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Amelia: When Biopics Go Bad

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2009 at 4:11AM

What went wrong with Amelia?
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Thompson on Hollywood

What went wrong with Amelia?

As I suspected, the critics are piling on. Even Dave Germain of AP, who's usually a hard-bitten news reporter, felt obliged to weigh in. Hilary Swank can kiss her hopes of a third Oscar good-bye. She never found the real Amelia Earhart behind the bland feminist flier hero. She never nailed it. Finally, while the final sequence ramps up the energy, the movie doesn't come to life, or ring true. When director Mira Nair is on her own turf with Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, she's tops. She stumbles here.

My Sneak Previews class was eager to see Amelia; they turned out and gave it a healthy round of applause. They're the target audience, still old enough to give a hoot about this aviatrix who died at 39 in 1937. It's hard to recall that Earhart was once one of the ten most famous Americans in the world. The picture may do some business with older moviegoers who are comfortable with its old-fashioned virtues.

Her fame came because the beautiful flier married the PR man, George Palmer Putnam, who dubbed her "Lady Lindy" and turned her into a global celebrity representing the spirit of adventure. She worked hard to fan her fame and fund her dangerous hobby.

Listening to Oscar-winning screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) and Oscar-nominated Anna Hamilton Phelan (Gorillas in the Mist) talk about the real Earhart vs. the one who wound up in the movie, I was reminded of the many ways that Hollywood biopics can go wrong.

It's rare to get two screenwriters who share credit on a movie debating their two takes on the story. I loved it. It was possible because the two friends are confident enough not to be defensive. Besides, it was clear that neither was entirely happy with the final result. While no blame was cast, Nair, who took over the project when the Writer's Strike sent director Phil Noyce onto another film, never had control of this movie. Fox Searchlight took a strong hand in making the final movie as commercial as they could. At a final cut of 111 minutes, many scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

The presence of movie stars Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor make the movie seem less than authentic. Younger viewers may be bored to tears. I didn't buy this portrayal as being anything close to the real woman behind the bland public face.

Bass wrote seven drafts at the behest of Gateway founder and aviation fanatic Ted Waitt, who has funded expeditions to search for Earhart's plane, and was prepared to finance the movie himself. Presented by a movie that would actually get made, CAA offered up their best actresses on a platter. But Cate Blanchett never got back to the filmmakers. The next star on the list, Swank, enthusiastically responded to the prospect of playing this tomboyish adventurer eager to escape her small town and see the world. She could relate.

I would have liked to see the film envisioned by Bass: he was fascinated by the details of what drove Earhart. Running from her past, her alcoholic father and her browbeaten mother, Earhart was drawn like moth to flame to risk, fame and escalating danger. Bass focused on the through-line of Earhart's relationship with publisher Putnam, who left his wife (Virginia Madsen, no longer in the film) to marry her. Phelan praised Bass's structure, but clearly a lot of what he wrote was trimmed. He had more of the triangle relationship with Amelia, her husband and her lover. Bass wanted the end of the movie to reveal that while Earhart had run from her dependence on her husband, and enjoyed an affair with handsome patrician aviator Gene Vidal (father of Gore, who remembers being dazzled by Earhart), in the end she realized she loved Putnam. Bass included a ficticious letter that she wrote that was never delivered to her husband. He would have had her read it over the last shots as she headed toward a watery grave.

The last half hour of the movie is the strongest and most emotional, as Earhart faces her uncertain future as she tries to set a record as the first woman to fly around the world. Landing to refuel with her navigator on a small island in the middle of the Pacific--a spec on the ocean--was a matter of life and death.

Phelan described scenes that were written-- and either not shot or included in the final cut --that revealed more details from Earhart's childhood. She admits that Earhart was not a very strong flier, and never learned Morse Code. She took unnecessary risks, she said. Phelan admitted that Earhart was really hard to bring to life, because she was on the flat and dull side.

But even Bass and Noyce might not have gotten their version of the movie made at Fox Searchlight. While Nair steered toward a more conventional celebration of a feminist heroine, the final 111-minute movie is not the one she started to make.

I agree with Bass: the more freedom the writer has to approximate the soul of the subject (A Beautiful Mind, The Damned United, Ali), rather than slavishly tracking to the facts of the case, the better. Audiences crave authenticity, these days. Even if it's fantastic, poetic or fake. It just needs to ring true.

This article is related to: Reviews, Awards, Genres, Headliners, Studios, Stuck In Love, Oscars, Biopics, Hilary Swank, Fox Searchlight, Screenwriters


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