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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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