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Hollywood's Biopic Fever: 5 Fact-Based Films Released This Week


It is a big week for movie biographies. Opening today are fact-based films about a Supreme Court justice, two semi-famous authors, an infamous artist and a man who refused to let polio defeat him. Critic Bob Mondello says that Hollywood often gets biopic fever, but five in one week is a lot.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You know every beat of a biopic before you go in - humble beginnings, hint of greatness, triumph, setback, heartbreak, uplift. There is a formula to these things, whether applied to the man who wrote "Winnie The Pooh"...


WILL TILSTON: (As Christopher Robin) Can you think of a good name for a donkey?

DOMHNALL GLEESON: (As Alan Milne) Eeyore.

MONDELLO: ...Or a Supreme Court justice in training.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This here's Mr. Thurgood Marshall. The man is an attorney. You will treat him with the respect that he deserves.

MONDELLO: An origin story is an origin story. A nobody becomes a somebody and, as with superheroes, not without a struggle - an enormous struggle in the case of the Englishman stricken with polio in the film "Breathe." In real life, Robin Cavendish, paralyzed from the neck down, fought his doctors so they wouldn't warehouse him in a hospital. Then he made that same escape possible for others. Cue inspiring music.


ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Robin Cavendish) When I first became paralyzed, I wanted to die. My wife told me I had to live.

MONDELLO: A biopic like "Breathe" traces the whole arc of a life.


GARFIELD: (As Robin Cavendish) I don't want to just survive. I want to truly live.

MONDELLO: The biopic "Marshall," by contrast, captures just a slender slice of a life. Thurgood Marshall made history when he became the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967. But the film "Marshall" takes place decades earlier in 1940, and it covers just one case where the young Marshall, banned from speaking in court, had to play puppet master for an unnerved white attorney.


CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Thurgood Marshall) I need a partner who the jury can relate to.

JOSH GAD: (As Sam Friedman) Sam Friedman.

BOSEMAN: (As Thurgood Marshall) Good to meet you, Sam. Hey, give me a hand with these, would you?

GAD: (As Sam Friedman) What have you got in here, cement?

BOSEMAN: (As Thurgood Marshall) Guns - books, Mr. Friedman.

MONDELLO: The tight focus helps make "Marshall" more courtroom drama than biopic, but that approach wouldn't work with what you might call scribbling and sketching flicks - films about writers writing and artists making art. It's tough to make the artistic process feel urgent on screen, so in movies like "Goodbye Christopher Robin," filmmakers gravitate to stories that have something else going for them.


TILSTON: (As Christopher Robin) Are you writing a book? I thought we were just having fun.

MONDELLO: In this case, that something else is post-traumatic stress disorder. Writer A.A. Milne's young son, Christopher, has learned to talk him down from panic when, say, they're walking in the woods and hear buzzing that reminds him of World War I fighter planes.


GLEESON: (As Alan Milne) They'll be gone in a minute.

TILSTON: (As Christopher Robin) Bees are good, aren't they? They just want to make honey.

GLEESON: (As Alan Milne) Yes. I completely forgot about bees.

MONDELLO: It's a small leap from there to the amusing way bees and honey figure into "Winnie The Pooh." It's a similar leap in "Professor Marston And The Wonder Women" if you know that the comic book's creator had a hand in creating the lie detector.


CONNIE BRITTON: (As Josette Frank) You've incorporated the lie detector test into the "Wonder Woman" comic, her golden lasso. It forces criminals to tell the truth.

LUKE EVANS: (As William Moulton Marston) That is correct.

MONDELLO: But audiences may balk at the notion that the comic books were also inspired by his fascination with bondage and his three-way relationship with his wife and their mistress.


BRITTON: (As Josette Frank) She's an Amazon princess that lives on an island of all women. And all her friends and helpers are sorority girls who have spanking parties. And everybody fights Nazis and rides in an invisible plane.

EVANS: (As William Moulton Marston) Yes.

BRITTON: (As Josette Frank) Bill, we love you truly (laughter) so much, but nobody - and I say this with all the compassion and truth in my heart - nobody will ever publish this.

MONDELLO: Folks said the same thing to Tom of Finland, whose story is told in another of the week's biopics. Tom is an artist who's homoerotic, fetishy (ph), often pornographic drawings of hyper-masculine men became a worldwide phenomenon a few decades ago in the gay community.


SEUMAS F SARGENT: (As Doug) Tom of Finland, I'm Doug of California.

MONDELLO: Tom of Finland didn't do effeminate...


SARGENT: (As Doug) These men are moved by you, Tom.

MONDELLO: ...Which arguably changed the gay community's self-image.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You make these different boys feel special, beautiful.

MONDELLO: "Tom Of Finland" makes the case for its protagonist exactly the way the other films do for theirs, the way countless films have before them. Is this a formula for a cinematic art? Well, there have been Oscar-winning biopics. Think "Gandhi." And the biography is a time-honored form. Shakespeare wrote bio dramas, after all - "Richard III," "Henry V," those few - those happy few. But few would argue that the bard's history plays are the equals of "Hamlet" or "Othello." Free writers up to rely on their imaginations, and you also free them up to do better than real life, at least in dramatic terms. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOCEAN WORKER'S "RIGHT NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.