apogee of his beauty — and with the Hughes biopic, DiCaprio is seeking to make the turn into acting adulthood. His version of Hughes is competent enough, complete with sly charm and creepiness, but there’s something empty in the movie’s main character that’s never made up for by DiCaprio’s convincing portrayal of being overtaken by madness.

As for the rest, Cate Blanchett won a lot of praise and an Oscar nomination for her turn as the formidable Hepburn, although I found the role playing rather grotesque. The undoubtedly great acting performance in the film is Alan Alda’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of a twitchily corrupt U.S. Senator in the pocket of a rival airlines mogul (played with quiet authority by Alec Baldwin). Altogether, Scorcese’s film combines classic Hollywood big spectacle with, simultaneously, a near-pastiche of Hollywood big spectacle filmmaking. It’s just the sort of thing likely to please Oscar voters in a year without a great film.

The other crowd pleaser is Taylor Hackford’s biopic of blind rhythm and blues artist Ray Charles. It’s got two things going for it: Ray Charles’ music, and a pitch perfect performance by Jamie Foxx, who’s come a long way since his TV comic days on In Living Colour. Beyond that, it’s a middling uplift film, grittily sentimental (as compared to old-fashioned treacly sentimental) and politically correct. There’s almost nothing for any of the other actors to do in this narrowly focused bio that covers the stretch of Charles’ career from the end of WWII to about 1965, when “The Genius,” as he was known to his PR handlers, conquers his heroin addiction. It skips the last four decades of Charles’ life (he died last year), and while it offers the requisite amount of “Mess Around,” it’s mostly a lot of sweet “Georgia on My Mind.”

Scorcese and Hackford will no doubt go home with some of the gilded statuettes, but in a year of not especially memorable movies, it’s the soon-to-be-mercifully-forgotten wreckage of Oliver Stone’s epic-biopic that at least leaves one wondering about what happened. As for me, I’m still grousing that Lolita (1962), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), and Tootsie (1982) didn’t win “Best Picture” Oscars in their respective yesteryears. Hell, I would’ve preferred last year’s Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray and spooky Japan, over all those hobbits and Mordorous orcs from Lord of the Rings.

Berlin, Jan. 29, 2005


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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