The silver-screen version of reality TV is invading theaters this fall and on into next year. That old Hollywood staple, the biopic, is back ... with a few twists.
While early Hollywood screen biographies tended to tell the stories of famous Dead White Men (from Napoleon to Abe Lincoln to Alexander Graham Bell), today the variety is boggling. The fictional hero of the Oscar-winner "Gladiator" has resulted in a scramble to put the lives of real-life ancient military leaders such as Hannibal and Alexander the Great on the screen. But filmmakers also think audiences will flock this fall to see the stories of:
a Mexican artist ("Frida")
debauched sitcom star Bob Crane ("Auto Focus")
spaced-out game-show host Chuck Barris ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind")
murdered Irish investigative journalist Veronica Guerin ("Veronica Guerin")
chameleon-like con man Frank Frank Abagnale Jr. ("Catch Me If You Can").
One of the most-honored biopics of all time, "Lawrence of Arabia," the story of a tormented and mentally unstable adventurer, T.E. Lawrence, has also been spruced up for a rerelease this fall.
Of course, playing a troubled character doesn't always result in box-office gold (witness Jim Carrey's "Man in the Moon").
But Hollywood's megastars often leap at a chance to appear in these movies, since the depth and complexity offered by a real-life character can be a juicy part that leads to Oscar-night attention (à la Russell Crowe in last year's "A Beautiful Mind," Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," or Daniel Day Lewis in "My Left Foot").
Greg Kinnear in "Auto Focus" seems born to play "Hogan's Hero" star Crane, whose wholesome screen presence belied a turbulent personal life; and indie-movie veteran Sam Rockwell will try to channel Barris, once the host of "The Gong Show," a quirky, psychedelic '70s version of "American Idol."
In development for possible release next year are even more tales of strange or unsavory characters: Grown-up child star Macaulay Culkin will play New York nightclub party organizer Michael Alig, who boasted about committing murders.
Rising star Hayden Christensen ("Star Wars: Episode 2") will portray Stephen Glass, a high-flying writer at The New Republic whose supposed reporting was found to be mostly fiction.
And Leonardo DiCaprio will play eccentric and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," directed by Martin Scorsese.
Plenty of crooks and other villains will get their own films too. Young Australian star Heath Ledger will retell the story of Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly. "Indecent Exposure" will show movie mogul David Begelman in full Enron/Tyco scandal mode.
David Mamet has signed a deal to write the script for a film about gangster John Dillinger. And "Max" (with John Cusack in the title role) will tell the tale of a wealthy Jewish art dealer who tries, and fails, to help a struggling young Austrian artist by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Earlier this year, movies about serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer hit theaters.
Author Joyce Carol Oates called literary efforts to tell the stories of troubled or just plain evil figures "pathographies."
Cultural historian George Custen, who teaches American Studies at the College of Staten Island, says this kind of biography looks at either down-and-dirty aspects of already established lives, [such as] the affairs of John Kennedy instead of [his] statesmanship ... or at people who are ordinary to whom horrible things have happened, like Amy Fisher" (who had no less than three TV biopics made of her story).
Television has been the usual home of such lurid "ripped from the headlines" dramas. But that may be changing, says Professor Custen, author of "Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History."
For Hollywood, even marginal TV stars like Crane and Barris are fodder for attracting young viewers weaned on TV into theaters. He calls these kinds of inconsequential stories "footnote biography."
But their on-screen characters become almost mythological figures to young viewers, Custen says, a "pantheon" of notables, "whereas previous generations would have admired painters, writers, whatever."
These biopics also take a very "hip" approach to history, Custen says. "It's like saying, 'We're too smart and hip to fall for the ... notion of the Great Individual.' "
Along with casting its net wider, or lower, for subject matter, Hollywood has also realized that the revolution in computerized special effects is making more spectacular historical spectacles possible.
Movies such as "The Lord of the Rings" and "Gladiator" have created visually believable far-off times and lands.
In the works now are two competing productions based on Carthaginian general Hannibal, who played havoc with ancient Rome after crossing the Alps with elephants acting as his "tanks."
Also moving forward (so far) are two competing lives of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian warrior whose Mediterranean empire preceded Rome's.
The first Sept. 11-related biopic to reach the big screen may be about Rick Rescorla, head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, who died in the World Trade Center after helping evacuate the company's employees. Press reports say Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon will star.
These projects hew more closely to the traditional aim of biography: to inspire.
"Many of the most notable biographical films are films that tell the story of someone who overcame the odds and served some inspirational purpose for the viewer," says Neal Gabler, a former movie reviewer for public television's "Sneak Previews" and author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."
"But those days are gone," Gabler says. "The audience that Hollywood is trying to reach, in fact the audience that everyone is trying to reach television, radio, books ... is that all-important 18-to-34 demographic. And those people don't care about inspiration. You hook them through oddity, irony, eccentricity. You hook them through the strange, the unusual."
People like Crane and Barris are "kind of campy figures," he adds. "They certainly don't speak to elevating the human spirit. They speak to undermining the human spirit."
They give audiences "a sense of superiority, not a sense of ennoblement. This all conforms to at least what Hollywood thinks that audiences want."