By John H. Foote
(**) In theatres
For too long, film biographies were often fictionalized stories about the perceived life of the subject, ignoring the darker aspects of their lives. It was not until the 90s, with Malcolm X (1992), Schindler’s List (1993), and Nixon (1995), that filmmakers found the courage, and perhaps permission, to portray the entire character, warts and all, bringing a startling honesty and realism to the work. In some instances, before that trio of movies, directors were governed by the censors and often could not tell the whole story despite their best intentions. Yet the great ones, such as David Lean, managed to do so in a subtle fashion. His masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (1962) tells the true story of a man banished to Arabia by the British army. Once there, Lawrence proves himself a military genius, willing to take risks. In his journey of self-discovery, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) surfaces his homosexuality and masochism, along with a blood lust he had never experienced. Lean handled these moments with subtle gestures, eye movement, nothing overt. We need to pay close attention to notice them. The portrayal of those truths is what made Lawrence of Arabia the masterwork of cinema it has been since its release in 1962. To even suggest this side of T. E. Lawrence would have drawn howls of protests from the censors, but evidently, they were not paying close attention.
Many biographical films do not work for a variety of reasons and there are times, like this new film about Aretha Franklin, that the performance within the film elevates it far beyond how great it might be.
Consider Gandhi (1982), a paint-by-number biography that should have been called “Gandhi’s Greatest Hits”. If the movie was our only source of information, we would conclude that Gandhi was a saint who walked on water and spoke only in print-worthy sound bites. There is not a single controversial element to the man, yet he had plenty. But the uncanny performance of newcomer Ben Kingsley was so powerful, audiences and some critics (not all of us) forgave the filmmaker. A year after Gandhi won eight Academy Awards, members of the Academy were saying publicly “we got it wrong” and should have honoured E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Steven Spielberg and perhaps Dustin Hoffman’s astounding performance in Tootsie (1982) was the better choice for Best Actor.
It is not the first time a great performance elevated a weak biographical film.
Jill Clayburgh in Gable and Lombard (1976), along with the fine musical score, were the only redeeming features of this film. Ditto with Rod Steiger that same year in W.C. Fields and Me, a truly wonderful performance in a weak, stupid film. Robert Downey Jr. towered over the material he was provided in Chaplin (1992), as did Jack Nicholson in the curious flop Hoffa (1992), both doing exceptional work in uninspired movies about exciting men.
Recently the Academy honoured Rami Malek, a fine actor, for his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), a weak film I did not care for any more than I did Malek’s performance. Yet they ignored Val Kilmer in The Doors (1991), who managed to capture every aspect of Jim Morrison including his superb rock voice. Kilmer didn’t get a nomination, but Malek won the Oscar! Two years later, as Judy Garland in Judy (2019), Renée Zellweger was mesmerizing, far better than she had a right to be considering the screenplay and won her second Academy Award. Makes no sense to me.
To portray a real-life character, an actor must capture their essence, portray truthfully who they were more than what they were. What made them tick? Watch Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, he is more Nixon than Nixon himself, a startling piece of acting that reveals Nixon’s wounded soul. The same thing with Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) as Loretta Lynn, a stunning performance that won the actress every acting award available to her. Spacek even did her own singing! Each had great writing to work with and something more important, the truth. Nothing was glazed over, sweetened or softened. This was their life, for better and worse.
Coming out of Respect, the new film about soul singer Aretha Franklin, I did not know any more about her than I did from reading Wikipedia. I understand how she grew up, the role music played, how she found her voice, and how men held her back until she took control. But I already knew all that.
It is not the fault of actress Jennifer Hudson, already an Oscar winner for Dreamgirls (2006), her film debut a few years back, in which she was sensational. There were genuine doubts about whether the newcomer had the chops to portray Effie, the gifted singer who is bounced from the group, but she silenced everyone. Yes, she had a lot of help from director Bill Condon who displayed great patience with her, and it paid off. She has gotten even stronger as an actor since Dreamgirls. She suffered the indignity of Cats (2019), the musical kitty-litter dumped on audiences in 2019, the new benchmark for terrible in this generation, replacing Battlefield Earth (2000) forevermore. Luckily for Hudson, she had a relatively small role and knocked it out of the park as expected, especially with her rendition of the song “Memory” throughout the film.
Respect was to have arrived a year ago, but COVID led to a year-long delay, the producers hoping it would help to build buzz and excitement. It is a performance to be excited about; Hudson is luminous, breathtaking … whatever words of praise you want to throw out. This is a performance for the ages, yet it is trapped in an otherwise ordinary film, a typical Hollywood biography, a paint-by-number, greatest hits of Franklin’s life.
Hudson is especially brilliant when singing and cutting loose in the soulful voice of Franklin. We watch her FEEL the music, as if it comes from her very soul, somewhere deep inside her. The Queen of Soul personally chose Hudson to portray herself in this film before she passed in 2018. I think she would be thrilled with the results. With that soaring voice that brought her fame in Dreamgirls and the TV show American Idol before that (how did she not win?), Hudson steps into the role of Franklin with apparent ease, giving a breathtaking performance that should catapult her into the Oscar race. Whether she gets nominated will depend on audience reactions.
For me, the film explores how Franklin finally took charge of her career from the men who sought to control her. Once she moves away from them and makes her own career decisions, realizing she has always had the right to do so, we see her become the Queen of Soul. Until then she is very much like Effie, the character she played in Dreamgirls. Hudson does something few actors can do with a biography film — she becomes the character. I believed I was watching Franklin on screen, not Jennifer Hudson. And I am tough on actors.
Sadly, the film is not much more than a made-for-TV movie despite the performance of Hudson and the great Forest Whitaker as her father. That said, the film crackles with energy whenever Hudson sings recreations of Franklin’s songs, making them her won, but with a nod to Franklin. The writing is pedestrian, the direction solid but nothing beyond that. As a film, it is a disappointment given the subject. Long ago in the 60s, Aretha Franklin earned our respect by singing that song, and Hudson earns ours portraying the character.
Sadly, the film, does not. At best, and I am being very kind, this is an average work with a soaring performance.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.