Grace biopic treads difficult path
A GREAT or glittering life is no guarantee of a gripping biopic, say film-makers, as the Cannes Film Festival was set to open yesterday with the first big-screen adaptation of the life of Monaco's Princess Grace.
From Alexander the Great to Princess Diana, by way of Jerry Lee Lewis, Amelia Earhart and J. Edgar Hoover, cinema is littered with biopic turkeys that fell flat at the box office.
Even before its release, this year's Cannes opener - Grace Of Monaco, with Nicole Kidman as the former Hollywood star Grace Kelly, who married her prince - has had its fair share of controversy.
The princely Grimaldi family has branded the film as "fiction" and will boycott the premiere, while a transatlantic row over editing between French director Olivier Dahan and United States distributor Harvey Weinstein has made headlines.
And while publicity - of any kind - often helps a film, Dahan will be hoping his movie can avoid the kind of critical mauling meted out to another recent biopic, Oliver Hirschbiegel's Diana.
Like Grace, Diana married a prince in a "fairy tale" wedding and captivated the world public before dying in a car crash.
Her life was hardly short on drama, but Hirschbiegel's 2013 film - starring Naomi Watts as Diana - bombed when it was released, garnering only around US$60,000 (S$75,000) on its opening weekend in the US.
Emmy award-winning US writer and film-maker Sheila Curran Bernard said biopics were notoriously difficult to pull off.
Dangers include directors not being free to pursue their own vision and, consequently, producing a movie that appears too "enthralled" with its subject.
"People get life rights from people, especially if you're working with a living character, but then, it's a question of whose vision of the story is it?" she said.
"Because what a writer or a director sees might not be the same thing that a family sees in somebody's life... Getting approval can work out, but there's also the risk of being too celebratory to the extent that there's nothing there.
"The risk is ending up with a film that everyone is happy with, but that nobody wants to see."
Two other biopics at Cannes this year are Bertrand Bonello's film about designer Yves Saint Laurent and Mike Leigh's movie about painter J. M. W. Turner.
Bonello's film, which follows Jalil Lespert's "official" biopic on the high priest of fashion, was released with the blessing of his business and romantic partner Pierre Berge earlier this year to lukewarm reviews.
Cannes Film Festival organisers have defended the right to creative licence of the makers of Grace Of Monaco.
Curran Bernard said that, within certain limits, it was essential for film-makers to be able to create fictional scenes.
Without that freedom, she said, it would be difficult to get viewers to suspend their disbelief and care about what happens next.
Amadeus, which approached Mozart's life from the perspective of an envious fellow composer, a real-life figure named Antonio Salieri, is an oft-cited masterpiece in the genre. It won eight Oscars in 1985, including best picture.
That extra dimension, albeit one that involved a lot of creative licence and took advantage of the fact that all the characters were long dead, allowed the film to rise above the merely biographical and episodic.
"It (Amadeus) very much overplayed what was really there, in terms of (the true story of) Salieri," Curran Bernard said.
"It was not a documentary and it worked as a drama."