Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Characterising real people in films

I've watched a couple of films on TV lately which prompt a few thoughts about one aspect of characterisation, especially in screenplays. Both films were quite bold, and based on the lives of real people, but were very different. They were The Girl, a BBC TV show about Alfred Hitchcock's curious relationship with Tippi Hedren, and The Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher.

The first thing to say is that the acting was exceptionally good in both cases. Toby Jones played Hitchcock, Sienna Miller was Hedren,and Meryl Streep played Thatcher. Streep, of course, was in Oscar-winning form, but I must say that I thought Miller was excellent too. I last saw her in the re-make of Alfie, playing a very different character. Here, she not only seemed at least as beautiful as Hedren (herself famously attractive) but conveyed a complex personality very effectively. Toby Jones is a fine actor, although his performance was to some extent governed by the requirements of the script.

And I did have some reservations about the way the script portrayed Hitchcock, as a sad old man with a deeply unhealthy interest in his star. It may be a fair picture, from Tippi Hedren's perspective, but press reports indicate that a number of the other glamorous blonde actresses whom Hitchcock hired had a very different, and much more positive, view of him. This prompts an interesting question - to what extent, when portraying someone like Hitchcock, should a screenplay writer present a balanced, rather than partisan picture of the character? My own view is that fiction is not about 'balance' or even 'fairness'. Howevert a film like this purports to represent factual events, and that's the tricky thing. Because inevitably,  facts are sometimes twisted to suit dramatic purposes.

The presentation of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady was rather different. Her strengths and failings were addressed, though her supporters and opponents will disagree on whether the screenplay got the balance right. What was most controversial, though central to the story, was the presentation of a living person suffering from deteriorating mental faculties. This obviously raises questions of taste. But I felt that, leaving the matter of taste aside, the screenplay was very intelligently done, and raised questions about fame and power, and their transient nature, which transcended the issue of whether or not one is a fan of Margaret Thatcher. Streep's acting was stunning, and though I wouldn't rate the script as highly as that, it did impress me more than the skilfully written but rather one-sided screenplay for The Girl.


J F Norris said...

Bio-pics by their very nature of being narrative film will invariably have to cut corners and fudge when it comes to telling th etuth about real people. Hitchcock, the other master of suspense bio-pic with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as husband and wife, not only fudged with the facts it invented a bizarre dream relationship Hitch has with serial killer Ed Gein! Such a thing is the stuff of pure fiction all in service of the story the writer wnats to tell. The two movies about Truman Capote (once again Toby Jones' movie being overshadowed by the big Oscar winner) tell the same story in two completely differnet ways - each sampling facts and playing with time and inventing relationships that probably never happened. Even documentaries to some extent have a slant and are not all fact though they are filming and reporting real events.

Film is an editor's medium - perhaps one of the most manipulative art forms we have. Every movie can be shaped and formed through editing to get the viewer to see what the director and writer want him to see. Truth has little place in narrative film unless it is the truth the filmmakers want us to see.

Sextonblake said...

In general I'm much more comfortable with movies like CITIZEN KANE, where the inspiration(s) for a particular character are pretty obvious, but the movie doesn't have to pretend to be 'real'. Something like THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL has much more freedom to play with the stories about Selznick because it's not driving you mad by making you say 'That never happened!'

The closeness of film versions to their originals is a vexed question. In some cases a film version can become so much the perceived version of the person, that the real character is lost. Even the relatives of General Patton have said that their memories have become distorted by the image of George C Scott. I was fascinated to read that in the TV version of ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, Robert Hardy was such an accurate impersonation of Siegfried Farnon (real life Vet Donald Sinclair, who was regularly consulted by the programme makers) that some of Sinclair's friends found it slightly unnerving. Although physically very different, the two behaved and sounded so similar that they were more than once mistaken for one another on the phone.

AntK said...

I agree with you about Miller's performace Martin, which I too thought was excellent. I guess the very focused aspects of a story are always likely to be chosen by film makers, particularly if, as in the Hedren/Hitchcock situation, there is a particularly negative or salacious theme. It comes down to recognising that there is always more than one truth or reality, and perhaps given the title of the filmn was The Girl, we could assume beforehand that this was 'her story' and that was what was going to be represented on screen. This means that of course Hitchcock wasn't necessarily going to get a balanced or fair treatment, as Hedren's story was the more commercial and most likely to engage the audience.

The same could possibly be said for the Thatcher film, although I suspect that a larger dose of dramatic licence was used in this case.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting and thoughtful comments - thank you. I've not seen the Capote films, but it would be good to compare them.
SB, that's a nice point about Sinclair.
Ant, that's a very fair way of putting it re The Girl. One snag with The Iron Lady was that it had to be so selective in terms of her political career.