Friday, April 18, 2014

Autobiographical Films: People Who Played Themselves in Movie Biographies

Many people have played themselves on film, but few have played themselves in film biographies. The reasons are obvious: the scarcity of motion picture biographies of living persons; the fact that “real” people do not necessarily make believable actors; and the image problem--it can look like you have a big ego if you portray yourself in a favorable light. 

Sports players dominated early film autobiographies, tracing the careers of baseball legend Jackie Robinson (The Jackie Robinson Story), track star Bob Mathias (The Bob Mathias Story), and football players Tom Harmon (Harmon of Michigan) and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (Crazylegs). None of these one-time actors went on to pursue an acting career (though Harmon’s son Mark eventually did). Boxer Joe Louis played a fictitious fighter in Spirit of Youth, although the character was clearly patterned after Louis. Irrepressible boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said: “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” So naturally, he played himself in the modestly-titled biopic The Greatest (1977). 

Actresses Ann Jillian, Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Patty Duke, and Suzanne Somers all played themselves in made-for-TV biographies. MacLaine’s film was adapted from her best-selling autobiography Out on a Limb. Ray Charles also appeared as himself in 1964’s Ballad in BlueTo date, the best autobiographical film remains 1955’s To Hell and Back, in which Audie Murphy traced his own rise from farm boy to the nation’s most decorated soldier in World War II to movie star. 

Although not autobiographical, Will Rogers, Jr., played his father in The Will Rogers Story (1952) and Marie Osmond played her mother in Side by Side: The True Story of the Osmond Family (1982). In the following list, the subject’s name is included in parentheses unless specified in the title: 

Spirit of Youth (1937)  (Joe Louis)
Harmon of Michigan (1941)  (Tom Harmon)
The Fabulous Dorseys (1947)
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Crazylegs (aka Crazylegs, All American) (1953)  (Elroy Hirsch)
The Bob Mathias Story (aka The Flaming Torch) (1954)
To Hell and Back (1955)  (Audie Murphy)
Rock Around the World (aka The Tommy Steele Story) (1957)
Ballad in Blue (aka Blues for Lovers) (1964)  (Ray Charles)
Smash-Up Alley (aka 43: The Petty Story) (1972)  (Richard Petty)
The Greatest (1977)  (Muhammad Ali)
Out on a Limb (1987 TVM)  (Shirley MacLaine)
The Ann Jillian Story (1988 TVM)
Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (1980 TVM)
Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story (1984 TVM)
Call Me Anna (1990 TVM)  (Patty Duke)
Keeping Secrets (1991 TVM) (Suzanne Somers)
Miss America: Behind the Crown (1992 TVM)  (Carolyn Sapp) 
Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (1994 TVM)
Never Say Never: The Deidre Hall Story (1995 TVM)
Private Parts (1997)  (Howard Stern)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

1 comment:

  1. Guess you could throw in Babe Ruth in Pride of the Yankees, though he's a supporting player to Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig.