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From left: Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Clint Eastwood, Alek Skarlatos

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018

As Clint Eastwood’s latest directing effort, “The 15:17 to Paris,” opens this weekend, it joins an exclusive club of biographical films that star the real-life subject. Or in this case, subjects.

“The 15:17 to Paris” re-creates the 2015 story of three young Americans traveling through Europe who, along with three other passengers, thwarted a terrorist attack.

And in a most unusual move — especially for a major, big-budget Hollywood production helmed by an A-list director — the three young men who took part in this remarkable act of heroism play themselves in the movie.

It’s a dicey choice because, although Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler are affable personalities, as demonstrated by their talk-show appearances following the incident, and more recently to publicize the film, whether they can act in a way that is not just natural and realistic but also compelling enough to hold an audience in thrall for 90 minutes, is definitely a crapshoot.

But it’s not a first. There are others who have played themselves in biographical pictures, with varying degrees of success.

     

And not the myriad actors who played distorted or offbeat versions of themselves, like John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich” (1999) or Neil Patrick Harris in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004) or even Eminem in “8 Mile” (2002), a fiction film that resonates with his real-life experiences but is not actually autobiographical.

No, there are other movies that depict the real-life events of extraordinary people — and star the very people whose lives are profiled.

Probably the most successful was Audie Murphy, one of the most highly decorated American combat soldiers of World War II.

Murphy played himself in the 1955 film “To Hell and Back,” a cinematic adaptation of his autobiographical book and a fine war picture by any standard. True, the script embraces war-movie clichés but it also offers a compelling look at Murphy’s life and is filled with harrowing action scenes depicting the battles that brought out his heroism.

Of course, Murphy had a leg up in the acting department. Following the war he pursued a Hollywood career and by 1955 was already a movie star, primarily in B-westerns, but also in films from top directors John Huston, Budd Boetticher and Don Siegel, and he had co-starred with such stars as Alan Ladd, Donna Reed and Tony Curtis.

 

“To Hell and Back” was a big hit with both critics and moviegoers and made its way into the year-end top 10 as one of 1955’s biggest box-office successes.

Others who played themselves in autobiographical films are history-making baseball player Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), Olympic Gold Medalist Bob Mathias in “The Bob Mathias Story” (1954), folk singer Arlo Guthrie in the off-kilter comedy “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969), boxing legend Muhammad Ali in “The Greatest” (1977) and shock-jock radio star Howard Stern in “Private Parts” (1997).

Each of these films shows off its respective star in an engaging portrait — but perhaps it says something that the only one who went on to achieve a successful movie career was Murphy, until it was cut short by his untimely death in a plane crash when he was just 45.

 

And perhaps one other autobiographical film that should be added to the list is “Call Me Anna” (1990), a TV movie about actress Patty Duke’s struggles with bipolar disorder throughout her life.

The film focuses primarily on her younger years of struggling to overcome her mental illness, with Duke played by a young actress — but during the final 20 minutes or so she plays herself.

Duke, of course, had a long film-and-TV career, beginning with “The Miracle Worker,” in which she starred both on Broadway and in the 1962 film. The latter won her the best supporting-actress Oscar when she was just 16. Duke died in 2016 at age 69.