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The Real Reason These Biopics Never Happened

Movies get planned and scrapped all the time. Most just happen outside anyone's view. There are a million reasons why some fictional story starring an A-list actor never gets off the ground, and as a result, nobody pays any mind to it. But the same can't be said of biopics. When the subject matter is famous, everything about that movie becomes trade paper fodder. Every update, casting choice, or plain old rumor shows up in Deadline or The Hollywood Reporter, and it emphasizes how long even a supposedly time-sensitive project like a biopic takes to get made.

As implied, biopics also get scrapped all the time. Sometimes they're axed in loud and public ways. Other times, they manage to sneak by and quietly get canceled, and they're only revealed when talent connected to the project is asked years later. Either way, if you've ever wondered why some famous figure hasn't had their story told, here's why these biopics never made it to the screen. 

An Elvis miniseries was canceled

There's been no shortage of Elvis Presley biopics, dating back to 1979's made-for-TV movie starring Kurt Russell. There was the dramatic Elvis and the Beauty Queen starring Don Johnson in 1981, the 2016 dramedy Elvis & Nixon about the famous meeting between the King and the president, and the not literally true but emotionally true 2002 horror film Bubba Ho-Tep with Bruce Campbell. There's also Baz Luhrmann's 2022 Elvis movie starring Austin Butler and featuring Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker. 

Apple intended to add their own addition to the pantheon of Elvis biopics, with a miniseries streaming on Apple Music. There are few details on the project, except that Apple hoped it might become an anthology where they'd cover stars like Prince and Michael Jackson in future installments. Of course, there's a reason we're describing it in the past tense — it was canceled early in its development. Why? It was produced by the Weinstein Company. Deadline reports that the project was set up in the summer of 2017, and Apple dropped it almost immediately after The New York Times published the expose on Harvey Weinstein.

Chris Farley didn't get to make his Fatty Arbuckle biopic

Chris Farley is remembered by the public at large as a big, goofy, boisterous clown. It's an image that could hardly be further than the real him — a gentle and depressed man, ashamed of his girth and upset at being pigeon-holed. He spent his later years looking for a project that would show his dramatic talent, and he found that in the story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

One of the first Hollywood stars, Arbuckle was a comedic talent unlike anyone else of his era. He was a big man but strikingly athletic for his size, a skill that gained him a huge following and the respect of his peers. However, today he's best remembered for being accused of the rape and murder of silent film star Virginia Rappe. (He was exonerated after three trials but lost his career.)

Farley knew he was perfect for the role, and it would change how he was perceived. Unfortunately, his obsession with the movie overlapped with the worst of his addictions. He was never able to get the film together and died of a drug overdose in 1997 before he could see any part of it through. The project was seemingly revived in 2011, when Eric Stonestreet signed up to play Arbuckle in an HBO movie directed by Barry Levinson. There hasn't been a mite of news on the project since.

Fox dropped a movie about Patty Hearst

James Mangold became one of Hollywood's most in-demand directors after the smash success of Logan. In December 2017, Variety broke the news of his newest project – a drama about Patty Hearst's kidnapping and involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was based on Jeffrey Toobin's book American Heiress, and Elle Fanning was in negotiations to play the title role. The movie was set to be produced by 20th Century Fox, continuing their partnership with Mangold post-Logan.

Fast forward one month to the Golden Globes ceremony in 2018. Time's Up and #MeToo were central themes of the evening. Oprah Winfrey gave an impassioned speech after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award, decrying "a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up." Watching at home, Patty Hearst heard Oprah's powerful speech and found the courage to speak up herself.

On January 11th, Hearst released a statement, denouncing Toobin's book, Mangold's movie, and an additional CNN miniseries about her. She spoke about how painful it was to relive her kidnapping and that she'd already written a book on her experiences, claiming that Toobin's book was written without her authorization. "I refuse to give Jeffrey Toobin ... Fox, CNN or anyone else involved in these projects about my life the power to make me a victim again, or the power to provide a platform where victim blaming is okay." Hours later, Fox axed the project.

A long-planned Richard Pryor biopic was killed by association with Weinstein

Hollywood has spent years trying to make a biopic about groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor. Few men have been more associated with the failed attempts than Mike Epps. Before 2005, he was picked for the role by Pryor himself, but that particular project never came to fruition. Almost a decade later in 2014, Epps landed the role again, beating out Marlon Wayans and Michael B. Jordan for a new Pryor biopic by Lee Daniels.

The Daniels-led project was the closest anyone had come to making a movie about Pyror, and it had an A-list cast. Oprah Winfrey signed on as Pryor's brothel-running grandmother, Eddie Murphy as Pryor's father, and Kate Hudson as Pryor's wife. Tracy Morgan was even in talks to play Redd Foxx. But even with all this positive momentum, the project never got off the ground and quietly fizzled. During an interview with WBLS in 2018, Epps revealed why in blunt terms: "It was a Weinstein Company project so you might not see that one."

