Filmmakers Get Personal to Share Their Own Family Stories in Contending Docs

Arthur Miller - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HBO

"I felt like I should shoot him in his natural habitat, or no one ever would know what he was like," says 'Arthur Miller: Writer' director Rebecca Miller on capturing her father's life and work through decades-old footage.

Artists trained their lenses on fellow artists in notable 2017 documentaries that explore the challenges of turning creativity into a career, the tightrope between art and commerce, and the squishy line between genius and crazy.

For a few, that meant telling the story of their own relatives, as was the case with both Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold and Arthur Miller: Writer. "I felt like I should shoot him in his natural habitat, being himself, or no one ever would know what he was like," says director Rebecca Miller, who pulled together interviews she did with her father decades ago. Actor Griffin Dunne says of Didion, his aunt: "I felt horrible for making her relive some of the worst moments of her life, but she's a journalist, and she probably would have lost respect for me if I didn't."

Other films delved into the madness of moviemaking. In 78/52, Alexandre O. Philippe explores Alfred Hitchcock's motivations for making everyone terrified of showers, motels and mothers — with contemporary filmmakers positing that Psycho's shower scene prepared America for the upheavals of the 1960s.

In Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Chris Smith unearths footage from the set of Man on the Moon in 1999, when Jim Carrey portrayed comedian Andy Kaufman — and also channeled the prankster to an unsettling degree off camera. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story reveals two sides of the ingenue: Her beauty won her roles, but she couldn't gain respect as a scientist. Says director Alexandra Dean: "She had this brilliant mind and this shockingly beautiful face. She kept trying to find a way to live a full life, and what's sad is how many obstacles she encountered."

Art in its many forms is explored through the latest from Errol Morris, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography, which follows the photographer whose commercial family portraits became art; Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan and Elvira Lind's Bobbi Jene, both chronicling notable dancers; and Voyeur, which follows journalist Gay Talese on the most controversial story of his career — about a Colorado motel owner.

In Tickling Giants, Sara Taksler highlights an Egyptian cardiologist who quits to start a political comedy TV show. And Oren Jacoby's Shadowman follows Richard Hambleton on his own journey from street artist to celebrated player in the '80s New York art scene. Says Jacoby, "Richard had a dissonance about trying to persuade people to regard him highly — or even respecting them if they did."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.