Thursday, 13 January 2011

Sign of the times

Who doesn't love a good biopic? For audiences, there's the catharsis of a good old rags-to-riches tale. For screenwriters it's a script that practically writes itself. And for the actors, it's pretty much the easiest way of securing an Oscar nomination, short of playing a mentally-challenged Holocaust survivor.

In fact, the only problem with the genre is that it's so formulaic. Whether it's a film about a sporting legend or a country & western singer, there are certain bases that always need to be covered.

It all starts with abject poverty and despair, as our forlorn hero struggles to make ends meet. Hidden away from the world's prying eyes, they secretly indulge in whatever their latent talent happens to involve, from playing the double bass to hanging out at the driving range.

And then comes the turning point, as a kind-hearted would-be sponsor notices their innate ability and encourages them to pursue their dreams. But the path to celebrity is fraught with peril, as out naive fish-out-of-water struggles to adapt to their luxurious new surroundings. Drugs, alcohol, slutty ne'er-do-wells - there's temptation everywhere. And our heroic figure can only say 'no' so many times.

After the rise, comes the inevitable fall. Contracts are torn up, money is frittered away, and suddenly everything is in jeopardy. It looks like our hero is heading back to the overpopulated shack or under-waterproofed cardboard box where they started out. Thankfully, there's always the third-act redemption to drag them back from the brink and set them back on the right course. Then there's just the reprise of the theme song and the "It's an honour just to be nominated" speech to worry about.

So the challenge for movie producers, is how to put a fresh spin on such an established format. But it seems as though Ted Williams may have the answer.

Less than two weeks ago, Ted was just another homeless man, begging for money at the side of the road. When local videographer Doral Chenoweth spotted Ted's sign advertising his 'voice-over skills', she interviewed him and uploaded the film to YouTube.

Quicker than you can say "Copy of the Big Issue?", Ted was a worldwide internet phenomenon. Because when he said he had voice-over skills, he wasn't kidding. The man has the kind of smooth, soothing baritone that makes Barry White sound like Fran Drescher.

Within a week of his discovery, Ted was recording TV ads for Kraft Foods, plugging their macaroni and cheese mix, and being interviewed by every news anchor in America. He was even reunited with his long-lost mother in a live broadcast.

A few days later, as the ink was still drying on his lucrative contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ted was picked up by the police for a run-in with his daughter at a hotel in Los Angeles. Forty-eight hours later, and Ted has made an appearance on Dr. Phil's talk-show to address his alcohol and drug-dependency issues. Today it was announced that he's heading for rehab. It's enough to make Andy Warhol's wig spin.

The upside of all this, is that we may have finally figured out a way to refresh the stale predictability of the conventional biopic. When 24 ended last year, it left a gap in the market for a drama with a ticking clock in the corner of the screen. Given the speed at which Ted was discovered, celebrated, arrested, diagnosed and packed off to rehab, it's possible that his story could be told in real-time. Throw in a couple of Arabian terrorists, and some torture with a set of bulldog clips, and everyone's happy.

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