In October 2020, MGM won a bidding war for the rights to Pyror's story. Black-ish creator Kenya Barris is signed on as writer and director, and Richard's widow, Jennifer Lee, is attached as a producer. Here's hoping Hollywood finally nails this one.

A Gore Vidal biopic was axed in post-production due to Kevin Spacey's involvment

Most of the biopics on this list were shut down in pre-production or just couldn't get off the ground for one reason or another. Gore — a biopic about writer Gore Vidal — is markedly different. It was already done shooting and in post-production when it got axed, but it was a casualty of Kevin Spacey's #MeToo downfall. There was no option to copy All the Money in the World and reshoot Spacey's part in the movie with another actor, as he was playing the title role. Netflix, who was set to distribute Gore, dropped it and severed all ties not long after the accusations against Spacey started piling up.

Soon after Netflix dropped the movie, actors involved in the film began cautiously talking about it. Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Vidal's lover, Howard Austen, gave a measured response to The Daily Beast, saying, "It's heartbreaking when you put your heart into work, and it may not be seen. But it's important that there's sensitivity in the addressing of every aspect of what's going on. It's a complicated thing to talk about, and I believe we are going to be talking about it for a long time." He expressed hope that people might one day see the movie "in the light in which it was meant to be seen." A year later, BuzzFeed News acquired a copy of the shooting screenplay and — after finding multiple excerpts in which Spacey's character seduces young men and uses his power of them to get what he wants — deemed it unlikely to ever see the light of day.

Ryan Murphy's TV series killed Antonio Banderas' Versace movie

In August 2015, Antonio Banderas revealed on Instagram that he was attending a one-month intensive course at Central Saint Martins, a prestigious fashion and art college in London. The reason? He was prepping for the role of Gianni Versace. He was set to star in a movie about the murdered fashion designer by Danish director Bille August.

The movie was in pre-production when word came in 2016 that an upcoming season of American Crime Story would focus on the murder of Versace. The cast filled out through the early months of 2017, and in July of that year, Banderas revealed that his project had been canceled, in large part because of the upcoming Ryan Murphy series.

Banderas told The Hollywood Reporter that he ran into August at Cannes Film Festival, where they discussed their own project. "Because there was a TV show going on, that actually my friend Penelope [Cruz] is doing, we looked at each other and said, 'This movie doesn't make sense anymore.'" Banderas also acknowledged that with the benefit of hindsight, "I don't think I am Gianni." The two met several times, and Banderas recognized that the designer had a certain je ne se quoi he himself was lacking. There were also reports that August had a hard time getting the cooperation of the Versace house, who also had a frosty relationship with Murphy.

Taika Waititi was too busy to make a movie about Michael Jackson's chimp, Bubbles

In what's far and away the strangest entry on this list, yes, there almost was a biopic of Bubbles, Michael Jackson's pet chimpanzee. What's more, it was going to be stop-motion animation, and Taika Waititi was attached to direct.

The script topped the 2015 Black List, the annual survey of well-received yet unproduced screenplays. Taika Waititi signed onto the project in February 2017, alongside co-director Mark Gustafson, with Dan Harmon's Starburns Industries as producers. Netflix bought the package at Cannes in May 2017 for a reported $20 million. Waititi was thrilled for the movie, telling Deadline, "This film is not about Michael Jackson. ... It's about a chimpanzee's fascinating journey through the complex jungle of human life."

On May 15th, 2019, Waititi addressed the Bubbles movie during an interview with Deadline. He called it a "brilliant script" that he was hoping to develop between projects. The problem? Between finishing up Jojo Rabbit, other features, and some TV shows — likely including The Mandalorian — Waititi explained that, "I've actually had to start pulling out of other things, because I was just becoming too busy."

Just over a week later, Cartoon Brew confirmed that Waititi dropped out of the Bubbles project. His heavy schedule was given as the reason why, and Netflix — mostly interested due to Waititi's involvement — dropped the project, as well. Some, including Cartoon Brew and Deadline, also suspected the airing of HBO's Leaving Neverland made Michael Jackson a toxic asset.

Chris Benoit's family intervened to stop his biopic

The story of Chris Benoit is one of the most infamous and tragic events in wrestling history. The man was a worldwide wrestling legend, but a mere three years after winning the World Heavyweight Championship, he murdered his wife, Nancy, and seven-year-old son, Daniel, before taking his life in 2007. A combination of severe CTE, depression, grief, and a faltering marriage were all suspected as contributing factors.

