Biopics detail variegated historical portraits
Itâs hard to think of original ideas in Hollywood these days. New ideas might earn critical jabs, or they might never make a ripple. One way to stack the deck in a filmâs favor is to take the subject from something people already have some familiarity with, such as a famous singer or sports figure.
From this leaning springs the biopic, where people who live larger than life get a shot at celluloid immortality â and even the chance to be played by Oscar-hungry celebrities.
In Clint Eastwoodâs latest film, J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the ferocious, first director of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover, a lawyer who tangled with everyone from Commies to gangsters. Though the movie received mixed reviews, biopics are still a strong genre, with upcoming features including Steven Spielbergâs take on Abraham Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and not one but two films about the Victorian socialite Effie Gray, played by Keira Knightley and Dakota Fanning.
Many biopics go on to rake in Oscars, such as Sean Pennâs best actor win for 2008âs Milk. Others, however, get lambasted for everything from historical inaccuracies to rampant self-indulgence, such as director Oliver Stoneâs messy Alexander.
A few commonalities, however, exist. First, the main character has to be epic. Elizabeth Bathory and Emperor Nero might fit this bill, but in American film, the main character needs to be conflicted rather than outright evil.
To hone in on inner turmoil, producers often turn to musicians. From drugs to murder, most famous musicians have something scandalous in the mix. Walk the Line, the 2005 film about music legend Johnny Cash, focused on the actorâs tumultuous relationships with women and drugs. 2004âs Ray, about Ray Charles, told the iconic pianistâs journey from a child stricken with blindness to a conqueror of Carnegie Hall. If typical marriage spats arenât gripping enough, 1986âs Sid and Nancy followed Sex Pistolsâ bassist Sid Vicious from his turbulent stage life to the day he woke up to find his girlfriend stabbed to death beside him.
But for these affecting stories of human turmoil to work and to not reduce an audience to titters, the actor has to have the chops for it. For this reason, biopics almost always feature a star â Walk the Line had Joaquin Phoenix, Ray had Jamie Foxx, and Sid and Nancy had Gary Oldman. Itâs a win-win, as these actors often get an Oscar nomination as recompense for all the emotional torment.
Biopics must also master the dance between historical accuracy and creative license. Too little attention to facts usually alienates history lovers. It also gives the impression the director had little respect for the material or did not understand the time period. A film that somehow rose above the mountains of inaccuracies to succeed on a critical level was Amadeus, which invented a bitter rivalry between Mozart and composer Antonio Salieri â but success in this form is rare.
Conversely, sticking leech-close to history causes its own problems. Real life is full of dull moments, character inconsistencies and anticlimaxes. To work as a film, there has to be a compromise. Otherwise the film winds up like 2003âs Gods and Generals â not quite a biopic, but a film that closely followed the last years of General Stonewall Jackson. The film was wonderfully accurate, but it was four hours long and made audiences think the South went on to die at Gettysburg only to escape useless speeches.
Shekhar Kapurâs 1998 Elizabeth was less accurate but a much better film. Cate Blanchett took Queen Elizabethâs inexperienced youth and honed it to a quietly ferocious edge. More so than listing facts, the film allowed audiences to see the precariousness of the young queenâs position and the forces of will it took to overcome political machinations and religious feuds. Even if the facts arenât straight, the mood is.
Tying all these aspects together is a common thread often overlooked in mincing over accuracy or characterization, a successful biopic must never forget to be a solid, entertaining film. To succeed, a biopic must never forget it is a film. No matter the power of the original story or the perfect recreations of 16th-century tableware, it means nothing if the film is poorly shot, structured or edited. A musicianâs biopic usually at least guarantees a good soundtrack, but films like Walk the Line succeed because they are good films first and biographies second. Elizabethâs sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, was less successful than its prequel despite its heftier budget largely because it spent more time on burning ships and panning shots than character development.
It is said the victors write history, but biopics can serve to illuminate lesser known historical figures or undervalued greatness. More so, biopics give a face to names in a history book and a soul to god-like legends. At the very least, biopics might inspire children to pay more attention in history class.
Mimi Honeycutt is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column âCut to Frameâ runs Fridays.