Will Roger Ebert Biopic Be a Big Bust?


Biopics range from the sublime (Coal Miner's Daughter) to the shambolic (98.5% of the others).

Who hasn't experienced that very particular sensation of profound embarrassment while watching, say, Wired or Beyond the Sea or pretty much any movie in which a real person is being impersonated by a badly cast actor, especially one burdened by distracting facial prosthetics?

Why do we get so exercised by "stunt casting" gone wrong, fuming for weeks over Alan Rickman's performance as Ronald Reagan in The Butler?

Hell, I'm still mad at Alex Cox for making Gary Oldman wear a "hammer and sickle" t-shirt instead of a "swastika" one in Sid & Nancy, and his failure to cast Courtney Love as Oldman's costar.

Maybe it has something to do with that part of our brain where the "uncanny valley" resides.

As well, we mistakenly believe we "know" famous people -- even own them, in a way.

How dare an actor get "our" celebrity wrong! How dare that director cast the wrong person to play him?

The passionate comments beneath this article on Sacha Baron Cohen's firing from the Freddie Mercury biopic are representative.

Whereas I have no investment in that project (emotional or otherwise), there are dueling Clash biopics in various stages of development, so here's sensational news for both producers:

I've got your Mick Jones right here.

Happy to help!

Expect plenty of heated reaction when they announce who will play Roger Ebert in the recently greenlit biopic about his collaboration with director Russ Meyer on the 1970 cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Movie geeks know the story by heart:

The macho, boisterous, "right wing" Meyer befriended a young, nerdy, liberal Ebert, after the latter defended Meyer's ribald "nudie" flicks about big-busted ball-busters in the Wall Street Journal.

When a sclerotic Twentieth Century Fox picked outsider Meyer to make a movie that all the hip, happening young fans of Easy Rider would flock to see, Meyer dragged young (but not at all hip or happening) Ebert down from Chicago to Hollywood to work on a script.

In a few weeks, Ebert bashed out Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a frenetic, psychedelic extravaganza about an all-girl rock band and their young, decadent, sexually ambiguous pals -- directed by a raving heterosexual WWII veteran who hated modern music and all its commie pinko hippie pomps and works.

Meyer directed his actors not to blink for some reason, and, more importantly, never told them they were starring in a comedy -- all the better to wring out their most serious, histrionic performances.

And keeping a straight face must have been hard for performers obliged to utter such Ebert-penned gems as "this is my happening and it freaks me out!" -- later lifted with a wink by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films -- and "you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"

In 2003, Ebert -- now a Pulitzer Prize winner and beloved movie critic whose trademarked "thumbs up" could (rightly or wrongly) make or break a film -- looked back:

It may be one of the 10 best movies of the 1970s, as the critic Richard Corliss once said, or it may be saddled with a script by a neophyte screenwriter, as Gene Siskel once said, but "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was one of the great experiences of my life. (...)

The story came from my own inflamed imagination, stoked by Meyer's love of absurd melodrama. I remember one day when I started laughing uproariously at about page 104 . "What's the matter?" Meyer shouted. I hurried into his office. "Z-Man is a girl!" I said. "He's what?" he asked. "Z-Man has been a woman all along!" I explained. "He reveals his secret to Wonder Boy during the orgy scene!" Meyer nodded judiciously. "You can never have too many women in the picture." (...)

Thirty-three years after the film's first release, it remains an indestructible cult classic, long ignored by the studio, unavailable on video, sometimes seen on cable, still finding new fans. Students at the University of Colorado performed their own stage version for me at Boulder five years ago. When the film had its 20th anniversary screening in 1990 at the University of Southern California, the students recited the dialogue in unison with the screen. When it played at the University of Texas, an academic declared, "On a structural level, Meyer is, absurd as it may seem, the logical successor to Sergei Eisenstein."

I suspect the finished Roger Ebert/Russ Meyer biopic will turn out to be something like Almost Famous-in-Tinseltown, or Tim Burton's Ed Wood: an earnest, even wholesome appreciation of an eccentric, twisted visionary and his gang of nutty friends, who lived in what we think of fondly as a more innocent time.

Until it comes out, expect plenty of heated debate about who should play the late Chicago Sun Times columnist, whose death earlier this year saddened millions of fans.

(Of course, the conservatives who were his favorite targets on Twitter late in his life mostly issued polite condolences.)

So let's play casting couch potato:

Add your suggestions about who should play whom in the comments.