Such salacious subject matter was always going to be fodder for a biopic. SRG Films announced via press release in 2011 that they would make a movie on Benoit's life titled Crossface, based on Matthew Randazzo's book Ring of Hell and written by new screenwriter Sarah Coulter. Nothing came of it, and the project went silent until September 2016, when new producers took on Coulter's script. This time they nabbed a director — Lexi Alexander, karate champion and director of cult classic Punisher: War Zone. Producer Alex Ginzburg even talked up Alexander to Wired in January 2017, saying, "She not only knows how to hit and punch but how to get punched, as well." 

That Wired profile was the last anyone heard of the project for years, and we finally got an answer why in January 2020. During an interview with Chris Van Vliet, Benoit's son, David, revealed that the film was being made without the family's permission and included scenes they understandably didn't want shown. The family went so far as to hire a lawyer, and production got shut down. David Benoit expressed interest in a documentary, and three months later, the season premiere of Dark Side of the Ring covered the tragedy with family involvement.

Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert's story is a bit too uncomfortable now

Russ & Roger Go Beyond was a planned movie about the unlikely friendship between sexploitation director Russ Meyer and film critic Roger Ebert, specifically their collaboration on cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Will Ferrell was cast as Meyer and Josh Gad as Ebert. They even nabbed John Carney of Once and Sing Street fame as director. With a solid cast and creative team, this was a movie set to take Hollywood — and likely awards season — by storm. Production was slated to begin in 2018.

Then the accusations against Harvey Weistein dropped.

Producer David Permut, who'd been trying to get the movie made for a decade, told MarketWatch, "We had funding and were ready to make the movie. That green button turned into a red button literally overnight the moment the Harvey news hit the world." He noted that a meeting with the creative forces in the movie changed things. "The consensus felt by our director and Will Ferrell and Josh Gad was it wasn't the right time to tell the story about a Hollywood filmmaker who makes sexploitation movies." Permut himself didn't sound all that sold on the cancelation, believing there was a way to tell a historically accurate story, but he wasn't totally broken up. "A green-lit picture went away as a result of the changing times, but it is for the betterment of the world if we want to advocate equality for everybody."

Joni Mitchell stopped a biopic about her, Carly Simon, and Carole King

In 2012, news broke that Sony Pictures was adapting Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us, a book about the careers of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King. Katie Jacobs, a producer and director on House, was slated to direct. Taylor Swift, who once told Rhapsody that Blue was her favorite album of all time, was reportedly in talks to play Mitchell. Alison Pill was often mentioned in connection with the role of King.

IndieWire reported that Allison Williams, Jessica Pare, and Analeigh Tipton were the leading candidates for Simon, and that Olivia Thirlby, Ari Graynor, and Zoe Kazan were all competing with Pill for King. However, Swift was quick to say that the casting wasn't confirmed, and that was about the last anyone heard of the project for a couple years

In a 2014 interview with The Sunday Times, Mitchell took credit for stopping the project. "I squelched that! I said to the producer, 'All you've got is a girl with high cheekbones. It's just a lot of gossip, you don't have the great scenes.' There's a lot of nonsense about me in books: assumptions, assumptions, assum­p­tions." Mitchell has always been a private person, and Weller's book was written without her input. Her statement was enough to shut down the project.

Mitchell still got asked about the movie afterwards, saying in a 2015 interview with The Cut that while she never heard Swift's music, she saw the physical resemblance and why she was sought for the role. "I don't know what her music sounds like, but I do know this — that if she's going to sing and play me, good luck." Rolling Stone later got clarification from Swift's camp, with a rep saying, "It's a shame Joni keeps being asked about a movie that Taylor was rumored to be a part of. But this rumor, like many others casting rumors, is not true."

A Hugh Hefner biopic was scrapped due to serious accusations against its director

A biopic on Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has been in the works for years. Producer Brian Grazer acquired the rights to Hef's life story sometime in the late '90s or early 2000s . Brett Ratner was attached to direct around 2007, and Playboy Enterprises and Hefner were active parts of production. Ratner and Hefner openly courted Robert Downey, Jr., right around his 2008 career resurgence to play the lead role. Nothing seems to have come of this, and the project bounced around Universal, Warner Bros, and eventually Ratner's own company, RatPac.

In October 2017, just a few weeks after Hefner died, Ratner announced in The Hollywood Reporter that Jared Leto was on board. "When he heard I got the rights to Hef's story," Ratner said of Leto, "he told me, 'I want to play him. I want to understand him.' And I really believe Jared can do it." Ratner even brought Leto to the Playboy Mansion to meet Hefner, though the man was in failing health and not seeing guests. This excitement lasted less than a month.

In November 2017, right at the start of the #MeToo movement, Ratner was accused by a half-dozen women of sexual misconduct. Ratner's career collapsed instantaneously, with Warner Bros. severing ties with him and his production company. Playboy Enterprises quickly halted development on the project, which still hasn't resumed with or without Ratner. Leto also contradicted Ratner, with his camp telling The Hollywood Reporter that he "is not and was not attached to a Brett Ratner-directed Hugh Hefner film, nor will he be working with him in the future."