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Battle of the biopics: Eight rival pairings of movies about the same person.

Battle of the biopics: Eight rival pairings of movies about the same person. (photo)

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Sometimes, be it chance, convergence or studio groupthink, interest in making a movie about the life of a public figure re-explodes, and multiple biopics about him/her go into development to capitalize on that interest. Most of the time, one of the parties involved backs down and the victor emerges with no competition. But occasionally, two films emerge in close proximity to another.

Lately, this has been happening a lot: there are rival Marilyn Monroe movies slated for production, with Naomi Watts and Michelle Williams slated as leads, double Miles Davis biopics, three-deep DeLoreans. Most of these movies will never actually be made. Here’s a look at seven such notable cinematic point-counterpoints that actually hit theaters:

06072010_chanel2.jpg“Coco Before Chanel”/”Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” (2009)

There have been four films about fashion designer/legend Coco Chanel so far, and not a single one has yet had the guts to delve into World War II and try to reconcile her status as a fashion icon with her years as a Nazi collaborator, SS contacts and all. 1981’s “Chanel Solitaire” is noted (if at all) as Rutger Hauer’s first English-language movie; the 2008 TV movie with Shirley MacLaine was chided by the New York Times‘ Gina Bellafante for how it “hopscotches right over Chanel’s unsavory wartime affiliations.” So, too, does last year’s “Coco Before Chanel” (how could adorable Audrey Tautou be up to anything so awful?) and, by default (their affair ended long before World War II), “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” which opens this week. And they might as well keep making Chanel biopics until someone works up the nerve to include that particular factoid.

06072010_bathory2.jpg“Bathory” (2008)/”The Countess” (2009)

It’s entirely unsurprising that Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian countess who supposedly had hundreds of young girls tortured and killed in order to bathe in their blood (believing it would restore her youth), has been a popular figure in films over the years. Is there a handier, gothier metaphor for our aging-averse, product-obsessed culture? Anna Friel vamps as the titular aristocrat in the 2008 “Bathory,” the most expensive Slovak and Czech production of all time. A revisionist take on the legend from director Juraj Jakubisko, the film drops a historically inaccurate Caravaggio into the mix and suggests Báthory was actually a tragic victim who was framed by the power-hungry men in her life. She only killed a few people, y’all, not hundreds! And she was on drugs at the time! The following year’s “The Countess” was written, directed by and stars Julie Delpy — a dream project of the hers for years, it by all accounts offers a feminist spin on the Bathory legend, delving into the woman’s psychology while leaving the verity of her many murders up in the air. “Bathory” remains without U.S. distribution, while “The Countess” was picked up by Empire Film Group last year for an announced Oscar push that never happened.

06072010_capote2.jpg“Capote” (2005)/”Infamous” (2006)

The Truman show shoot-out of “Capote” and “Infamous” was not the first time Douglas McGrath’s work had run into unflattering comparisons with a similar movie preceding it. His 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” was considered wan and lacking when juxtaposed with the clever updating of the same novel in “Clueless.” “Infamous” didn’t perform as well as “Capote,” although probably because seeing Toby Jones (best known as, well, the voice of Dobby the House Elf in the “Harry Potter” movies) slink into the famous Truman Capote voice didn’t have quite the same sense of showmanship as seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman do the same. In fact, most reviews agreed that the two films were basically worthy of each other, just covering the same material from different sides; I particularly like Kenji Fujishima’s suggestion that watching the two is like “differentiating between two conductors’ interpretations of one particular work.”

06072010_prefontaine2.jpg“Prefontaine” (1997)/”Without Limits” (1998)

Two movies about Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine that bombed independently of one another, both “Prefontaine” and “Without Limits” represented big ventures for their directors. “Prefontaine” was the first post-“Hoop Dreams” project for director Steve James, and its failure didn’t discourage him: he made two more sports-based TV movies (1999’s “Passing Glory” — black vs. white high basketball teams in the ’60s — and 2002’s “Joe and Max” — Louis and Schmeling, respectively) before getting back to what he does best. 1998’s “Without Limits” was only the third film legendary screenwriter (and highly paid script doctor) Robert Towne (“Chinatown”) had managed to get made, and it too flopped — as would the careers of their two respective stars, Jared Leto and Billy Crudup, neither of whom ballooned up into the acting A-list as promised. Both movies were admirably focused on pointing out what a difficult, uncoachable jerk Prefontaine could be, and both received respectful if lukewarm reviews. There’s a great moment in “Limits” when Crudup is interrupted mid-first-time coitus, is asked if he has “blue balls” and answers “yes,” as human a moment as any sports bio has ever achieved. Still, Prefontaine was simply too difficult and heroically unheroic to qualify for the standard Biopic of Sports Greatness treatment.

