Why are most celebrity biopics as flat as encyclopedia entries? They seldom rise above the level of name-dropping and cameos. It takes a director of the caliber of Martin Scorsese to transcend the normal genre limitations, and The Aviator, Scorsese’s biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, is truly on fire. Nervous intensity is the hallmark of Scorsese’s best work (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and he drenches the film with his grand operatic expressionism while remaining true to the subject. The still-too-youthful Leonardo DiCaprio certainly isn’t the most obvious choice for Hughes, but his performance is amazing. DiCaprio perfectly balances Hughes’ flamboyant personality with his gradual descent into phobic madness. Cate Blanchett stands out among the great supporting cast with her brazen impersonation of Katharine Hepburn, which goes far beyond mere mimicry. Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker have done such a masterful job of pacing this nearly three-hour epic that it seems to fly by in half the time. I really don’t understand why Million Dollar Baby took the top Oscars.
Kinsey, another new video release, is the story of Dr. Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), whose book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male caused a national sensation in 1948. Although not seriously flawed, as biopics go, it is hardly on the same level as The Aviator. Kinsey approached the subject of sex scientifically, and director/writer Bill Condon approached his subject a bit too clinically. The acting, particularly that of the Oscar-nominated Laura Linney as Kinsey’s wife, is excellent, but the film plods along lifelessly. On the plus side, it is a rare film that examines human sexuality in a serious adult manner. Even in these supposed enlightened times, sex is usually treated as a juvenile joke for adolescent titillation. The most famous sex scene of the last 10 years involves a teen who commits a lewd act with baked goods. I rest my case.
American Splendor (2003) mixes dramatization of the life of comic-book artist Harvey Pekar with documentary footage, resulting in the most unique biopic of recent years. The direct visual comparison of the actor with the real Pekar is risky, but it works because of the perfect casting of Paul Giamatti. Pekar is an eccentric crank who created the comic-book series American Splendor to glorify his life as a Veterans Administration hospital clerk in Cleveland. The subject is hardly earth-shattering, but it developed a cult following and led to Pekar’s regular guest appearances on David Letterman’s show back in the 1980s.
Among the year’s summer releases are two biopics: Cinderella Man and Domino.
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (June 7): Be Cool, The Pacifier,Beyond the Sea, Seed of ChuckyThe Machinist, and Imaginary Heroes.