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Amelia: When Biopics Go Bad

by Anne Thompson
October 23, 2009 4:11 AM
9 Comments
  • |
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.

9 Comments

  • gary z | November 9, 2010 5:30 AMReply

    I didn't know Amelia talked like Hepburn??
    Could not get past the butch haircut and all those Teeth!
    Swank must have at least 50 teeth.
    Movie was funny.. OH? Not a comedy??

  • Oscar Solis | November 8, 2009 4:14 AMReply

    ag is on the money when it comes to this. What I find depressing is that once again a film doesn't seem to have been budgeted properly in regards to it's elements and potential earnings in a realistic manner (including P&A).

    It's as if no one gives a damn, just make the movie and it'll all work itself out, somehow, someway.

    While charlie salem writes this movie COULD have been a hit (for the reasons he lists) the operative word is COULD. Because in the film business a movie COULD be a hit or it COULD be a flop. The real skill is to minimize the risks. Sadly, it doesn't appear to have been the case here or in many films to come.

  • RMH | November 5, 2009 8:27 AMReply

    I enjoyed Amelia - in fact saw it twice. it is NOT a great biopic, but a good one, and, in this year of terrible formulaic movies made for idiots and stupid teens, it stands out. The weakest link is the script, which is usually the reason for a less than stellar film. I thought Hilary Swank was quite fine and the flying sequences breathtaking, made more so because they seemed real rather than painted on a computer. The last half hour was quite compelling.

  • Lindy | October 26, 2009 7:09 AMReply

    Over on DVD Talk, there's a debate about what does and doesn't constitute "torture porn" and someone inserted a post about this film and called it "Bio-porn."

  • charlie salem | October 24, 2009 7:43 AMReply

    Whilst ag and his / her market-led cohorts are right this sounds like it COULD have been a real hit, if only it wasn't plagued with the usual set back (director change, distributor interference etc) working FOR the film and it becomming at hit. Instead what's on celluloid and on the screen did not 'fly'. The set backs and problems you describe are ALWAYS going to be there. It's up to those involve to fight the set back tooth and nail. Maybe from the ashes of its so called 'demise' a 'directors cut' may emerge a Donnie Darko style hit and defy ALL the critics. Keep trying please!!!
    Best Charlie Salem

  • mitkid | October 23, 2009 8:31 AMReply

    After The Namesake, which I loved, I was looking forward eagerly to Amelia until I read the review in today's New York Times. It does sound like a lot better biopic than Creation, which was awful. Having writers on the panel after your class showing sounds ideal, wish I was there to hear them discuss all the the ins and outs of what went right and wrong. As a personal preference, having big stars in biopics seems like the wrong way to go, it almost makes more sense to have actors from the second rank (not second rate) who seem to have an easier time melding into the role of well known people.

  • Sergio | October 23, 2009 8:23 AMReply

    I agree Though it's very good looking film it's horribly superficial. We learn practically nothing about Earhart

  • ag | October 23, 2009 6:21 AMReply

    the need for a new model in marketing goes hand in hand with an increased level of discipline when it comes to the nature and commercial viability of the story. if there isn't a viable marketing strategy that focuses on the target audience, and if the product can't make a profit, don't make it.

    the problem is, with most movies, the target audience includes teenagers. amelia offers nothing to teenagers. so, should it have been made? at $20 million, i don't think so.

    the counter argument would be: you can't make amelia for less. the answer in that case is, unfortunately, then don't make it -- or -- make it in another form, for TV or cable.

    amelia is the type of thing you might look forward to on bbc, pbs, or hbo. it could run every night for a week in one-hour segments. that type of presentation would allow for an examination of the characters' personalities, motives, and soul, as you described bass' and noyce's original intent for amelia. a theatrical presentation is much more plot-driven, and, by its nature, has to be bigger and move with more energy. a movie with a bunch of talking-head pieces just doesn't have appeal. but, a mini-series with such content could have appeal.

    i think the same can be said about wild things. this product should have been made for less, had more appeal to kids, had a shorter run time, (fewer talking head scenes), and been made for TV or cable, giving it a shot at a yearly run with appeal for families, and some sales on disc. WT had a fair opening but i don't think it will hold up against this weekend's competition. and that's the point. if WT hadn't cost so much it would be doing much better. while that seems like an obvious thing to say one has to wonder why the studio did not consider that factor (or ignored it) before they decided to make the movie.

    i think we'll be saying the same about amelia -- even at a modest $20 million it cost too much. if it would have made money at a lower budget, say, $5 million, but it could not have been produced for that amount, then, it shouldn't have been made

    then, there's the question of how to market amelia. there really isn't a good option. the viral internet approach doesn't work because older people don't cruise the web like kids do. a traditional approach doesn't work because it costs too much. that leaves you with what? a movie without commercial drive that can't be marketed (effectively), will not garner word of mouth, and may not make back it's production costs.

    so we may have two examples from two consecutive weekends of movies that may fail because they cost too much, did not have a pure enough approach in their handling of the story/characters, did not target their audience properly, were (therefore) difficult to market, are getting poor word of mouth, can't compete on their second weekend, and might have benefited from playing on TV or cable instead of the big screen.

    there are times when someone has to say: this project can't be made in its current form with the proposed budget, and can't be marketed effectively even if it were made. so, we won't make it

  • Joe Valdez | October 23, 2009 5:56 AMReply

    I'm a fan of Mira Nair's work -- particularly The Namesake, which I felt was one of the best films of 2007 -- and while I haven't seen Amelia, I trust your downbeat assessment, Anne.

    As a movie coroner, my first instinct would have been to blame the screenwriters. It's been a couple of decades since either Ron Bass or Anna Hamilton Phelan were credited on movies that were anything but bland.

    I would love it if directors like John Woo, Neil Jordan and Nair came to L.A. only in the even to pick up their Oscars. It seems the experience of making movies on Hollywood's dime -- while making everybody money -- never produces a movie anyone is very happy with.

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