Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Six years ago, Quentin Tarantino, ever shining the spotlight on pop culture, paid tribute to one of the most seemingly brilliant yet really most awful ideas Hollywood has ever come up with: casting famous people in their own biopics. But in the alternate-dimension world of his Inglorious Basterds, it seems as though the Nazis came up with the idea first, during World War II, showcasing it as a terrific concept for propaganda. As much as I’ve attempted to pitch a comeback for the idea (most recently with the Sully movie), I assumed Tarantino had managed to kill any chance of more of these rare wonders thanks to the negative connotation – we tend to associate propaganda with our enemies.
But the idea apparently remains alive and well. Variety reported this week that UFC champion Ronda Rousey is going to star in her own biopic, which will be based on her book “My Fight/Your Fight.” She is no stranger to playing herself on the big screen, of course, having made an extended cameo as “Ronda Rousey” in this summer’s Entourage. Perhaps it was that self-portraying performance that convinced Paramount that she was right to do more, but now actually genuinely based on herself, in this adaptation. And presumably the studio has forgotten about all the other fascinating yet forgettable times athletes and rappers and other ego-centric celebrities have tried to do the same thing.
To remind them and everyone else, here’s a little history of the idea:
The War Hero
The plot of Inglorious Basterds centers around the premiere of a Nazi film called Nation’s Pride, which stars a fictional celebrated German war hero (played by Daniel Bruhl) reenacting his greatest feat as a sniper who killed hundreds of Allied soldiers. Despite making its debut as the war was still going strong and therefore intending to function as a morale booster, Nation’s Pride nevertheless recalls the real Hollywood picture To Hell and Back, in which true American war hero Audie Murphy reenacts events against the Nazis that led to him receiving the Medal of Honor. That movie came 10 years after the fact, in 1955, at which time Murphy was already an established Hollywood actor, initially propelled by his notoriety from the war. It was also still an era when a movie like this still functioned as propaganda, promoting American power and maintaining the positive image of our WWII triumphs.
The Baseball Players
Murphy was one of the first famous people to play himself in a straight and honest biographical film, but we can go back 35 years earlier for the first biopic starring an icon as himself. Babe Ruth, who would later play his own part in a supporting role in the 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic Pride of the Yankees (starring Gary Cooper rather than the already deceased Gehrig), headlines the 1920 silent feature Headin’ Home, a film about the baseball legend that is more about myth making than truth telling. Despite him being the biggest thing in sports at the time, his film wasn’t a huge box office hit. Now it’s mostly ignored, except for some great stories of its making and aftermath, and we think of 1992’s The Babe as being the true biopic about the Great Bambino.
Next came another slugger: Jackie Robinson, who similarly made a movie very early in his baseball career. By 1950, when he starred as himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, he had already achieved a great deal in his few years in the major leagues since breaking the race barrier, but he still had many more good years ahead of him with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Technically, Hollywood didn’t produce this film, which is possibly the first instance of the concept involving a faithful portrait, though one studio had been interested in making the picture if it could be primarily focused on a made-up white character responsible for teaching Robinson how to play so well. Thankfully, instead Robinson got to be the lead in a low-budget B-movie with heavy patriotic undertones, basically propaganda for democratic opportunity in America. It took more than 60 years for him to get the biopic treatment again, with 42, by which time few remembered or realized there had already been one made.
A Brief Musical Interlude
The next decade brought a wave of music films where bands and singers (The Beatles, The Spencer Davis Group, et al.) appeared as themselves but in fictional stories rarely having anything to do with their actual backgrounds or lives. The closest to being a biopic might be 1969’s Alice’s Restaurant, which stars and is loosely based on a song that is somewhat based on a true story from Arlo Guthrie’s life. For anything more than that, foreign artists such as Swedish troubadour Evert Taube and Finnish con-artist-turned-pop-singer Pertti Ylermi Lindgren have played themselves for features loosely based on their own stories.
Return of the Sports Icons
By the 1970s, we were back to seeing the idea returning primarily to sports stars. There’s 1972’s low-budget biopic 43: The Richard Petty Story, which chronicles the life story of the racing legend as well as the rise of NASCAR. For some reason it does not feature “The King”’s father, fellow race car icon Lee Perry, as himself (A Christmas Story’s Darren McGavin played him instead). Neither has received a more proper biopic since, but Richard Petty has appeared as himself in a number of fictional racing movies, including Stoker Ace and Days of Thunder, as well as Swing Vote. He also voiced a vehicular version of himself for Pixar’s Cars.
Five years later, another rather cheap biopic was produced to seemingly cash in on the recent success of Rocky as well as the comeback of boxing icon Muhammad Ali. Such an arrogant star of the ring, of course he would want to also be the star of the screen portraying his own life story in 1977’s The Greatest. Unfortunately, he’s about as bad an actor as he was a great athlete, and unlike Ruth and Robinson he made the opposite mistake of doing his own portrayal too late in his career, way too aged to look right as the Cassius Clay of the early ’60s. Ali, too, wound up with a replacement biopic decades later – Michael Mann’s Ali – and for his much greater portrayal, rapper-turned-actor Will Smith (who actually, ironically wasn’t much younger than Ali was in The Greatest) earned his first Oscar nomination.
Eventually rappers-turned-actors would try their own hand at playing versions of themselves in movies loosely based on their own lives. In the semi-autobiographical and names-changed 8 Mile, Eminem aimed and succeeded to show his roots coming up in the Detroit hip-hop scene. A few years later, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ used 8 Mile as a model in an effort to have 50 Cent similarly portray a character based on himself in a film partly on his hard, drug-dealing life. Both of these are a kind of image-perpetuating propaganda reselling the respective reputations, and both were given the chance of being quality works, each of them budgeted well and directed by a prestigious director. Nowadays, it’s more likely for a rapper’s kid to play his parent in a biopic than for the real deal to be cast.
Before the rappers, comedians took their turn. Richard Pryor co-wrote, directed and starred in his own sort-of biopic, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, which fantastically focused on his drug problem and particularly an infamous accident where he severely burned himself. Then, 10 years later came 1997’s Howard Stern in Private Parts, based on his autobiography of the same name detailing his rise to become the most famous talk radio host in the country. The movie earned more favorable reviews than any other biopic starring its own subject, except To Hell and Back. One of the ways it works is in how much fun it has fun with the idea, not trying to disguise the fact that Stern is clearly not as young as he’s playing much of the time.
It’s interesting that Rousey had that stint in Entourage, because today it’s so normal to see famous people playing themselves in small does, cameos in movies and TV shows, and in that sort of non-serious setting where usually the portrayal is fictionalized (see LeBron James in Trainwreck, which is meanwhile also very close to being an Amy Schumer biopic starring herself). There’s a self-awareness and comedic edge in that arena that Rousey ought to take with her to the “My Fight/Your Fight” adaptation.
She could have the benefit of being like Murphy, the greatest success of these films, because she similarly has already begun a jump to acting, previously co-starring in the action sequels The Expendables 3 and Furious 7, neither of which were known for taking themselves seriously either. If Rousey wants to do it right, she needs to have a lot of fun with the idea. There’s no way she’s going to win an Oscar for playing herself, so she shouldn’t even try to go in that direction. Maybe she can even do something with a tone similar to that of Entourage, and near the end of the movie she can have the guys from that movie play themselves in cameos in her movie.