"This a very schmaltzy biopic. Which means it's additionally great"
Loverboy loves a biopic. Like, really really. Oh, those big old Hollywood A list star ones are ok. But sit us in front of a made-for-tv-biopic, preferably from the 70s, 80s or 90s and we’re in camp uberheaven, darlings. To celebrate this underrated, most glorious genre, Loverboy’s queen of kitsch Corinna Tomrley picks some of our favourites from the big and small screen
Sure, Feud was the thing of queer dreams, darlings. Not only was the best ever biography ever written brought to the screen (our late friend Shaun Considine’s Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud), but it starred two of the best actresses ever. We were plotzing every week at the lushness of that biopic series. But. Feud may never have happened had it not had the president of Mommie Dearest. Not only was Mommie Dearest a biopic about Joan Crawford, it starred an actress who could give Joanie a run for her self-obsessed, over-the-top, apparently can be a monster, money. That’s Faye Dunaway, of course. It is one of the campest things to ever grace the screen. And its scenery chewing possibly cost Fay her gorgeous career. Or the fact she’s a nightmare. Potatoes, tomatoes. The story may actually be horrific (Christina Crawford’s memoir not only spearheaded tell-all tomes of Hollywood’s elite but actually got people talking about child abuse), but the execution is pure hyperbole turned up to 11.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
We’d actually like to cheat a little and combine two Karen biopics. The TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story is a wonderful example of the genre. It fills you with joy, sorrow, pathos and glory at the wigs in equal measure. We first saw this one as kids and it may well have started our obsession. But then there’s Todd Hayne’s Superstar. Infamously banned by Richard Carpenter, this was an early offering from the director of Far From Heaven and Carol. And starred only dolls. Dolls acting out abusive, controlling parenting, pill popping, and anorexia. And the death of a superstar. Luckily for us this gem surfaces from time to time on the usual online channels and means we can catch this Haynes genius love letter in all its Barbie puppetry glory.
The Jayne Mansfield Story
If Jayne hadn’t died in that car accident in 1967, then I’ve no doubt that she would have been one of those actresses who would have starred as herself in her own story. But alas, her life was infamously cut short and so it was left to another to portray the larger than life uberglamatron. And who could have done that in the 1980 when this film was made? Perhaps none other than Loni Anderson. If you don’t know Loni, she was a big haired, big boobed, big personalitied blonde bombshell who was the star of sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati and the partner of Burt Reynolds for many years (to give an example of her fabulousness she had a chapel built on the grounds of Burt’s estate to give him the hint that she wanted him to marry her). She is something else and is almost more extreme than Jayne was herself – if that’s possible then Loni manages it. And who could they get to play Jayne’s muscleman Mr Universe husband in 1980? Why, Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course! And so, this pairing makes this biopic into a whole other animal. A curio. A whole goddamn mansion sized wardrobe of curiosities. It’s sometimes hard to find, but find it you can. And after you’ve watched it, see Jayne herself in her documentary about sexy Europe made in her last years and completed after she died, The Wild, Wild World Of Jayne Mansfield.
What’s Love Got To Do With It
Most star stories aint pretty. Most are downright nightmarish, as we’ve already seen. But that’s part of the appeal, if we’re honest. No one buys biographies or goes to see biopics to indulge in utopian star stories of glory, glamour and glitz, only. But not all star tales end in tragic death or their kids ratting them out. Sometimes they get over the horror in their lives to start a new chapter of survival and chutzpah. Who better to illustrate this than Miss Tina? And Angela Bassett as Tina Turner is just sublime and uncanny. It would be decades and American Horror Story before people really started to take notice of Angie again as a solid, wondrous actress. But those of us who have seen and love WLGTDWI have long known her power. And if you thought you couldn’t love Tina any more, watch this, take in what she endured and how she got herself out and rose from the ashes of an abusive marriage into career renaissance.
