Personalities as disparate as John Reed, Joan Crawford and the Emperor Caligula have all surfaced as the subjects of film biographies lately, and the trend toward real people movies doesn't seem ready to slacken. These days, studios are doing a brisk business in bios with one word titles: "Gandhi," "Frances," "Hammett" and "Fitzcarraldo," to name four of the most intriguing projects now in progress (in the case of the latter two, extremely halting progress.) "Gandhi," a $22-million epic directed and produced by British actor Richard Attenborough, has just been picked up by Columbia Pictures in that company's largest ever commitment to an outside production (a minimum of $12 million in advertising and promotion, says Columbia President Frank Price). Starring Ben Kingsley as the Indian spiritual leader and originally inspired by Louis Fischer's 1962 biography, the film will be released next December, both here and, says one studio source, "all over the place -- that means L.A. and India and most places in between."
"Frances," meanwhile, will find Jessica Lange portraying Frances Farmer from childhood to film stardom to jail to a lobotomy; the project is one that coproducer Marie Yates has been pursuing since 1976. It finally found a home at Mel Brooks' Brooksfilms, where it will receive a treatment similar to that company's "Elephant Man": "Keep Mel's name out of the spotlight so people know we're serious." "Elephant Man" writers Chris DeVore and Eric Bergan have begun work on the script.
"Hammett" and "Fitzcarraldo" are more problematic; smart betting money in the industry has long said that neither would reach the inside of a theater. "Hammett" was begun at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in early 1980, with Frederic Forrest starring as the detective-writer Dashiel Hammett, but Coppola's financial woes -- that also played havoc with his Las Vegas saga "One From the Heart" -- forced the project to a halt after a couple of months. Director Wim Wenders is now ready to try again with lots of the same actors attempting to look two years younger, plus a few new actors (Peter Boyle, for one) and a new coproducer, editor and cinematographer.
And "Fitzcarraldo" -- based on the life of a turn-of-the-century rubber tycoon who built a mountaintop opera house in South America -- has been nothing but headaches for director Werner Herzog, who's down in Peru attempting to make his grandest, most expensive film yet. Star Jason Robards left with a stomach virus; costar Mick Jagger couldn't wait around in the jungle for new leading man Klaus Kinski and left to vacation in Buenos Aires; the Peruvian government became antsy and difficult; and the much-needed Urubamba River dried up. Undaunted -- or not very daunted, at any rate -- Herzog promises the film by the 1982 Cannes film festival and says, in a documentary about the making of "Fitzcarraldo" directed by Berkeley filmmaker Les Blank, "I don't know why I am doing this. I only know that the work I do is not undignified."