Lives on Film Remain Popular Topics for Both Biopics and Documentaries
As we noted in last year’s round up of biographical films, the demand for content from both cable networks and streaming services has increased the opportunities for filmmakers who tell life stories in their work. At the same time, Hollywood still seeks out captivating biopics, with big stars and big budgets. Once again, we offer a look—not meant to be comprehensive—of recent and future productions that tell biographies through film.
Recent and Current Releases
The month of April 2018 saw the release of the documentary American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, which was funded in part through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. In May, one of the most successful documentaries of recent years hit the big screen: RBG, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal influence both before joining and while serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. By the end of May the movie was showing in more than 400 theaters across the country.
A series of documentary releases in May highlighted the lives and work of cultural figures. One was The Gospel According to André, about fashion maven and Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley. Betty Davis—a songwriter, producer, and wife of Miles Davis, who is credited with introducing her jazz trumpeter-husband to funk—is the subject of Betty: They Say I’m Different. Also in May, HBO began broadcasting a five-part “docuseries” on tennis star Serena Williams, looking at how she is balancing her career with new motherhood.
The notable biographical release in June was Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Fred Rogers. The story of one of the pioneers of educational television has, as of press time, brought in even more viewers than RBG, enough to make it the fourteenth-highest grossing documentary of all time. (Rogers will also get the biopic treatment next year, with Tom Hanks playing him in You Are My Friend.) Also in June, the documentary Westwood was released; its subtitle sums up Vivienne Westwood’s greatest roles since becoming a public figure more than 40 years ago: Punk, Icon, Activist. Three identical triplets adopted by three different families and reunited as young men, becoming celebrities of sorts in the process, are the subject of Three Identical Strangers. One biopic released in June was The Catcher Was a Spy, with Paul Rudd playing Moe Berg, the film’s subject. The movie is based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography of Berg. A fairly new, streaming network, CBS All Access, aired the docuseries Strange Angel in June. This tale of scientist and occultist Jack Parsons is based on the 2005 biography Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle.
Three documentaries out in July looked at celebrities with often-troubled lives. McQueen examined the successes and personal challenges of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. HBO released Come Inside My Mind, about comedian Robin Williams, while Whitney, by director Kevin Macdonald, appeared on the big screen. The latter, about Whitney Houston, stirred some controversy because of its claim that the singer was abused as a child by a cousin. Controversy was also at the heart of some of cartoonist John Callahan’s work, as some people found his cartoons politically incorrect. Callahan, a quadriplegic, did not shy away from dark humor on the subject of physical disabilities. His autobiography served as the source for the biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, with Joaquin Phoenix playing the cartoonist. Going back to the small screen, PBS’s American Masters aired Ted Williams: “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.” Ben Bradlee Jr., who wrote a 2013 biography of the Boston Red Sox batting legend, was interviewed for the film.
PBS’s American Masters show launches a biographical series later in August called Artists Flight. A different artist is featured in each of the four episodes: Eva Hesse, Elizabeth Murray (with Meryl Streep providing the artist’s voice), Andrew Wyeth, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. One documentary scheduled for release in September is Love, Gilda, an authorized look at the Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner. Through the fall and into the winter, several prominent biopics will be coming to theaters around the world. In September, Keira Knightly stars in Colette, about the famous French novelist. Also that month, a sequel to Unbroken, Lauren Hillenbrand’s biography of Louis Zamperini, hits the screens. In October, Ryan Gosling appears as Neil Armstrong in First Man. The film again pairs Gosling with director Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar for La La Land. The Armstrong biopic is based on James Hansen’s 2005 biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. Also out in October is Can You Ever Forgive Me, with Melissa McCarthy playing celebrity biographer and convicted forger Lee Israel.
Moving into the holiday season, the long-anticipated biopic of the group Queen, with the focus on front man Freddie Mercury, is coming in November. Rami Malek, star of the TV show Mr. Robot, plays Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, which is based in part on Lesley-Ann Jones’s book Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, which was published in 2012. Another biopic based on a biography is also out in November. The Professor and the Madman, starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, is based on Simon Winchester’s 1998 book of the same name. December releases include Mary, Queen of Scots, with two Oscar-nominated actresses in the lead roles: Saoirse Ronan plays Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I. Beau Willimon, of House of Cards fame, adapted the screenplay from John Guy’s 2004 biography My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. Finally, Ruth Bader Ginsburg returns to the big screen as the subject of the biopic On the Basis of Sex. Felicity Jones stars as RBG.
