x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Biopics get more focused, moviemakers prosper

After The Artist and Hugo come three new films also exploring Hollywood history. Are filmmakers running out of ideas, or are the icons of yesteryear every bit as fascinating as the stories they helped tell?

Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Psycho in 1960. The famous filmmaker will be the topic of a forthcoming biopic called Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Psycho in 1960. The famous filmmaker will be the topic of a forthcoming biopic called Hitchcock.

Much has been made of the distinctly nostalgic feel at the Academy Awards earlier this year, but there are signs that Hollywood retromania may only just be beginning. February's Oscar ceremony saw The Artist, a heartwarming homage to silent cinema, claim five of the major awards, but the number was equalled by Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which explored the pioneering work of the French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Also nominated were Michelle Williams and Kenneth Banagh for their portrayals of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, a drama about the stars' tumultuous relationship during the making of The Prince and the Showgirl.

But in recent weeks, attention has moved towards three other films that will explore events from Hollywood history that went on after the cameras had stopped rolling. Just as My Week With Marilyn examined one of the 20th century's greatest stars by focusing on a particular moment in her life, Grace of Monaco, Saving Mr Banks and Hitchcock will attempt to do the same for Grace Kelly, Walt Disney and, you guessed it, Alfred Hitchcock. Does such inward-looking fare suggest that filmmakers are running out of ideas, or are the icons of yesteryear every bit as fascinating themselves as the stories they helped tell?

First to reach audiences is likely to be Hitchcock. Formerly titled Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the film's subject matter may seem in little doubt, but the picture is actually being billed as a love story between the legendary director (played by Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Images released last week show the actor sporting an appropriately walrus-like double chin and stocky build, but some classic Hollywood glamour will be added by Scarlett Johansson, playing Janet Leigh - the actress responsible for the film's famous shower-based slasher scene. Directed by Sacha Gervasi, it will also look at Hitchcock's determined attempts to bypass the studio system and fund the low-budget horror from his own pocket, as well as the outrage that followed its release.

Although focusing on one of Hollywood's most celebrated stars (and a three-time Hitchcock collaborator), Grace of Monaco is expected to be more than simply a film about filmmaking. Nicole Kidman is currently tipped to play the screen beauty Grace Kelly, who gave up acting just five years after making her debut to marry Rainier III, Prince of Monaco. It will focus on a six-month period in 1962 during which the French leader Charles de Gaulle clashed with the prince over Monaco's tax-haven status. Still in the early years of her royal career, the demure Kelly is believed to have been instrumental in resolving the bitter political dispute. Set to be directed by France's Olivier Dahan (La Vie En Rose), the film seems to have all the hallmarks of a future awards contender, even with its star now 11 years older than her character was during the events.

Saving Mr Banks will see Tom Hanks play Walt Disney in a tale about the making of the classic family movie Mary Poppins. Directed by The Blind Side's John Lee Hancock, it is expected to focus on the fractious relationship between the entertainment mogul and PL Travers (likely to be played by Emma Thompson), the Austrian author who dreamt-up the magical English nanny. Travers resisted Hollywood efforts to adapt her book for 14 years, and was famously outraged by Disney's 1964 film, particularly its animated sequences. The 1934 book was inspired by the difficult relationship between the author and her own father, something she felt was overlooked in favour of dancing penguins and other frivolous fare.

But this apparent bout of introspection from Tinseltown may not be quite what it seems. Movies about movies are almost as old as filmmaking itself, from Charlie Chaplin's His New Job to the classic musical Singin' in the Rain, Fellini's lavish drama 81/2 and even Jafar Panahi's recent reflection This Is Not a Film. While being icons of cinema may appear to be the common denominator among Hitchcock, Kelly and Disney, it might not be the real reason that their stories are about to be told.

The impetus for all three could lie in a film not about filmmaking, but about a king. Last year's Oscar smash The King's Speech helped popularise a particular kind of biopic; rather than following its subject from cradle to grave, it looked at a crucial event in the person's life - in this case, the need to adequately address Britain on the eve of war. Hitchcock, Grace of Monaco, Saving Mr Banks and My Week With Marilyn all use this more economical, snapshot approach as well. With The King's Speech having been made for just US$15 million (Dh55m) and collecting almost 30 times that at the box office, it's not hard to see why others might be trying to get in on the act.


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