Amelia Earhart wasn't much more than "a face on a postage stamp" to Indian director Mira Nair when she took on the assignment of directing Hilary Swank as the famed aviatrix in the new bio-pic Amelia.
Fortunately, "we had this bible we used to understand Amelia's life, her relationships," Nair says. That "bible," one of two books that the film's screenplay is based on, is East to the Dawn, an acclaimed 1997 Earhart biography by Lake Wales journalist and writer Susan Butler.
"I'd been trying for years to get Hollywood interested in doing a film that would do Amelia Earhart justice," Butler says. With Amelia, which opens today, she may get her wish. Butler, inspired by her mother, a World War II-era Civil Air Patrol pilot, took on Earhart because of her importance in the culture, but also with an eye toward setting the record straight.
"You want, in writing a biography, to provide a lens through which you can see your subject clearly and honestly."
There are those who have said that Earhart wasn't much of a pilot, getting lost, having at least one well-publicized accident.
"There's basically one woman who has always been out to ruin her reputation as a pilot," Butler says of Earhart's younger rival for the headlines, pilot Elinor Smith (depicted in the movie). "If you throw enough mud, some of it sticks.
"What we forget is that most of the fliers of that era died. Her technical adviser died in his plane. Wiley Post died flying with Will Rogers around the world. This thing that was attached to Earhart, that she died because she didn't know what she was doing, that never seemed fair.
"And getting lost? Lindbergh got lost all the time."
Was she a "home wrecker," breaking up the marriage of her smitten manager, publicist and soon-to-be husband, George Putnam (played by Richard Gere in Amelia)?
"I don't think there's much credence to the accusation that she broke up the Putnams marriage. Mrs. Putnam was having an affair with a much younger man. The Putnam marriage was on the rocks long before George proposed to Amelia."
And then there are the lingering questions about Earhart's sexuality.
"The boyish appearance has, over the many years, thrown many people off and made them think this or that about her. But that was the flapper look. The more pictures I looked at of her, the less boyish she appeared."
Butler's view of Earhart is the one that dominates Amelia. Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and The Namesake, says that Butler was someone "we really wanted to impress with our efforts at authenticity." They brought Butler to the set, embraced her book's take on Earhart as someone with a huge impact on the culture and won the writer over.
"They gave me the script and I made a lot of suggestions," Butler says with a chuckle. "I went up to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to watch it being filmed. I have to say, they disregarded about 90 percent of what I said.
"But they did a brilliant job on what I watched them film, and the planes," Butler adds. "I was totally impressed with Hilary Swank. She told me she went back to my book every time the script had Amelia doing something she didn't think was correct." With Swank in her corner, Butler says she felt comfortable that her meticulously researched biography would be flattered by the film.
Nair says that she fell for Earhart's "modesty, that plain-spoken Kansas-girl way of talking, not blowing her own horn. She had a grace about her that comes through in interviews and newsreels of the day."
Butler sees Earhart as being "absolutely modern, a woman born in 1897 who had a look, intelligence and ambition that made her ahead of her time."
The movie is earning praise for "almost old-fashioned" ( The Hollywood Reporter) approach to its famous subject, which gratifies Nair. But she wanted to get beyond the touchstone moments of Earhart's career. Living with this subject for the years it takes to get a movie filmed, Nair came up with her own take on the first woman to fly the Atlantic, solo.
"Her ecstasy was in the sky, when she was flying," the filmmaker says. "I think she endured the hoopla of her life, the celebrity, the endorsements, a human commodity, all that, just for that chance to fly. Her joy came from being high above the clouds."
Butler sees the famed pilot's appeal as timeless, something that won't change even if the mystery about her disappearance in 1937 is never solved.
"She was always saying to women, from the moment she had a platform to speak from, 'You should be all you can be. You bring more to marriage than your body. Use your mind!' I think she'd be right at home in the America of today."
More with the director of 'Amelia'Read Roger Moore's Q & A with legendary Indian director Mira Nair at Roger's blog, OrlandoSentinel. com/FranklyMyDear
Roger Moore can be reached at 407-420-5369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun