All creations are, in some way, autobiographical. As the merging of imagination and experience, at least a little bit of the creator’s self is infused in their creation.
At times, it’s little more than a thematic hint, like Ethan Hawke’s discussion of his failing marriage in Before Sunset, as the actor himself went through a public break-up. It can also be the combination of memory and fantasy, like Guy Maddin’s eccentric documentary about his hometown and childhood memories, My Winnipeg. And other times, cinema becomes the therapist investigating familial turmoil, like Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell.
On occasion, the film itself becomes a revealing cinematic journal, one that makes its audience witting (or unwitting) voyeurs snooping through private lives with a depth tabloids can only dream of. These films allow the filmmaker moments of introspection, revenge, and confusion that make for compelling narratives, but even more fascinating autobiographies when you know what inspired them.
What Maisie Knew
What Maisie Knew doesn’t look like an autobiography; it’s a close adaptation of Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name. Yet actress Oscar-nominated actress Ronee Blakley (Nashville) just filed a defamation suit against ex-partner and Maisie co-writer, Carroll Cartwright, claiming his adaptation furthers “his own feelings of hatred for Blakley by maliciously and falsely portraying her as a selfish and uncaring mother.”
As it turns out, the adaptation is more than just an exploration of James’ work; it’s also an exploration of personal experience. Blakley and Cartwright had a relationship in the ’80s, one that resulted in the birth of their daughter, Sarah, and a long battle for custody that lasted over a decade. By Cartwright’s own admission, he decided to adapt James’ novel during his own battle, using his comprehensive notes about his daughter as a guide.
When the film was finally made and distributed, he called it the magic combination of “Maisie in the book, stealing from Sarah, and Onata the actress.”
The same year that Nora Ephron debuted as the screenwriter of Mike Nichols’ Silkwood, she published the autobiographical novel “Heartburn,” inspired by her mother’s lesson: “everything is copy.” Detailing the doomed marriage between herself and journalist Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame), the novel became a bestseller, and a second collaboration between herself and Nichols quickly followed, when they adapted the story into the Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson-starring 1986 dramedy.
While Ephron was pregnant with her first child, she discovered that Bernstein was having an affair with Margaret Jay. After four years of marriage, and one more child, the pair split, and she worked out her anger in “Heartburn.” In her words: “If I tell the story I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.” In an update for a new edition of the book she also noted that she “left out a lot of what happened,” but Bernstein was, and is, still mad that she wrote it.
Not all narrative autobiographies are bred from anger or revenge. Mike Mills’ sophomore feature Beginners reflects on the poignant life of his late father – a man who came out at the age of 75, and died of cancer just 5 years later. Instead of tell-all retaliation, Mills’ film strives to continue the conversation between himself and his father by exploring his fragmented memories and the impact of big, life-changing decisions.
As Mills explained during the release of the film: “It was bittersweet and beautiful to watch my dad flower into this much fuller, more engaged person. We started having real conversations about love and relationships – kind of like arguments about what you can ask for, what I was doing right and wrong. And then it was gone.” But the exercise isn’t meant to invoke voyeurism. “The intention was always to reach out, not to have people look in.”
Beware of a Holy Whore
Many of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films were bred out of personal experience. One of the best is the 1971 dark comedy classic, Beware of a Holy Whore. In the film, the cast and crew fall apart while waiting for the arrival of their director, who, in turn, can’t rein in the chaos (or reign in the chaos).
The film is inspired by the production of Whity, a spaghetti western that reads like the love child between Lars von Trier’s American trilogy and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Shot in Spain in 1970, the once-forgotten production was plagued with on-set melodrama that led Fassbinder to immediately explore the experience in a separate film – one that participants claim “more or less accurately records the paranoia and desperate needfulness that reigned on Fassbinder’s sets.”
Like Fassbinder, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon is known for infusing his life into his art, and sometimes the line blurred well beyond mere words on paper. His 1979 rom-com Chapter Two detailed the life of a writer who barely mourns the death of his first wife before he jumps into a whirlwind relationship and marriage with a charismatic actress, one that is soon plagued by memories of his first wife.
The film was based on the play Simon wrote about his marriage with actress Marsha Mason – one that led to a number of hit films, but also a troubled marriage. His story, however, wasn’t one of revenge. Simon only wrote Chapter Two with Mason’s consent, and while she didn’t want to play it on Broadway, she did play the fictionalized version of herself in the film.
Abuse of Weakness
Many autobiographical films strive to provide answers or resolutions, unless it’s a story straight from the mind of reflective director Catherine Breillat. In her 2013 film, Abuse of Weakness, she fictionalizes her post-stroke experiences, when she was manipulated by notorious con manChristophe Rocancourt.
In 2004, the filmmaker suffered a stroke that paralyzed one side of her body. During her long recovery, she met Rocancourt, and offered him a lead in one of her movies. Though he gave her companionship, he also took hundreds of thousands of Euros from her, which he was later jailed for, under what France calls an “abuse of weakness.” Though Breillat offers a closer look at her experience, she doesn’t strive to explain such a strange scenario; she lets the obvious questions of why remain unanswered.
Short Term 12
Too rarely, autobiographical cinema allows for something more than the uncomfortably personal – untold worlds told from experience rather than cinematic fantasy. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is more than just an excellent indie that showcased the talents of Brie Larson. It’s also an elaboration on his own experience working at a group facility in California.
Though the structure around the facility is fictional – the film is anchored by Larson’s protagonist – it is based on an old journal entry Cretton wrote about the experience with an “I don’t really give a shit” kid whose father didn’t show up for his birthday. The experience led to the epiphany that, “All of that anger that he took out on me had absolutely nothing to do with me,” which inspired Cretton to transform the story into a short film, and then the recent feature.