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Knight at the Movies: Amelia
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2009-10-28

This article shared 6378 times since Wed Oct 28, 2009
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The endless fascination with aviatrix Amelia Earhart—the woman responsible for a lot of firsts in the air ( and on the ground ) who tragically disappeared somewhere in the Pacific in 1937—is ongoing.

She's been the subject of countless books and television specials, and at least nine movies have been based on her story. Known as "Lady Lindy," in part because of her physical resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, Earhart has always held a particular place in the hearts of the queer community. It's not just for her feminist spirit and tireless support for women's causes but also because rumors have swirled—as with other figures of her day—of a hidden lesbian sexuality or, perhaps, a bisexual one. Her close friendships with many other prominent lesbians; her open marriage to publisher/entrepreneur George Putnam; and her refusal to conform to other rigid conventions of her day certainly point in that direction.

This all makes director Mira Nair's new biopic, simply titled Amelia, all the more dispiriting. Working from a by-the-numbers script by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, Nair's movie ( executive-produced by star Hilary Swank ) reduces the story of this feminine icon into a typical Hollywood romantic triangle, albeit one with some beautifully staged aerial set pieces. ( As always, Nair's striking color palette includes a lot of vivid shades of red. ) Instead of character depth, however, we get a series of Earhart triumphs—each cued by a title card and some vintage footage—a sort of postcards from the air highlighting Earhart's greatest hits.

In between these sequences, Swank—a dead ringer for Earhart with the same toothy smile—looks snazzy in her '30s pants and aviator jackets, and speaks in a flat, no-nonsense twang slightly reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn. Swank enters into an uneasy relationship with Richard Gere, as Putnam. Gere, who looks great, plays another cynical star-maker ( very much like Billy Flynn in Chicago ) who pulls the strings behind the scenes, manipulating the press and public into turning Earhart into a national celebrity. We see that Earhart is uneasy with this and the constant pleas from Putnam to make a commitment but what we don't see is any real attraction between Swank and Gere—or Swank and Ewan McGregor ( as the competitor for her affections ) , either.

McGregor plays Gene Vidal ( father of gay icon and author Gore, who is played in the film as a child by William Cuddy ) , who worked with Earhart on a number of projects and headed the government's aeronautics division. As the affair with Gene takes off, everyone acts very grown-up, and even little Gore asks Amelia matter-of-factly, "Why can't you marry both?" But for reasons that aren't entirely clear, Earhart ends up back with Putnam for the duration and McGregor pretty much drops out of the movie.

In the final long sequence, when Earhart and her alcoholic navigator are attempting to fly around the world ( which also acts as a larger framing device for the picture ) , Putnam is shown for about the third time in the film edgily sitting at a radio transmitter tracking cool-as-a-cucumber Earhart's progress. The repetition dulls the impact of this final tragic flight in which Earhart's plane disappeared amidst controversy that continues to this day.

As for Earhart's lesbian proclivities, there are a few "daring" hints. In the midst of the affair with the McGregor character he spies her admiring a lady's legs and says, "You're the only woman I know who points out other women" but this isn't elaborated on. And a sequence in which Amelia takes Eleanor Roosevelt ( played by lesbian actor Cherry Jones ) flying at night—and calls to mind the romantic night-flying sequence between Kate Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator—cries out for elaboration, but doesn't get any.

Sadly, we have not gotten much exhilaration or much of a real feeling for Earhart's character beyond a series of platitudes spoken—often in voiceover—like, "I want to be a vagabond of the air." Swank, who registers best with audiences when she is victimized emotionally or physically, doesn't offer much beyond her uncanny resemblance to Earhart and that dazzling smile. To be fair, a "feel good" biopic isn't nearly as interesting or compelling as one that portrays a life filled with slings, arrows, drug addiction, character oddness and lots of self-deprecation. The forthright, optimistic Earhart, as a subject, has little in common with Edith Piaf, Ray Charles, Howard Hughes and Johnny Cash—all subjects of recent successful biopics that audiences have loved.

Nair may have reckoned with this and opted instead for lensing what is a patently old-fashioned Hollywood biopic ( and Gabriel Yared's sweeping music—as much a presence in the film as the stars are—certainly suggests this ) . This approach is not dissimilar to 1943's Flight for Freedom, a Rosalind Russell movie based on Earhart's life or Kate Hepburn's 1933 film Christopher Strong. Taken in those well-worn but somewhat satisfying terms, Amelia will not disappoint too badly. Just don't expect it to soar too high.


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