Now more than ever, biopics are a hot commodity in
Hollywood. Humans are a curious kind,
so having the opportunity to peer through the closed doors of someone’s life is
just too hard to pass up. Drama and
biography- it’s the perfect marriage between two aspects of storytelling that’s
supremely challenging to create, but incredibly rewarding if done right.
Recently I came across the criminally forgotten Man of a
Thousand Faces starring the great James Cagney. Now any reason to watch Cagney at work is a good reason. But when he’s portraying the great silent
horror icon Lon Chaney… well, that’s something completely different all
Man of a Thousand Faces was released in 1957 to a whimper
of a reception. Yes, it was nominated
for Best Original Screenplay, but perhaps audiences just expected more from the
film. That’s not to say that Cagney
slept through his performance. On the
contrary, I hold his performance in this film above his entire
filmography. I know, blasphemous to
some, but watch the film and tell me that he doesn’t use his eyes to express
his emotions just like Chaney did.
It’s uncanny. Admittedly, the
fact that Cagney looks nothing like Chaney is a small hurdle the audience has
to jump in order to enjoy the picture.
The reason as to why I said that biopics are notoriously
hard to get right is because sometimes the subject of the story is one who
enjoys their privacy or is perhaps the exact opposite. Because of that, there’s a fine line the
filmmakers must walk (which inevitably leads to unnecessary melodrama) in order
to ensure that the film will come off without a hitch and stay true to the
source. If you want an example of such
melodrama, look at key scenes in Ray and even Walk the Line. Both films are great and showcase wonderful
acting by the leads, but the story and the way it is presented addresses what
we as an audience have seen time and time again.
Man of a Thousand Faces is a different animal all
together. Chaney was notorious for
being secretive about his personal life throughout his career. Because of that, making a biopic on the man
would prove to be almost impossible, right?
Well, yes and no. Seeing as how
the film is just over fifty years old, and a number of Chaney biographies have
been published since, we can see where the filmmakers took the liberties in the
story. What they did was incorporate
short, key moments in Chaney’s life and elaborate on them, while making sure
the characters would react in a believable way as we’ve gotten to know them throughout
the film. Sometimes the story would
veer off in odd directions and, to be honest, sometimes the film falters
because of it. But that’s what makes
the film so great to watch. Knowing
nothing about the man (as opposed to Johnny Cash or Ray Charles) allows the
filmmakers to take a few liberties with the story. Now, with that in mind, one could ask where does biography end
and fiction begin? And my answer to
that… is too long for this article and can maybe be discussed in the future.
Having been made in the late 50s, Man of a Thousand Faces
feels weird, in that it contains all of the attributes that films had at the
time; heavy-handed lines of dialogue and the kind of music that forces you to
feel a certain emotion at the drop of a hat.
You’ll know what I mean when you hear it. Such characteristics are not necessarily a bad thing because
that’s how dramatic films of this sort were made at the time. If you remind yourself of that, it shouldn’t
be a problem at all.
What I find to be most impressive about Man of a Thousand
Faces is that Universal (the studio that Chaney himself worked for throughout
his career) wanted to pay tribute to one of their greatest actors in the form
of another great actor, James Cagney.
That is a compliment that I’m sure would’ve made Chaney blush. I mean, the scenes that moved me the most
were the ones that involved Chaney talking to his parents, who were deaf
mutes. The belief is that Chaney was so
good at silently relaying stories to his parents that theater performances and
silent films were a natural fit for him.
And I totally believe it because of Cagney’s performance throughout
those important scenes.
Given the fact that Chaney was a great make-up artist, it’s
a shame that the make-up effects for the film were lackluster. Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t feel it
necessary to focus too much on Chaney’s make-up skills, which is something I
don’t agree with. Even today, the
greats like Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero, Tom Savini and the late Stan Winston
were awed by Chaney’s abilities given what little resources he had. If there is one major flaw in the film, it’s
the fact that such an important moment in his life is almost glossed over.
As of late, there have been a number of Chaney fans that
have cried out for another film based on the man of a thousand faces. While I don’t think the story would be much
different (given the fact that Chaney’s life is still shrouded in much secrecy,
just the way he intended), the advances in special make-up effects would
undoubtedly elevate the film. While
Cagney’s performance will never be forgotten, I just want to say that (and I’m
speaking strictly in terms of appearance here) John C. Reilly would be a
dead-ringer for Chaney.
Regardless, Man of a Thousand Faces is a wonderful
film about being an outsider in an industry that doesn’t take kindly to those
who are different. But Lon Chaney made
them pay attention and with the help of the wonderful James Cagney, his legacy
will never be forgotten. Besides,
seeing soon to be uber-producer Robert Evans portray Irving Thalberg is a kick
in and of itself.