Some musings on… biopics

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Biopics, biographical films based around the lives of famed figures, started almost as soon as the cinema itself did. Even before movies became talkies, there had already been silent-film versions of the lives of Cleopatra, Jesus, Ned Kelly, Richard Wagner and Joan of Arc (more than once), among many others. The biopic has never quite left us, becoming a sort of genre in its own right, intermittently in or out of fashion. But today, one glance over the latest batch of English-language releases in any given month is enough to show they consistently represent a huge chunk of mainstream cinema’s output, and ergo a particularly bankable section of it.

The last couple of years alone has seen the high-profile biopic treatment meted out to Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock (twice if we include a TV drama), J. Edgar Hoover, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Nelson Mandela, Julian Assange, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, and Steve Jobs. If you can name them, there’s probably been a film made about them. Or at the very least there’s one in the works. Because one look at the roster of in-production projects shows no sign of the factory line of biopics easing up. You can soon expect Marilyn Monroe, Edward Snowden, Lance Armstrong, Maria Callas, Freddie Mercury, and Steve Jobs (again) coming to a biopic near you.

But why this trend? Is the demand for biopics a matter of cycles, this era being one of the crests for that genre until we get bored? Perhaps, but there must be more to it. Do biopics reflect something about audiences today, and the era we live in? What do these forays into the past of hallowed celebrities tell us about our present? Clearly something about biopics draws audiences in, since they keep making money and press producers to green-light more of them in the hope of repeated success.

Today big corporate-owned studios flood a market they themselves created, be it for superhero franchises or the more critically respectable biopics, in a sort of feedback loop of demand and supply. But any lack of adventure in audiences today is also a reflection of our modern world at large. In the frantic 21st century age of Vine and Twitter, of media-saturated dwindling attention spans, time is a precious commodity. Two hours sat in a cinema is a long time, and potential film-watchers want to know a good deal about what kind of experience they’re giving that time up for. That means watching trailers, checking Rotten Tomatoes, maybe reading a few reviews and articles to see what the buzz is like for the film, and only after having had practically the whole plot divulged to them will they make an informed decision.

Hence the first major advantage of the biopic as a genre. Biopics represent a safe bet in economic and film industry terms, because they tap into a recognisable brand: that of its subject character, presumably a celebrated figure audiences will instantly identify, know something about, and from whose biopic they’ll have a rough idea of what to expect. Even more handy, many of the icons which recent biopics set themselves the task of bringing to life have pre-existing fanbases, seen as ready-made audiences in waiting. Even if some die-hard fans of Jimi Hendrix or Ian Curtis may leave disappointed, sheer curiosity and personal investment in the subject means they’ll still watch their idol’s movie biography.

Curiosity hints at one obvious appeal of the biopic: witnessing how the transformation of a well-known actor into a well-known figure is carried off. The voice, the accent, the tics, the look of the subject are all (when it goes right anyway) accurately copied to give a sometimes uncannily believable representation of that famous person. Many actors have perfected this into an art, becoming specialists of the biopic-style impersonation: Michael Sheen seems to do little other than them, from Tony Blair to Nigel Clough; lately Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, Turing and ironically enough a few years ago as Stephen Hawking in a BBC drama; and even Anthony Hopkins who’s played notables as varied as Pablo Picasso, C.S. Lewis, Richard Nixon and, most recently, Alfred Hitchcock.

Audiences aren’t the only ones impressed by these impressions, they’re also major awards-bait. Since 2004, eight of the Best Actor Oscar winners went to starring roles in biopics. The dominance is slightly less pronounced in the Best Actress category, partly because female-driven biopics are less common, but still, six of the last thirteen winners were playing famous figures. At this year’s awards season, we only need look at the contest between The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, both accounts of English scientists (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking respectively) shaped into tales of one man versus adversity – the kind of material the Academy has quite the soft spot for. These films are safe, simply eliding all the messy stuff like cosmology, black holes, early computer science, and other fascinating fields these men dedicated their intellectual lives to. Now don’t get me wrong, a film needn’t turn into a science lecture, but it is possible to make an appealing narrative film at least touching on essential questions at the heart of big topics like science and philosophy. These biopics simply never get close to trying.

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Instead they orbit around two typical biopic performances, by Eddie Redmayne and Cumberbatch, who unsurprisingly battled it out for the Oscar. They embody their inherited famous figures, becoming them or at least a mythologised vision of them we can believe, and all but carry their respective films in the process. Without Cumberbatch in Imitation Game for example, the film’s TV-movie standard screenplay would be exposed. Every screenwriting choice within it has been made in favour of middlebrow tired cliches and dubious subplots rather than authenticity or complexity. So we’re served a version of Turing as a caricature of the maths genius, aloof and arrogant, not unlike Cumberbatch’s most famous screen-persona, Sherlock. Turing’s entire work on the still incredibly relevant theory of ‘machines’ (which paved the way for A.I. and computer science) is tritely summed up as the result of losing his first love, Christopher.

As for Theory of Everything, it may be light years ahead if compared with Imitation Game, but it too has its problems, soon descending into another story of man vs. adversity streamlined into story-telling devices. The film is weighed down by cramming in five decades of Hawking’s life, and even more by its timid awe before its prestigious subject, making the film fearful of depicting any of the man’s rough edges (yes, great theoretical physicists who overcame tremendous physical difficulty have them too, just like the rest of us). These movies provide mere cardboard cut-out versions of their subjects, presumably in order to serve a crowd-pleasing truffle rather than a multifaceted portrait, and digesting the lives of complex people into a conventional arc, sanitised and simplified.

