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Not Every Scandal Needs a Movie

The Only Good Lance Armstrong Film Would Star Lance Himself

All right, I’m ready to go quietly; well, not quite quietly; still, I am prepared to surrender. If I had ever been a member of any of the circles of film critics, I would abjure that allegiance now. Deport me if you like: I will share an open boat with Piers Morgan. We can interview each other as we row across the Atlantic. But I do not want to have to see Al Pacino playing Joe Paterno.

This prospect was announced recently by the producer Edward Pressman. I know Ed; I know his wife and his son. When next I meet them I hope to give them a hug. But don’t do it, Ed! Do I, at long last, have to accept that even a very amiable movie producer, even one who made Badlands, Reversal of Fortune, and Hoffa, is still sometimes a snake-oil merchant?

Al Pacino has done great work, too, along the way (Michael Corleone, Tony Montana) but for a while now he has been doing a tango with “Al Pacino,” as if flattered and led astray by so many younger actors impersonating him. I keep the door open for the right project—and I am ready if wary about seeing Al as Phil Spector in an upcoming HBO film, yet not as eager as I am for Michael Douglas as Liberace. After all, in Silver Linings Playbook, after decades of in-his-sleep hack work, Robert De Niro reminded us and himself that he can act. Probably, Joe Paterno had a similar problem. Once Penn State had put up a statue of him, there was less need to be an alert coach and a living human being. Either he stopped looking or he had never had that habit. Football stills the mind in more ways than concussion. Paterno had over 400 victories (111 of them since vacated), and his salary was half a million a year, with endorsements and deals on top of that. But I don’t want to understand him. And I won’t see the film, not even if the role of Jerry Sandusky goes to Jon Voight, William Hurt, or Tommy Lee Jones.

Nor do I want to see the film of Lance Armstrong’s life, which Paramount announced in the very week of his Oprah testimony—that makes me think Lance is still running or pedaling. His testimony conveyed the same thing. Far from apology, contrition, or self-awareness, Armstrong seemed to be sinking deeper into the black hole of Lance. Whatever else, he is competitive and intense, and an actor himself. So which professional would have a chance in the part? Who could distract us from our memories of Lance’s lethal camera stare (something learned on so many Charlie Rose shows)?

It’s a tribute to De Niro to suggest that once upon a time he could have been Lance: lean, mean, preoccupied and “scary,” Lance’s own verdict on himself. (He’s writing the reviews before the film is made.) But what makes these roles in fiction so unappealing is the living performance. No written scene could be as startling or revealing as the Sandusky interview with Bob Costas, where he had to repeat the question, “Am I sexually attracted to underage boys?” As for Lance, he has had two scenes: being on a bicycle (as boring to watch as it must be to do), and being interviewed. I still wonder what drugs he is doing to get through the interviews, just as I marvel at the timing of the story about how he admitted to his son that he was a fake.

Sometimes you hear of movie people getting ready to do the Lindsay Lohan story (be prepared because the rush to the first turn will be as furious and dangerous as the start of the Indianapolis 500). But what do these people think Lohan has been doing these last few years? With a life on the brink of pornography, autopsy, and L.A. Law, she hardly notices scenario or role. She is doing herself. Her looks are going while we watch. She is available to trash her own projects—admitting that The New York Times expose piece on the making of The Canyons was pretty accurate before the public had seen the Paul Schrader film. 

And now there’s Manti T’eo, the Notre Dame linebacker who had this weird dying girlfriend. It’s a wonder that a player from Notre Dame (that’s what used to be Gipper U!) is into this kind of masquerade. And it helps us see that the whole fallen celebrity scene has really given up show business for sport. (Jodie Foster couldn’t even do her own coming out scene—she peeped and then she went back in, like a groundhog.) That’s where the moral issues of a great nation rest at the moment: should Pete Rose and Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame; can Lance Armstrong compete again, even if it’s at backgammon; and is Manti T’eo going to be a rival to Michael Strahan on Live! With Kelly and Michael?

The only chance for a Lance movie has Lance in the lead. This is a process that goes all the way back to Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War. He played himself in a movie called To Hell and Back (I don’t think it made it back) that was vitiated by the way Murphy looked so unlike “Audie Murphy”. He was boyish and shy and gentle—more suited to the coward turned hero in The Red Badge of Courage (another of his roles). Toby Jones and Anthony Hopkins have recently had their shot at Alfred Hitchcock, only to realize that Hitch (a profound and early self-publicist) had so overegged the pudding in his cameos, trailers, and TV spots that no one else could swallow it now. Daniel Day Lewis should be grateful that there is no surviving footage of Abraham Lincoln.

But Lance as Lance is truly scary, scarier, and the scariest. I think that movie is going to have to abandon cycling—apart from Breaking Away and Bicycle Thieves has there ever been a cycling movie? (And who recalls Breaking Away?) Lance could be a chainsaw (or bicycle chain) killer, a Jason, or simply a TV figure who regularly apologizes and then goes out and kills someone to assuage his wrath. Come to think of it, that is getting into American Psycho territory—and that’s another film Ed Pressman made, as well as an adapted novel by Brett Easton Ellis, who wrote The Canyons! That is not just a wrap, it’s a package with ribbons!