2005 TIFF Update #7: "Realing Them In"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Call it the era of the bio-pic. Last year at Toronto, we learned about Alfred Kinsey, Bobby Darren, and Ray Charles. This year, it's Truman Capote, Laura Henderson, Bettie Page, and Johnny Cash. I dealt with the first two in previous updates, so that leaves The Notorious Bettie Page and this year's Ray, called Walk the Line.

Why are biographies so popular? It's hard to say - possibly because they don't force a screenwriter to come up with an original story, or possibly because an audience will feel comfortable knowing that the subject of a motion picture is a recognizable name (all except in the case of Mrs. Henderson, who few will have heard of). Good biographies are like any other kind of good movie - worth seeing, worth recommending. Bad biographies come across as crass and exploitative. And there are dangers. For example, one may confuse a good biography subject with a good biography. Last year, I was quick to point out what I found to be flaws in Ray, only to be accused of being anti-Ray Charles. My opinion of the film was unrelated to my opinon of the artist, but some people couldn't understand this.

Two other notes. Strong lead performances in bio-pics make for excellent nomination chances. Last year, Jamie Foxx won the Best Actor Award for Ray. This year, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a lock to be nominated for Capote, Joquin Phoenix is likely for Walk the Line, and Judi Dench will proably get a nod for Mrs. Henderson. The Notorious Bettie Page doesn't come out until early 2006, so who knows what Gretchen Mol's chances are. Also, it's worth noting that no bio-pic is entirely accurate. These are fictionalized accounts (some more factual than others). Expect entertainment from bio-pics, not history lessons. There are plenty of other places to get the true story if you are interested.

The Notorious Bettie Page is one good looking movie about one good looking dame. It tells of the career of '50s pin-up queen Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), who was the object of countless masturbatory fantasies in the pre-Playboy era. Despite being a straightforward bio-pic, The Notorious Bettie Page is more than just a tasty morsel of eye candy. The film takes a little time to explore the political landscape of the time, and features an Oscar-worthy lead performance.

The Notorious Bettie Page spans a period from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, following Bettie from when she's a teenager until her retirement from posing. It follows each stage of her career and re-creates some of her most famous shoots: glamor poses, bondage photos and movies, and nudes. It also shows the legal difficulties faced by photographers and distributors. Anything deemed as being "smut" (such as S&M) could not be sent through the mail. Pubic hair could not be shown. And pornography was viewed as a direct contributor to suicide, murder, and psychosis. (There may be some who believe this today.)

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol) does a stellar job making this a visual feast. Interweaving stock footage with new material, she brings the '40s and '50s to life. The movie is shot almost entirely in black-and-white with one exception: scenes in sunny Florida are presented in technicolor, and appear all the more vivid because of the noir look of the rest of the movie.

If Gretchen Mol had any reservations about baring all, they don't show on screen. Bewitching and lovely with her long brown tresses, Mol looks achingly like Page, and the character's playfulness and love of life come through in all of the poses. There's more to Mol's work than parading around naked - she displays naivete in some cases, not to mention sass and a sense of humor. Plus, she remains religious throughout, wondering what God thinks of her posing nude. (In the end, aroudn 1957, Bettie stopped posing for pin-ups because she became a born-again Christian - although she claimed to be unashamed of her past.)

Those unfamiliar with Bettie's life might assume that this is another story of drink, drugs, and debauchery. It is not. Bettie did nothing to excess, and never engaged in promiscuous behavior. She did not equate nudity with sexuality, and one of her photographers remarked that "she can be nude without being naked." In her opinion, the pin-ups were to help those with "special needs," not to lead people into sin. The movie also doesn't shy away from darker topics - a sexual assault that occured while Bettie was in her 20s is shown early in the movie (it's not graphic, but there's no doubt what is happening). And we see the unfortunate result of an ill-advised early marriage.

The Notorious Bettie Page is a delightful movie. Not only does it shine a spotlight on an American pop icon about which not a lot is known today, but it gives us a porthole into morality and livestyles of post-World War II America. Harron's directing and Mol's acting make this worth seeking out when it opens in theaters early next year.

When I spoke to Roger Ebert earlier this week, he remarked that he knew almost all of Johnny Cash's songs by heart. I cannot make the same claim. I'm familiar with a few of them - mostly those that got radio play - but many of the titles in his catalogue are unknown to me. That didn't impinge upon my ability to enjoy Walk the Line, but the statement is necessary to explain my background. Cash devotees may have a different reaction to this picture. In fact, although I liked it, my bet is that they will love it.

Inevitably, Walk the Line will be compared to last year's Ray. It's understandable. Both are high profile motion pictures about major recording stars who recently died (Cash passed away in 2003, four months after the death of his wife). The kind of music is different, but there are some similar plot elements, chief among which are marital infidelity and drug use. Walk the Line is a better film. It's put together with more elegance, the director has more control over the trajectory, it's not boring (Ray had a tendency to drag), and it feels more like a straighforward account instead of hero-worship. Ray did a lot more whitewashing and fictionalization than Walk the Line. Plus, this movie has a driving plotline that Ray lacked - a love story. To me, that's what elevates this film.

Walk the Line opens in 1944 Dyess, Arkansas, where it introduces us to a 12-year old Johnny Cash, and depicts one of the key events in his early life. The film then skips forward to Landsberg, Germany in 1952 (with Joaquin Phoenix taking over the part of Cash) and Memphis in 1955. While there, living with his wife, Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin), and young daughter, he starts a band: Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. After a successful audition with a record producer, Johnny finds himself on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). His music elevates him to stardom, but drug use (uppers) and alochol abuse threaten to drag him down. They also impede a possible romance with June, the love of his life, even after Viv has left him. The film continues Cash's story into the late 1960s, including scenes from the famous Fulsom Prison concert, and ends on an up note.

Director James Mangold has streamlined his film to focus on two things: the music (a number of Cash songs are played uninterrupted) and the love story. Johnny's drug use becomes a key element in the romance, since it's ultimately June's perseverence that saves Johnny, not some innate desire within himself to get clean. Ray portrayed its protagonist as an heroic figure. Walk the Line takes a different approach. Johnny is showed to be a flawed human being with a great talent. There's nobility in Johnny, but also a great deal more darkness than we say in Ray.

Oscar nominations are likely for Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, and it will be tough to argue against them. Witherspoon gives one of her finest performances in years (granted, she has been appearing mostly in fluff lately), and Phoenix astonishes. His physical resemblance to Cash is superficial, but he has perfected the voice, both when speaking and singing. Supporting actors include Robert Patrick as Johnny's unloving father, Tyler Hilton as a young Elvis Presley, and Shooter Jennings as his father, Waylon.

The running length of Walk the Line is just about right. 135 minutes is long enough to develop a coherent narrative (rather than making this feel like a "best of" story) without dragging things out. I will admit to not having been excited about seeing Walk the Line before sitting down to watch it. (In fact, it was not on my original tentative screening schedule), but Mangold, Phoenix, and Witherspoon converted me. During the course of the picture, someone describes Johnny's voice as being "steady like a train, sharp like a razor." That sounds to me like a fitting description of Walk the Line, as well.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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