When The Performer is Performed

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Some of the most memorable film performances are when performers play other performers. On one hand it’s not that difficult for a performer to identify with another performer — just as a dentist can identify with another dentist. On the other hand, filmmakers love making films about what they know. Note the lack of films about dentists.

The famous singer biopic is one of the most enduring film genres, and it almost always guarantees the star an Oscar (or at the very least a nomination). Five Oscars (and ten nominations) went to:

Jamie Fox as Ray Charles in Ray, Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Diana Ross as Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues, Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story, Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

But famous singers must have remarkably similar lives, because the films have remarkably similar plots:

– Performer overcomes a childhood of poverty, neglect, abuse, and/or the guilt of a sibling’s death, to hit it big in a local club;
– Performer skyrockets to fame, falls prey to alcohol and/or drug abuse, infidelity, and/or struggles with a jealous and/or abusive spouse;
– Performer overcomes personal heartbreak and/or addiction to make one last big comeback, and/or dies.

Real stars playing (kind of) fictitious stars:

Two of the greatest performances of stars playing stars (both in 1950) are Bette Davis in All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

Davis plays stage diva Margo Channing, whose life and career are overtaken by a seemingly innocent young woman named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Davis’ performance (and hairdo) echo stage star Tallulah Bankhead, but as Sam Staggs reveals in his book All About “All About Eve,” the film is actually based on a true story.

In the early 1940s, stage star Elisabeth Bergner hired a fawning young fan as her secretary, who allegedly parlayed the connection into an acting career of her own. The tale inspired Mary Orr’s story “The Wisdom of Eve” which begat All About Eve.

Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard is even closer to real life; silent film star Gloria Swanson plays silent film star Norma Desmond, who is desperate for a comeback. Although the delusional Desmond descends into madness, the film provided a spectacular comeback for Swanson.

As Staggs writes in his book Close-up on Sunset Boulevard, Swanson spent her later years obsessed with ill-fated efforts to adapt Sunset Boulevard into a musical, which would be her next comeback. But like Norma Desmond’s dream project Salome, Swanson’s dream would not come true — until Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard opened in 1993.

“Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!”

The most infamous show biz roman a clef is the deliciously bad Valley of the Dolls (1967) starring Patty Duke as booze and dope swilling star Neely O’Hara (based on Judy Garland) and Susan Hayward as Broadway diva Helen Lawson (based on Ethel Merman).

Garland was originally cast as Helen Lawson but was fired because of her own problems with booze and dope. She made off with her Travilla-designed costumes which she continued to wear at her concert appearances.

But it’s Neely O’Hara’s immortal quotes that capture the trials and triumphs of fame:
“I have to get up at five o’clock in the morning and sparkle, Neely, sparkle!”
“Even the bad publicity helps when you’re as big as I am.”
“The whole world loves me!”

About The Author

Adam Sandel is a playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, journalist and film critic living in San Francisco, California. He's the film writer for dot429 Magazine and is the host of the internet radio show "Happy Hour" on energytalkradio.com. adamsandel@yahoo.com adam@dot429.com

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