06072010_nixon2.jpg“Kissinger and Nixon”/”Nixon” (1995)

Cable television was nowhere near the level of commercial ubiquity it is now in 1995, which makes it somewhat odd to recall that TNT’s “Kissinger and Nixon” airing ten days before the release of Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” was viewed as something that could credibly disturb the latter’s commercial prospects. The reason had less to do with common sense than with a dubious sense of causality — two years earlier, a TNT biopic about Geronimo had aired before Walter Hill’s own version and the latter underperformed, therefore people were wondering if basic cable could ruin movies. But both films were dubious commercial prospects from the start: “Nixon,” unlike “JFK,” didn’t really have any controversial bait to offer the public, yet was still three hours long and beyond hallucinatory. The victor in the long run is probably Stone’s movie (which didn’t come close to recouping its budget in release, but became something of a cult movie for Stone fans), though the cable film is by all accounts really more about Kissinger — in the role, Ron Silver received excellent notices. Kissinger himself sent in a 42-page list of objections to how he was portrayed; Silver would later become a post-9/11 Republican, making his performance here prescient. As you can see in the clip here, at least he’s less inadvertently hilarious than Paul Sorvino’s distractingly dead-on, hyper-caricatured Kissinger in “Nixon.”

06072010_earp2.jpg“Tombstone” (1993)/”Wyatt Earp” (1994)

Hardly the first but, to date, the last movies made about the enduring Western figure of Wyatt Earp, neither “Tombstone” nor “Wyatt Earp” made any grand aspirations towards historical accuracy. Both, however, grasped for magisterial grandeur. According to “Tombstone” star Kurt Russell (who claims to have secretly directed the film), before it was recut by the studio it was “a Western ‘Godfather.'” “Wyatt Earp,” meanwhile, also reached for myth (Jonathan Rosenbaum also noted naked ambitions towards “Godfather” status), but mostly through sheer length (expanded from 191 minutes to 212 in its director’s recut). It’s best remember as the first moment at which Costner’s carefully honed star status began to crash under the sheer weight of his hubris. “Wyatt Earp” emerged only because Costner thought the “Tombstone” screenplay should focus on Earp (which says nothing about his ego, natch) but was far less profitable. In any case, it was an inglorious end to Wyatt Earp’s on-screen mythology, one of the great continuities of the genre, which gave us “My Darling Clementine” and other lesser lights still beloved by connoisseurs, like “Doc” and “Gunfight At The OK Corral.”

06072010_liberace2.jpg“Liberace”/”Liberace: Behind The Music” (1988)

In a crass display of naked ambition entirely befitting the subject, Liberace’s death in 1987 prompted two dueling made-for-TV movies that aired a week apart in 1988. The main difference was that the first was authorized (or, as one “Snicks” writes, “whitewashed”), the second unauthorized. The main issue of contention, of course, was Liberace’s sexuality, which remains such a contentious issue (one apparently vigilantly monitored by his estate) that even the Wikipedia entry dances around it, merely noting that he was sued for palimony by chauffeur/alleged live-in boyfriend Scott Thorson, who’d apparently received plastic surgery to look more like the star. Regardless of the truth, Liberace’s image (down to a museum he built himself including the world’s largest Austrian rhinestone) is certainly gay enough to make him an easy punchline in “Good Night, And Good Luck,” where archival footage of him mentioning his heterosexuality conspicuously is an easy audience laugh-getter. The first film danced around the issue; the second, judging by the clip below, made it the main point of focus. (Worth noting: the first film’s Liberace was Andy Robinson, the serial killer from “Dirty Harry.”)

06072010_harlow2.jpg“Harlow”/”Harlow” (1965)

There were two competing Jean Harlow biopics in 1965: the cheaper one opened May 14 in New York, Paramount’s more expensive version on June 23. Paramount had Irving Shulberg’s “controversial” (read: lurid) biography to their name and the overqualified services of Hitchcock screenwriter John Michael Hayes (“Rear Window,” 1956’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much”); the Magna Pictures cheapie had Ginger Rogers’ last performance. Neither film was overly commended for accuracy (though at least the cheap version mentioned her likely affair with William Powell, which Paramount scrupulously overlooked) or for an overload of good taste, but perhaps the Paramount version has the edge, if only because it was actually shot on film. The Magna Pictures version was shot on Electronivision (i.e., a glorified ’60s TV process) in eight days, and boy does it look it.

[Photos: Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Dr.,” Universal Pictures, 2001; “Shutter Island,” Paramount Pictures, 2010; “Coco Before Chanel,” Sony Classics, 2009; “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” Sony Classics, 2009; “Bathory,” Eurofilm Stúdió, 2008; “The Countess,” Empire, 2009; “Capote,” Sony Classics, 2005; “Infamous,” Warner Independent, 2006; “Prefontaine,” Buena Vista, 1997; “Without Limits,” Warner Bros., 1998; “Kissinger and Nixon,” TNT, 1995; “Nixon,” Buena Vista, 1995; “Tombstone,” Buena Vista, 1993; “Wyatt Earp,” Warner Bros., 1994; “Liberace,” ABC, 1988; “Liberace: Behind The Music,” CBS, 1988; “Harlow,” Magna, 1965; “Harlow,” Paramount, 1965]

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.