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a powerhouse who died horrifically at the hands of a woman who worked for her. And her story really needed to be told and captured and shared. But. The wonder of this biopic is not just the tale of the tragic Mexican-American superstar. It was a very early acting role for some chick named Jennifer Lopez. So, not only do we get to hear all those glorious Tejano hits but we get to see Baby JLo shake her voluptuous thing and act her ample ass off in the process. This is a very schmaltzy TV biopic. Which means it’s additionally great.
Sweet Dreams and Frances
So we’re cheating again and doubling up but it’s because these gems star the same star. 70s and 80s movie goddess Jessica Lange who was a serious ecktress, darlings. And as such she inhabits these characters… whilst simultaneously doing all her Langeisms to the nth degree. These were both ballsy no-nonsense women. One suffered at the hands of her no good abusive husband (Patsy Cline) and had a tragic early plane crash death at the height of her stardom. The other (Frances Farmer) had perhaps the most hellacious life ever, dropping out of Hollywood, alcoholic and committed by her controlling mother over and over spending years in nightmare-filled institutions. The tale of Frances Farmer may be exaggerated in the film (and apparently her partly ghost-written-by-her-possible-girlfriend memoir) but there is no doubt that this chick had it bad and badder than most. And Patsy… well we’re supposed to sympathise with her hideous husband as if they felt it needed a central love story to make her death more tragic. But we lost Patsy, not him. And I defy anyone who wasn’t a Patsy Cline fan going in from coming out besotted and signed up for life as a diehard countrypop convert to her bluesy western stylings.
The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York
Not only are these two biopics about the same person – Quentin Crisp – but they were played by the same actor, decades apart. Quentin Crisp called John Hurt ‘my representative here on earth’ and for good reason. Hurt captured someone who should have been inimitable. But he managed it. And gave us the tale of a man famous for being a ‘stately homosexual’, in his words, and the campest of all defiant camp sissies. Crisp was famous for his outrageousness, his wit, his memoir about being queer in England when it was illegal and his one-man shows about his life. Hurt captures all of this impeccably. When John Hurt died last year it was like losing Quentin Crisp all over again. And then some. For lessons in queer, sissy history, absorb and celebrate these two extraordinary men.
Behind The Candelabra
Another uber-nancy glory was Liberace. And we had to wait for his biopic but oh my oh my. We got more than we could ever have bargained for. I never thought I would see Michael Douglas play someone who was sympathetic. Yes, Lee Liberace was as big an asshole as most of the men Douglas has covered in his oeuvre. But we are kind of on side because Liberace was the campest of the camp, the biggest personality of his day. On stage, fabulousness personified. And a big old gay. But he hid it, of course. I mean, ‘hid’ as in sued anyone who said it out loud when it was plain as bespangled, feathered, gold-plated day. And his relationship with Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon) was abuse by cosmetic surgery as well as mental and emotional to boot. It’s not just the story and the star here. It really is the actors portraying these characters who make your jaw drop (Rob Lowe’s perpetually stoned, self-mutilated surgeon is something else plus). And this TV movie biopic was directed by indie powerhouse darling Steven Soderbergh!
Liz and Dick
This film wasn’t as good as it should have been. But don’t let that put you off, it’s still worth a glance for the curiousness alone. Maybe with friends. Whilst very drunk. Gay Glorious Goddess Lindsay Lohan hacks and croaks her way through the outrageously eventful and continuously hard life of one of the greatest to have ever lived: Elizabeth Taylor. The costume is on point but the casting was really bizarre. Lilo’s career was already dying, she was infamously unreliable and kind of too past it but also too young to be portraying this icon. But it’s so freakish it almost works. It kind of needs to be more extreme or something. We do recommend watching to the end, though. If only to see LiLo in 80s massive hair and outfit trying to play an older Liz through the power of costume alone.
Honorable mention should go to others who have portrayed Our Divine Goddess Liz: Sherilyn Fenn is Elizabeth Taylor in her TV mini series about the star; Helena Bonham Carter is pretty spot on in that BBC film.