When it got reported last week that there was new movement on a potential John Belushi biopic that was going to be put together by writer/director Steve Conrad, everyone’s initial reaction was to brainstorm what working actor would be the best choice to hire to play Belushi. The reports were that Conrad had met with Emile Hirsch and Adam Devine, and that there may have been some interest in Joaquin Phoenix. These were interesting choices that pointed to the fact that Conrad was more interested in hiring an actor who could convey the dramatics of Belushi’s private moments rather than one who could recreate the unique power and physicality of his comic performances, and they gave us a hint as to what to expect in regards to what this Belushi biopic will be all about.
The new development in the story is Borys Kit’s report that Emile Hirsch has beat out the competition and has been hired for the Belushi role. On the surface, this seems like a completely fine choice that’s pretty hard to complain about. Hirsch is one of the most talented young actors in the business, he’s shown a good deal of versatility to date, and he’s likely a better choice than going with whatever chubby comedian is currently the most en vogue (Maybe Galifianakis? Could he stop winking long enough to play a role like this?) like most productions would. But once you actually picture him in the part, it starts to become clear that it’s uncomfortable imagining anyone other than John Belushi being John Belushi.
Right off, there are some big questions as to whether Hirsch can pull off the role at all. He’s certainly not stout enough to resemble Belushi at the moment. And there’s some question as to whether he can project both the powerful hilarity and the intimidating danger that Belushi naturally exuded. We’ve seen Hirsch play goofy in things like Prince Avalanche, but it’s not clear if he has the natural timing to go directly for laughs, and we’ve seen him flirt with danger in things like Into the Wild, but it’s not clear if he can really project danger himself. Usually his characters can be described as quirky trifles, so he’s going to need to muster up a lot more presence and authority here than he ever has before.
Whether Hirsch is the right performer for the job isn’t really the point though. He’s more than proven himself to be a talented actor, and it’s very possible that he could surprise everyone here by coming up with something even greater than what we’ve already attributed to him. The real problem with this role is that even the best portrayal of John Belushi possible could prove to be something that audiences don’t want to see. The whole reason for making a biopic about an iconic entertainer in the first place is that there was something special about said entertainer. Likely they had some one of a kind quality that hasn’t been matched or recreated since, or the idea of bringing them back to life on the big screen wouldn’t sound so appealing.
Historically though, even when the performances have been exceptional, biopics about entertainers who are thought of as being icons have never done well with audiences. Most everyone agreed that Val Kilmer’s channeling of Jim Morrison was spooky in its authenticity, but nobody really much liked The Doors. Much was said about how thoroughly Jim Carrey sunk himself into the role of Andy Kaufman, but everyone would still rather just re-watch footage of Kaufman’s work than sit through Man on the Moon again. Perhaps the problem is that when you bring the icon back to life it loses its mythic status and becomes real. When it really comes down to it, who would want to trade a legend for a man?
It’s likely that an Emile Hirsch portrayal of John Belushi is going to be interesting to watch, and it’s likely that it’s even going to contain some moments that wow us, but it’s more likely that fans don’t actually want to see how the sausage got made when it comes to Belushi’s legendary career to begin with. They want to see Belushi as the demigod who exists on the dorm room poster, not as a man full of foibles whose life went down an all too tragic and all too familiar path. Give us Bluto spraying mashed potatoes out of his mouth and smashing acoustic guitars, not a kid from Chicago who battled the same demons that too many kids from Chicago still do today. We put our heroes up on pedestals because we want something to aspire to. We want to believe that there’s something beyond the rotting reality of this temporary, mortal existence. To remind us otherwise seems to miss the whole point of myth-building, and it’s the sort of strategy that’s guaranteed to piss us off, even if we don’t consciously realize that’s what’s happening.
That said, maybe Conrad and Hirsch have some tricks up their sleeves that past makers of entertainment biopics haven’t pulled out yet, and maybe they’ll end up presenting us with something unexpected and amazing. Unexpected and amazing is exactly what we’re hoping for every time we step into a movie theater in the first place, and it would be foolish to claim that such an experience couldn’t possibly be mined from a life that affected as many people as profoundly as Belushi’s did. Let’s hope for the best, even while we remember Belushi as being better than the best.