Deals for the Future
The list of biographical movies in the works, in various stages, is a long one. Some of these films might never be made, but others already have release dates. For instance, filming has wrapped on The Irishman, a film due in 2019 or 2020 on Netflix. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the film is about mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and is based on Charles Brandt’s biography of Sheeran, “I Heard You Paint Houses”: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Final Ride of Jimmy Hoffa, published in 2004. Scheduled to come out next year is a film about Ronald Reagan, with Dennis Quaid cast as the president. The movie is based on biographies by historian Paul Kengor, whose books about Reagan include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, published in 2006. Currently filming is The Silent Natural, a low-budget biopic about William “Dummy” Hoy, who was the first deaf Major League Baseball player. The filmmaker, David Risotto, has already made a documentary about his subject.
Journalist and biographer Gabriel Sherman has been busy working on two projects. For Showtime, he co-wrote the first episode of a docuseries based on his biography The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country. Russell Crowe will play Ailes; it will be Crowe’s first major role in a U.S. television series. Sherman is also writing a screenplay about Donald Trump called The Apprentice. Showtime is also planning to air a new documentary about Charlie Chaplin. British filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney have received access to Chaplin’s personal and professional archives, and their movie will include outtakes not publicly seen before.
Several major film stars are considering roles in planned biopics. The Producers of King of Oil are trying to get Matt Damon to play Marc Rich, the subject of the film, which is based on Daniel Ammann’s 2009 book The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich. Hugh Jackman is said to be considering playing the role of CIA agent Robert Ames in a film version of The Good Spy, based on BIO member Kai Bird’s 2014 book of the same name. A book by another BIO member is serving as a source for a docuseries scheduled to air on the History Channel. Ron Chernow’s Grant will come to life in the series, which is being produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions. As reported earlier in TBC, DiCaprio has also acquired the rights to Chernow’s book for a feature-length movie. DiCaprio seems to have a keen interest in biographical subjects: he is slated to play Leonardo da Vinci in the film adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the artist and inventor.
Octavia Spencer is not just considering a biographical role. She will star in and co-produce a miniseries for Netflix about African American business pioneer and social activist Madam C. J. Walker, based on the 2001 book On Her Own Ground, by BIO member A’Lelia Bundles. Basketball star LeBron James is also a producer of the series.
It seems that filmmakers can’t get enough of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She and former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be the subjects of a TV series produced in part by actress Alyssa Milano. The show is based on Linda Hirshman’s 2015 biography Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World. Multiple female subjects also figure in a TV adaptation of J. Randy Taraborrelli’s biography Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, which was published earlier this year. On the big screen, Clementine Churchill will get her own biopic, with a movie based on a biography written by her and Winston Churchill’s youngest child, Mary Soames.
As is often the case, figures from the arts, sports, and pop culture will be the subject of many upcoming films and TV productions. In sports, Tiger Woods will be featured in a docuseries on the golfer, based on the 2018 biography by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente’s story will be told in a film directed by Ezra Edelman, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for O. J.: Made in America. The Clemente film will be based on the 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, by BIO member David Maraniss.
In the world of arts, a film about Alvin Ailey is in the works. The producers are basing the story at least in part on Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, a 1996 biography by Jennifer Dunning. In addition, Leonard Bernstein could be the subject of two competing biopics. Shooting is scheduled to start on one of them this fall, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the cast. The script for the latter is adapted from Humphrey Burton’s 1994 book Leonard Bernstein. Meanwhile, Bradley Cooper wants to direct and star in a film about the composer. According to Deadline Hollywood, the principles for both projects have been in discussions with the Bernstein estate. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who brought Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton to life on Broadway, is turning to television for one of his upcoming projects. He’s working on a series for FX about choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, based on Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography Fosse. Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are slated to play the leads.
Film stars will be the subject of two planned biopics. Kevin Godley, a musician and video maker, is making The Gate, a film about Orson Welles’s stint as a teenage actor in Dublin. The biography Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, by Jill Watts, will provide the source material for a movie about the first African American to win an Academy Award. McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for her performance in Gone with the Wind.
Finally, two of popular music’s most influential figures will have their lives depicted on the big screen. Johnny Cash was already the subject of the biopic I Walk the Line, and now, Thom Zimny is planning a documentary about the Man in Black, with Cash’s 1968 concert at Folsom Prison serving as a focus of the film. Billie Holiday will be profiled in a documentary based on the interviews journalist Linda Kuehl conducted almost five decades ago, while researching a biography of the jazz singer that Kuehl never wrote. The people she talked with included some of Holiday’s jazz contemporaries, school friends, and criminals she knew. The film will incorporate still images and animation.