Film Schooled: It’s time to let biopics go

A line of actors stand outside waiting to audition for the role of Princess Diana Spencer.
Kristen Stewart is set to star as the beloved Princess Diana in Pablo Larraín’s upcoming film “Spencer.” (Isabella Melendez |Daily Trojan

On June 17, I awoke in a cold sweat. It’s seriously not a good idea for you to check your phone when you first wake up, as it increases stress and anxiety, but when I turned off my alarm, there was one notification I simply couldn’t ignore. 

That crisp morning at 8:44 a.m. came the Deadline announcement that Kristen Stewart was tapped to play Princess Diana in “Spencer,” the newest biopic about the late and great cultural icon. I think about it almost every single day, to the point where I ask anyone at any given moment whether I’m allowed to gatekeep who plays Diana. I’m kidding?

In the same press release, Pablo Larraín, director of “Jackie” among others, was set to direct and produce. The Chilean filmmaker has his chops, and talked with Deadline about what is behind the inspiration for this project.

“Diana is such a powerful icon, where millions and millions of people, not just women, but many people around the world felt empathy toward her in her life,” Larraín said. “We decided to get into a story about identity, and around how a woman decides somehow, not to be the queen. It’s about finding herself, about understanding that possibly the most important thing for her is to be well, and to be with herself and by herself.”

The “People’s Princess,” a very unusual title for someone within the British royal family, was given to Diana for a number of reasons. Her work destigmatized diagnoses of HIV and AIDS without the backing of the crown, and she was known as an incredible mother in the now classic photos of her with her sons Prince William and Prince Harry at Thorpe Park. She turned the media attention from her split with Prince Charles onto her anti-landmine campaign and drew the million people who lined the route from Kensington Palace to Westminster Cathedral to catch one last glimpse of their princess before she was laid to rest, with millions more watching abroad.

You can’t overstate the profundity of her influence. I see countless photos of her style, demonstrated through her lavish David and Elizabeth Emanuel wedding dress, her fabulously non-royal-appropriate “revenge dress” and especially the classic sweatshirt, biker shorts and sneakers combo all the time in fashion anthologies or on social media. For many kids around the world, reading about her and watching her life go by was a moment to reflect on how we wanted to shape our lives on good deeds such as hers. 

OK, back to being sweaty. I’m not going to get into a Kristen Stewart debate because (1) this is not the column to piss people off in and (2) it doesn’t matter to my point. 

A few months after the “Spencer” announcement was made, “The Crown” offered the very best portrayal of Diana they could muster in Emma Corrin. And boy did she deliver. Looks are one thing, but when you have almost the spitting image of a young Diana Spencer staring down the Queen and pair it with Corrin’s seemingly natural spryness, naïveté, swiftness and sense of wonder about the world — you’re bound to face a difficult time in separating the actor from the role. 

Whatever you think of Stewart stepping so quickly into those shoes, both she and Corrin are participating in a losing battle. Take the proverbial caution: “Never meet your heroes.” I’d argue you never want to meet them on the screen either. 

The biopic is possibly the most limiting film genre ever coalesced. Rarely are they made of particularly controversial figures, and when it comes to groups underrepresented on screen, their use shifts to that of a patronizing, “well at least you got a film” mentality from studio execs. 

Similar to “Jackie,” Larraín’s new project is to span just a weekend, one of Diana’s last Christmases at Sandringham when she contemplates her future with Charles and the royal family. I’m going to pull my “the only time I can use my philosophy major” card here. In what L.A. Paul calls a transformative experience, when you approach a decision that is fundamentally about who you are and who you will be after the choice you make, you can’t possibly prepare rationally to answer because you have no idea who you will be on the other side. 

In a movie that spans three days time in real life, of a person who faced a situation that no one else in the world has ever faced and of a legacy that is globally sacrosanct, you’re not going to get what you’re looking for because it simply is impossible. This is regardless of who’s directing it, who’s acting (though I have my concerns) or any of the other billion pieces that come together to create a movie. It’s incomplete.

The closest you can get to a picture that’s closer to the whole of Diana is through the artifacts, oral histories, newsreels and interviews that were collected during her life. But even that isn’t her; it isn’t the people’s princess. Should Larraín or others be responsible for portraying the entirety of a person’s being on screen? Maybe you think no, but is the subject still the same within the screen’s limitations?

There are incredible biopics whose credit goes predominantly to their actors, just add “La Vie en Rose,” “Ray,” “Capote” or “The Passion of Joan of Arc” to your little Letterboxd list. But they cannot and will never capture the breadth of these people’s lives. And while one person is chosen to be “worthy enough” for a biopic to be made, thousands of other stories are left behind. Appreciate these figures while they are alive and honor them in their passing. Let’s leave the biopic behind instead.

Lauren Mattice is a senior writing about film culture. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Film Schooled,” runs every other Wednesday.