The way it wasn’t 

The summer release of Pearl Harbor, a historical epic that altered the time of its central event for dramatic purposes, has already provided a prime case study for a series that we might call “History vs. Hollywood.” Will such glaring revisionism (which filmmakers term dramatic license) take place during the more serious fall movie season, when the studios roll out their Oscar contenders? With a variety of films based at least in part on historical events, the chances are plentiful.

There’s no shortage of biographies during the final months of 2001, and no gamble seems bigger than the idea of Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. The erstwhile rapper and fresh prince became an unlikely action star by injecting his particular blend of brash confidence and cheeky humor into a genre which sorely needed both. Can he embody the graceful physicality and piercing intelligence of the Greatest? Maverick mainstream director Michael Mann obviously thinks so, and in Ali (opening Dec. 7), he focuses on the boxer and social firebrand, from the 1964 heavyweight championship victory to the infamous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Mann’s star in the hot-button The Insider, Russell Crowe, again tackles another troubled real-life character in A Beautiful Mind (Dec. 25). This time he’s John Forbes Nash Jr., math prodigy, Nobel Prize winner and schizophrenic.

The makers of Piñero (Dec. 7) can only hope that their biography of the Puerto Rican actor-poet-playwright (played by Benjamin Bratt) will duplicate the success of Before Night Falls and bring Miguel Piñero — who straddled New York’s high and low life during the 1970s and ’80s — to a wider audience.

This fall, you don’t even have to be famous to have a biopic chronicling your life. For Riding in Cars with Boys (Oct. 19), Penny Marshall directs that ultimate good-bad girl Drew Barrymore as author Beverly Donofrio, who came of age as a young single mother during the sexual revolution.

Then there’s a biography of sorts for one of history’s notorious unknowns, Jack the Ripper. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, American Pimp) head to a very different urban jungle — the seedy streets of London in 1888 — for From Hell (Oct. 19), which promises an intense portrait of the first mass murderer-media star. The Hughes brothers based the film on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and focus on the hunt for the gruesome Whitechapel killer through the eyes of an inspector (the always daring Johnny Depp) whose deductive powers are accentuated by extrasensory gifts.

Depp’s adopted country of France is the setting for three dramas set before, during and after the French Revolution. Le Pacte des Loups (or for English speakers, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Nov. 2) finds a scientist and an Iroquois — two social outsiders — arriving in the French countryside of 1765 to stalk a supernatural creature on a killing spree.

A different kind of carnage is set off by The Affair of the Necklace (Oct. 19), a phrase that refers to the last-straw fury of a French populace incensed by a slew of new taxes levied to support the extravagant royal court of King Louis XVI and his bejeweled, let-them-eat-cake queen, Marie Antoinette. This situation is personalized in the tale of noblewoman Jeanne Valois (Hilary Swank), who’s stripped of her family’s inheritance and vows revenge.

Rounding out the Gallic trio is another great tale of vengeance. The Count of Monte Cristo (Oct. 19) — the second film this fall (after The Musketeer) to come from the oft-adapted adventure novels of Alexandre Dumas — casts the intriguingly enigmatic Jim Caviezel as another wronged member of the nobility out to turn the tables on the alleged friend (Guy Pearce) who had him falsely imprisoned.

Martin Scorsese deals with another form of revolution in Gangs of New York (Dec. 21), an ambitious exploration of the crowded, cutthroat environs many immigrants found themselves in after arriving in the land of the free. Set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood of Five Points — and climaxing in the brutal, racist Civil War draft riots of 1863 — Gangs of New York is the flip side of The Age of Innocence (Dickensian muckraking versus genteel Wharton backstabbing). But Scorsese once again turns to that great chameleon, Daniel Day-Lewis, to anchor the story as a ruthless anti-immigrant gang leader (nicknamed Bill the Butcher) whose supremacy is challenged by a young Irishman (Leonardo DiCaprio) fueled by vengeful motives.

With the massively hyped “Band of Brothers” now on the air, World War II nostalgia has blossomed into a cottage industry, but box-office results have been iffy. That may change with Windtalkers (Nov. 9), which has action master John Woo at the helm and an interesting premise: the Navajo code talkers, Native American soldiers who used their complex language as a basis for a radio code the Japanese couldn’t decipher. In this telling, radio operator Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) has a stormy relationship with his personal bodyguard, Nicolas Cage.

Hollywood’s history is at the core of two films that deal with scandal and disgrace. Director and movie historian Peter Bogdanovich takes on a juicy bit of Tinseltown intrigue with The Cat’s Meow (Nov. 9), which delves into the 1924 death of director Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a star-studded cruise. Officially, it was heart failure, but the persistent rumor has Hearst — the married lover of actress Marion Davies — jealously killing Ince with a bullet meant for lothario Charlie Chaplin (played by that Brit bad boy in women’s frocks, Eddie Izzard).

The dark days of the Hollywood blacklist are given a sunny polish in The Majestic (Dec. 21). Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) finally gets paroled and goes for a Capraesque tone of cynical optimism in the tale of a blacklisted screenwriter (Jim Carrey in Truman Show mode) who loses his memory and ends up working at a small-town movie theater during the ultraparanoid 1950s. As always, Hollywood anxiously looks for the silver lining.

Return to the Fall Guide home page for more features and choice events.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]

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