The Kennedys: representation or exploitation?

JFK becomes the latest subject in a long line of biopics

Unauthorised biographies are tricky enough, but biopics on film or TV even more so. For all our sophistication, we are primitively wired to believe what we see.

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It is surprisingly easy – after the first shock – to identify a good actor with the reality, even if the original is often before our eyes. Movement, manner, and a damn good wig can work wonders.

Helen Mirren looks nothing like the Queen but we accepted her as such; Tony Blair has little in common facially with David Frost or Brian Clough, but Michael Sheen is believable as all three.

I still confuse Sissy Spacek with Loretta Lynn after Coal Miner’s Daughter, and expect that in the forthcoming film, after a few minutes we will stop seeing Meryl Streep and only see Margaret Thatcher.

That acceptance explains why the subjects of biographical films, or their admirers, get nervous about biopics. If a writer says you did something, it’s just the writer talking. If “you” do it on screen, people may believe more deeply, and damage your legend.

Objections to the new series The Kennedys (starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie) have been strong enough to have the multi-million project pulled from the History Channel in the US, despite being – the network assured us – “produced and acted with the highest quality”.

Trouble began when Theodore Sorensen, veteran adviser to JFK, attacked the script as “malicious and vindictive”. Protests increased: the channel backed off, as if from a guard-dog.

Note that the same thing happened to The Reagans in 2003: dropped by CBS when some advertisers threatened to boycott it because Republicans objected to the depiction of the late President being insensitive about Aids.

Well, we shall see The Kennedys here, and probably enjoy it: their tale is a huge, riveting, flawed family saga in any terms (brilliantly rendered in Laurie Graham’s novel The Importance of Being Kennedy, narrated by an imaginary Irish nurserymaid to Joe Kennedy’s children).

But we can cringe at the thought of biopics, too: tremble at the fact that in the States they are beavering away on a William and Kate film. Its online trailers are wonderfully naff (Kate in the bath with a glass of red wine, Barbara Cartlandish dialogue).

This follows an atrocious made-for-TV Diana film, which tends to turn up on the kind of satellite channels you resort to in really depressing conference hotels.

Royals – and Kennedys – are, of course, special. Depicting politicians seems not to bother us much – Blair and Brown were sent up in The Deal, and at least half of America would cackle at a moose-shootin’ saga about Sarah Palin.

But when strong national icons are involved, and the attitude is less than worshipful, sensitivities can derail any project.

And time must pass: even keen royalists are now ready to let Colin Firth shout the F-word as George VI, but the television drama about Princess Margaret’s marriage rattled a lot of cages.

And if someone made a film now purporting to show the Queen’s life – playing dramatically on her grief and alarm at the Accession, and impertinently interpreting her marriage and parenting – they would be on tricky ground.

Note, too, that although Diana’s actions, flaws and romances are in the public domain, often in her own words, nobody over here has risked a serious film about her.

The Queen dealt only with the days after the Princess’s death and did not use an actress to play her. Charles was pretty low-key, too. Yet as a gift to screenwriters the subject could hardly be surpassed.

I have mixed feelings about biopics myself. There is a kind of unfair exploitation about them when they are at all critical of their subject: they simultaneously sell themselves on a name and blacken it.

Some are marvellous viewing, especially of big characters – Barbara Cartland, Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Mo Mowlam or that matchless portrayal of the young Thatcher in The Long Road to Finchley.

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But the best ones deal with a brief crisis, political or personal. Far more difficult to tackle the long view: the growing-up, the family relationships. Everyone, after all, owns their own life.