The year 2012 will go down in the history books for many reasons—Hurricane Sandy for one, the historic re-election of Barack Obama for another. In addition, though (perhaps as an asterisk), 2012 will be remembered as the year of the dueling Alfred Hitchcock biopics. In October, HBO aired the TV movie The Girl, starring Toby Jones as the master of suspense and Sienna Miller as actress Tippi Hedren, object of Hitchcock’s desire and star of two of his later films, The Birds and Marnie. (Jones seems to have bad luck with biopics in general: his fine interpretation of Truman Capote in 2006’s Infamous was completely overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the legendary author).
Now, a second, star-studded film about the revolutionary moviemaker is being released, titled simply Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins (wearing an enormous fat suit) in the title role. The movie takes place just a few years before The Girl, with Hitchcock preparing to make one of his most groundbreaking and wildly influential films—Psycho. Hitchcock, which is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, focuses on the relationship between Hitch and his wife of 53 years, Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren). The dynamite cast also includes Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles) and James D’Arcy (as Anthony Perkins).
The release of of the movie got us thinking of other notable biopics of renowned (as well as some not so renowned) moviemakers. These films take a penetrating look at both the highs and lows that form the movie director’s lot.
Before Hitchcock hits theaters on November 23, join MM as we take a look at some of the best director biopics the movies have to offer.
White Hunter Black Heart (1990)
directed by Clint Eastwood
Though you won’t see any of its real-life counterparts listed in the movie’s credits, White Hunter Black Heart is based on the making of the 1951 adventure classic, The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Peter Viertel, who worked on the script for African Queen (and was never given credit for his contributions), wrote the novel on which this film is based—a thinly disguised account of the action-packed, perilous experience of making The African Queen while on location in Africa (this was at a time when almost all American films were shot in the U.S.). The movie centers on gruff director, John Wilson (played by Eastwood), who is based on the larger-than-life personality of African Queen helmer, John Huston. The prolific moviemaker (The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick) was notorious for his rebellious attitude and hard-drinking ways. While on location for the film, he becomes obsessed with hunting elephants, rather than preparing for the movie’s shoot. With its lush cinematography by Jack N. Green (Unforgiven) and exotic locales, White Hunter Black Heart is a unique examination of the obsessive nature many great directors possess.
directed by Richard Attenborough
This movie chronicles the life of silent film icon Charlie Chaplin (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), who rose from a childhood of extreme poverty to becoming the most famous, beloved movie star in the world. When the world was going through rough times (including the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler) Chaplin brought much-needed laughter to the masses, with such sweetly funny films as The Gold Rush and Modern Times. Though some critics took issue with the biopic for changing aspects of Chaplin’s life, nearly everyone applauded the brilliant, star-making performance of Robert Downey, Jr., who uncannily brings Charlie Chaplin to life.
Ed Wood (1994)
directed by Tim Burton
Who could ever imagine the life story of a man commonly regarded as the Worst Director of All Time providing the material for a great movie? And, yet, this affectionate, black-and-white ode to low-budget moviemaking is exactly that. The movie follows ambitious, insanely optimistic dreamer Edward D. Wood, Jr. (perfectly portrayed by Johnny Depp, in one of his best performances) as he struggles to make his way in 1950s Hollywood and achieve his goal of becoming a respected moviemaker, ala his role model Orson Welles. Along the way, he becomes the writer-director (and sometimes star) of such lovably awful cult gems as 1953’s Glen or Glenda (Wood himself was a transvestite), 1955’s Bride of the Monster and his magnum opus, 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, today considered one of the worst films ever made. Throughout the movie, Wood is passionate, inspired and undaunted by the many people in his life who tell him he should consider another line of work. His movies might be cheap, and yes, unintentionally funny, but they also showcase the work of a unique, idiosyncratic talent. In a way, Wood’s eternally optimistic mindset is weirdly inspiring and emblematic of the struggle of many low-budget moviemakers who, against all odds, persist in following their dreams. As Orson Welles (played in a cameo appearance by Vincent D’Onofrio) states in the film: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Gods and Monsters (1998)
directed by Bill Condon
Gods and Monsters depicts the final, tragic days in the life of legendary filmmaker James Whale (an Oscar-nominated Ian McKellen), who made many of the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s, including Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein. The movie takes place in the 1950s, after Whale has retired from directing. Feeling lonely and depressed, Whale, who was openly gay, starts a friendship with a handsome young gardener (Brendan Fraser), but could it lead to something more? This finely honed character study (which includes fictitious elements as well) features one of McKellen’s strongest performances, and is a probing, less-than-glamorous look at the private demons faced by one of the pivotal moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The movie also features reconstructions of the filming of Whale’s greatest film, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, which is where the title derives from. A mad scientist, Dr. Pretorious, toasts, “To a new world of gods and monsters.”
RKO 281 (1999)
directed by Benjamin Ross
This TV movie depicts the troubled production behind what is commonly considered the greatest film of all time, 1941’s Citizen Kane. Liev Schreiber stars as ambitious young auteur Orson Welles struggling to make his first feature, along with the help of RKO studio head George Schaefer (Roy Scheider) and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (John Malkovich). The movie delves into the battle between Welles and publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell), who, after learning that Citizen Kane is a thinly-veiled and unflattering portrait of himself (including his relationship with longtime mistress, Marion Davies), does everything within his immense power and influence to bury the film. Obviously, his efforts didn’t exactly work, and today Citizen Kane is considered a groundbreaking masterpiece. As RKO 281 (the title of the film refers to Citizen Kane’s original production code) shows, a director’s main task is often to protect the integrity of their vision against a dizzying array of obstacles.
directed by Mario Van Peebles
This film is unique in that writer-director-star Mario Van Peebles is, in fact, portraying his real-life father, Melvin, who wrote, directed and starred in the seminal 1971 indie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The film’s surprising box office success is considered a pivotal moment in African-American cinema; it proved to Hollywood that a viable audience existed for movies geared towards (and starring) African-Americans, as well as essentially creating the cheap and profitable Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s. Baadasssss! depicts the ultra low-budget, rough-and-tumble production of Sweetback, as Melvin attempts to film and distribute this pivotal film. Mario himself, who was an adolescent when the movie was shot, appears as a character in the movie. The result is a sweet, oddly touching cinematic love letter from a son to his father.
The Aviator (2004)
directed by Martin Scorsese
Though Howard Hughes (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) is perhaps best known as a billionaire business tycoon and for his extravagant (and exceedingly eccentric) personal life, the aviation pioneer was also a first-rate producer/director of such films as 1930’s Hell’s Angels (the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, and notable for its amazing flying sequences). Epic in scope, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator tracks Hughes’ career from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, just before mental illness began to take over his life. We see the passionate Hughes on the set of Hell’s Angels—determined to make the film, about combat pilots in World War I, as realistic as possible. We also get a glimpse of Hughes’ high-profile social life in Hollywood, which included romances with starlets Katherine Hepburn (an Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). Though his personal demons ultimately did him in, Hughes’ obsessive nature seems to mirror Scorsese’s own highly perfectionist approach to moviemaking.
Have a fave director biopic that didn’t make the cut? Let us know in the comments!