The narrative arc is, besides the acting, the other key to the biopic genre. Seeing the famous subject materialised on screen is not enough, we need to get a sense of their overall life being conveyed to us. But many are the pitfalls of reconstructing a life through film. Do you condense several decades, covering early life to old age (the two British scientist biopics essentially stick to this format), or stage a mere slice of that life which can evoke for the whole (Lincoln being one of many examples)? This is a tricky balance to gauge and now has itself become a formulaic part of the biopic. Nobody’s life story is as neat and tidy, nor as linearly dramatic, as a two-hour movie package. We all know this, and yet we still remain partial to such reductive biopics. Why?

Can it be linked to our era of celebrity culture, typified by the countless (auto)biographies on the bestsellers book-shelves, and general obsession with the most sordid confessions of famous people? The majority of biopics imply a personality-based outlook on history, revolving around key figures, important people rather than looking at collective actions and communities as a whole. (Here Selma while nominally a Martin Luther King biopic offers up an intriguing counter-example however). For the sake of clarity, Turing’s Bletchley Park entourage in Imitation Game is reduced into a handful of antagonistic geeks (and one Soviet spy, who in reality never met Turing!) just so we can all empathise with our main character all the more, and appreciate that he somehow won WW2 alone. It seems we want stories of individuals, towering above all and singular in their genius, without worrying about the overall structures in scientific work (or whatever field the biopic is based in) that allow it to happen.

It’s a personalisation of history, and to me there’s only a small step from this to the huge success of celebrity autobiographies and fame culture generally. A biopic faces a fine line between creating a believable, fleshed-out representation of a character we all know, and depriving them of the mystique or genius which made them special. At their worst, biopics shed no new light at all on their famous figure subject. They only look to condense, and in the process unveil hidden-spots of their subject so we can feel something akin to fellowship with them — hey look, they have secrets too! This extends to offering cheap psycho-analytic hypotheses about their hidden motives. One of the most absurd examples came in Hitchcock (2012), where the master of suspense is caricatured as a lascivious, voyeuristic old man, with a proclivity for night-time fridge raids. The implication that such a portrait can in any way illuminate Hitch’s working method or genius is beyond preposterous, so clearly the only explanation is that his image is tarnished for the sake of this biopic’s tacky appeal.

Yet, having said all this, there’s another side to the biopic. The truth remains that some of the great masterpieces of cinema are biographical films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Andrei Rublev, Raging BullThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Edvard Munch, Young Mr Lincoln. We can even include Citizen Kane as a loose unofficial biopic of William Randolph Hearst, but in any case it certainly covers a man’s entire life. Then, there are other gems of the genre: Clint Eastwood’s loosely episodic, free-flowing Bird about Charlie Parker; Spike Lee’s epic and detailed Malcolm X; the revisionist and innovative biopics by British eccentrics Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway; Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che with its kaleidoscopic first half and more process-dominated conclusion. Even in the last year, alongside the banalities, we also saw several idiosyncratic biopics, cleverly freeing themselves of the shackles of that tag, like Mr Turner, Pasolini, or even Selma. A biopic done well can be memorable, engaging, rich, complex and multi-layered. A few bad examples, as prevalent as they are, shouldn’t spoil a whole category of films.

So what did these films do right? For one, they don’t pander to hackneyed conventions of turning a whole life and life’s work into a facile life-story in movie form. They go beyond the constraints of what a mainstream biopic is, in terms of acting style and of narrative structure. These biopics stay longer in the memory because they preserve some of the secret, irreducible force and fascination of their subjects, without fear of introducing ambiguity and complexity.

No person’s life is ever fully knowable, least of all in two hours. So the great biopics don’t look for that hidden secret that will be the key to understanding their subject’s entire predicament, like a Christopher in Imitation Game. Remember even Rosebud does nothing in summing up who Kane really was, his enigma remaining whole to the end. A great biopic can and should offer some understanding of the biographical subject, but while amplifying the mystery behind their aura, behind what made them and their life special, not reducing it. Too many are the feeble attempts at a movie version of sensationalist bestselling memoirs. We should demand better from the biopic genre if it wishes to continue to see itself as the more prestigious, awards-hungry fare that mainstream cinema floods our screens with.

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5 thoughts on “Some musings on… biopics

  1. Well argued. Of course, the biopic is hardly going to be any less commericialised, and therefore tainted, by Hollywood but it does feel worse when a veneer of cliches is forced onto the memory of an actual person. And I imagine the fascination with biopics is similar to the current trend for reality TV and ‘real’ films like Borat, etc. When something purports to be ‘true’ it instantly earns itself a greater respectability in the mind of the viewer. This attitude can, then, be mined by the Studios for greater box office success whether or not they follow through on being faithful to the subject matter.

    1. Thanks! You raise a good point, connecting them to reality TV and it’s not hard to then make the leap to films based on ‘incredible true stories’, from Foxcatcher to American Sniper. I think they’re all related in a way, and reveal different aspects of the same obsession with fame, celebrity and actual events.

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