If Bill Hicks, the legendary stand-up comedian who died in 1994 at the age of 32, knew Russell Crowe was making a biopic about his life I’m sure he’d dedicate an entire performance to ridiculing him. After all, Hicks is the man who said Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct was a “piece of shit,” and also proposed Hollywood place the elderly in action movies and blow them up. Hicks criticized the media at every opportunity, holding back even less when he realized cancer was overtaking his liver and pancreas. Of course Hicks was a part of the media, saying on numerous occasions that he enjoyed going to the movies and appearing on television regularly, but I doubt Hicks would approve of today’s cinematic climate, where product placement and integration dominates the landscape. Hicks was already upset about hyper-commercialization in the late 1980s and early ‘90s and the 21st century’s approach to marketing and advertising would help him fill several volumes with material.
I’ve been a Hicks fan for years. I’ve listened to all his CD’s, seen every live performance I could, and even found bootlegs, sifting through known material for little gems. I’m sure others can say the same but I know his material well and believe he wouldn’t want this. On his CD Rant in F Minor, Hicks discusses his aversion to product endorsement on numerous occasions, lambasting Jay Leno with a vile rant about how the Tonight Show host should kill himself on national television. He goes after all performers doing advertisements, proclaiming, “you’re off the artistic roll call,” if you do one. The only person who gets off is Willie Nelson but that’s because he owed the IRS millions. It’s safe to say Hicks wouldn’t want a feature film where he’s depicted eating Pringles and drinking Coca-Cola.
In another sketch Hicks discusses how he was offered an endorsement for a British beverage called “Orange Drink.” He turned it down, saying he’s “not a salesman.” And Hicks wasn’t. He never kowtowed to pressure, performing the material he wanted and how he pleased. Only a few months before his death Hicks appeared on The David Letterman Show, including bits about pro-lifers, killing soul crushing pop stars, and Christianity. The set was pulled and didn’t air until 15 years later. Eventually, Letterman apologized, with Hicks’ mother in attendance, and it seemed sincere but while Letterman recognized his error he didn’t address the reasons why, claiming he can’t remember. Yet it seems fairly obvious: the political climate surrounding abortion, with Bill Clinton taking office ten months earlier and midterm elections less than a year away, was volatile (remember, the 1994 elections were when Republicans took the House majority and Newt Gingrich became Majority Leader). At least one gynecologist was murdered in 1993 and other attempts were taken that same year against abortion clinics. Incidentally, the same night as Hicks was scheduled to appear a commercial for a pro-life group aired. It rubbed the comedian the wrong way and the last few months of his life were filled with anger against Letterman and CBS.
So why would Hicks want a Hollywood movie made about his life, especially one helmed by Crowe? There’s no denying Crowe has some artistic integrity, picking roles generally devoid of product placement (what were they selling in Gladiator or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World?), but that doesn’t mean the money funding this film isn’t tainted. In today’s economic culture, where only a few monolithic conglomerates control the majority of the mainstream media, is it possible to avoid becoming a shill? Even Tina Fey, whose work has integrity, has sold products on 30 Rock, incorporating Verizon and a few other brands into her show. It’s inescapable, unless you travel the independent route, shooting everything on a shoestring budget or financing the picture privately. I’m sure Crowe has the funds. Maybe this project is a personal obsession, where he’s willing to put his own money on the table, damning the studios and moving forward independently. Yet I can’t help wonder if Hicks would agree to it or if Hicks’ mother (whether she’s still alive or not) would give it her blessing. After all, Mary Hicks has defended and promoted her son’s work for almost two decades now.
At least Crowe isn’t playing Hicks. An article in The Guardian reports, “the part is now open for casting.” Even if this film is made, and Crowe directs, who can fill the role successfully, bringing Hicks’ zealousness, cynicism, and optimism to life (for Bill Hicks’ most philosophical and touching bit click here)? These are mighty big shoes to fill, as Hicks is regarded as one of the best stand-up comedians of all time. The 2009 documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story featured two hours of friends, family, and fellow comedians praising Hicks’ brilliance, claiming he was ahead of his time. It’s not like Crowe’s proposing a biopic about Jerry Seinfeld (which will eventually happen) but about arguably the best, and most controversial, stand-up comedian of the 20th century. Hicks’ message was very harsh at times but still just as poignant. His material on the JFK assassination, where he claims there’s no way Oswald did it, is highly critical of the United States government. Here is a clip from Hicks’ album Arizona Bay:
As you can see from this clip Hicks’ material isn’t suitable for most audiences. Much of Hicks’ material, not dealing with governments, war, or the media, is very ribald, using profanity as an instrument of genius. Yet, not all of Hicks’ material was so polished, as was the case at a Chicago show in 1989. Because of a drunk heckler, Hicks went on a rant which included the statements, “Hitler had the right idea; he was just an underachiever,” and, “Rain 40 days, please fucking rain to wash these turds off my fucking life…wash these human wastes of flesh and bone off this planet! I pray to you, God, to kill these fucking people!” Could this be a compelling scene, where Crowe baits the Academy for a nomination? Of course, but a dramatic, stylized version of this scene would lose all the candid emotion and frustration pouring out of Hicks during this show. Maybe it’s because I value Hicks’ body of work so much that any dramatization of him seems shallow, going against the values contained in his material.
Unfortunately, Hollywood will do what it wants, regardless of what Hicks’ fans desire. If Crowe and his financial backers see this as a worthy, and profitable, project it’ll happen, regardless of its integrity. Maybe a film about Hicks that’s completely terrible would only drive people away from his work, reserving it for people genuinely interested in his message. Personally, I don’t believe he’d want that. Rant in E Minor Hicks says stand-up is “catharsis,” a “release from the daily grind.” I’m not sure that would materialize in a feature film about his life, instead coming across as hollow Hollywood melodrama. My only hope is that if it does happen they hire an actor to portray Hicks who hasn’t endorsed any products—and hopefully vows never to—but in today’s media climate that’s difficult to find.
For more information on Bill Hicks click here.