Why Old-Timey Comedian Biopics Are Never Good

Has Hollywood run out of 1970s bands?
Why Old-Timey Comedian Biopics Are Never Good

AfteAfter helming the fifth Indiana Jones movie – presumably about Indy’s quest to get his rowdy neighbors to turn down the new Hendrix record while he’s trying to watch Green Acres – director James Mangold is set to direct a movie about another action-seeking daredevil who was born in the late 1800s and has a trademark hat: Buster Keaton.

Reportedly Mangold will be making a biopic about the legendary, stone-faced silent comedian, most famous for all-time classics like The General and Steamboat Bill Jr., which both feature action setpieces that put modern action movies, even the most fast and furious of them, to shame.

Weirdly, this isn’t the only movie about a beloved old-timey comedian (and former vaudevillian) that was recently announced. There’s also Raised Eyebrows, based on writer Steve Stoliar’s memoir about working for an elderly Groucho Marx – who could still drop a killer one-liner even in his 70s.

Up until now, the biopics we’ve gotten about classic comedians have either been mostly forgettable or insultingly bad. The recent Stan & Ollie, starring John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, about the iconic duo Laurel and Hardy, was okay. Back in 2000, there was a made-for-TV movie about the Three Stooges starring Michael Chiklis as Curly and produced by Mel Gibson, who thankfully didn’t cast himself as a more handsome/racist Moe. Then there was the much-reviled 1978 TV drama about Abbott and Costello: Bud and Lou.

The big problem with comedian biopics, in contrast to, say, music biopics, is that restaging classic comedy bits isn’t as simple as having an actor cover a song. Attempting to repeat famous routines with new actors usually just feels phony and weird, in a way that the best music biopics can sometimes avoid. Not to mention that these movies are all dramas and intrinsically give audiences the emotional antithesis of the reason why audiences fell for these performers in the first place.

Even the most prestigious example of the classic comedian biopic is wildly flawed; Sir Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin was acclaimed back in 1992, despite the fact that it mostly glossed over Chaplin’s history of preying on and emotionally-abusing underage girls, turning his creeptastic biography into typical Oscar-baiting treacle.

Maybe the subsubgenre of classic comedian biopics will improve once filmmakers start to take more chances, which is what has typically led to the best music biopics. Maybe Mangold will make his Keaton film entirely silent, who knows?

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Top Image: Kino Lorber/TriStar Pictures

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