Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by The Weinstein Co., Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures
I have a terrible confession to make. It’s really bad — the kind of thing that will forever tarnish me in your eyes. Are you ready? Oh God, oh God, here I go …
I love biopics. Love them.
I love the way they marry escapist gloss with Hollywoodized history, combining atmosphere with ennoblement. I love the sanitized, simplified, often fictionalized life lessons. I love the star turns — Leonardo DiCaprio IS Howard Hughes! Denzel Washington IS Malcolm X! Helen Mirren IS Queen Elizabeth! Daniel Day-Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln! Robert Downey Jr. IS Charlie Chaplin! Meryl Streep IS Margaret Thatcher! Morgan Freeman IS Nelson Mandela! Anthony Hopkins IS Richard Nixon! Gary Oldman IS Ludwig Van Beethoven! Will Smith IS Muhammad Ali!
I love the gorgeous cinematography and rousing scores. (Biopics almost always have gorgeous cinematography and rousing scores.) I love the fluff pieces on how this or that actor or actress worked to get the intonations of this or that real-life person right, and how they put on weight, or lost weight, or shaved their head, or spent six months in a wheelchair, or learned to box. I love the overstated trailers. (“In a time when … One man stood up … And led a nation … Warner Brothers is proud to present … ” etc.) I love the ridiculous, self-aggrandizing award campaigns. (“Honor the man. Honor the film.”) I love the too-earnest, occasionally cringe-worthy speeches when these movies do win awards (and they usually do). Basically, I love the whole whirlwind of pop pomposity that swirls around the modern biopic.
So, I hope Hollywood’s (and Britain’s) biopic-makers will understand that I am coming from a place of genuine love when I say: Pull back on the biopics, folks. Please. For the sake of biopics, stop making so many goddamn biopics. I’ve started to experience some biopic fatigue of late. Who wouldn’t? I’ve had so much simplified history crammed down my throat, I find myself secretly casting movie stars to play random people on the street. I see title cards everywhere. (“That woman never did make it to the bus. Instead, she would go on to develop a form of transportation that revolutionized all our lives. Today, we call them … glidermobiles.”)
There is, of course, a reason biopics keep on getting made: They get the job done, all across the board. Most important, from an industry perspective, biopics make money. American Sniper has a good chance of becoming the highest grossing movie released in 2014. Not to mention Imitation Game, Unbroken, Lincoln, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Butler, Saving Mr. Banks, 42, and the many other recent biopics that have grossed over $100 million internationally. Critics, though they may complain, mostly like biopics. Selma, The Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, and even American Sniper garnered solid reviews, as did two biopics who didn’t garner much Oscar love, Get on Up and Mr. Turner. And biopics win awards. The term “Oscar bait” is often thrown around with derision, but it’s also accurate: Four of the eight Best Picture nominees this year, as well as at least three and possibly five of last year’s nine (depending on how you categorize Philomena and Captain Phillips), are biopics.
In fact, over the last decade or so, the biopic has essentially become the comic-book movie of awards season. Franchises now dominate Hollywood in part because they’re usually based on titles that moviegoers already know. That has coincided with a troubling decline in adult dramas for adult audiences. And as fewer and fewer original dramas get made, biopics have become the thinking person’s version of movies with built-in “pre-awareness.” “But wait,” you say. “Pre-awareness? Most people have no idea who Alan Turing or Jordan Belfort or Margaret Keane are! This isn’t exactly Spider-Man we’re talking about here.” That’s okay. These films aren’t selling these specific people’s lives. They’re selling the biopic itself — that alternate, movie version of real life that tells us we’re going to see Something Grand, Important, Entertaining, and Transporting. You don’t need to know what’s in the comic book. You just need to know that it is a comic book, and everything that implies.
There have always been biopics, of course. Georges Méliès made a film about Joan of Arc way back in 1899. If the film industry seems biopic-crazy nowadays, that was nothing compared to the 1930s, when we got, among others, Disraeli, Cleopatra, Queen Christina, Voltaire, The Scarlet Empress, The Great Ziegfeld, Abraham Lincoln, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Rise of Catherine the Great, Rembrandt, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Antoinette, Viva Villa!, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, and Juarez. But many of those films were biopics in name only, taking wild liberties with their facts.
The biopic was always an important genre, with its popularity ebbing and flowing. In the 1940s, sports biopics were very popular. In the 1960s, as the industry pumped money into spectacles in an effort to combat the rise of TV, the biopic merged with the historical epic in films like Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, A Man for All Seasons, and The Lion in Winter — films that still took wild liberties with the truth.
Somewhere along the way, however, the biopic became an expression of the industry’s most earnest aspirations, its vision of its best self. As other genres of spectacle like the Biblical epic faded away, the biopic assumed its importance and weight — the big, bold historical movie whose release was hotly anticipated. Starting in the mid ‘70s, it became very rare to find an Oscar year when there wasn’t a biopic up for Best Picture. These movies took up space — figuratively and literally. On home video, you needed two VHS cassettes to contain some of them; when Dad lugged home Patton or Reds from the video store, you knew it was a big deal. Sometimes this weightiness could be infuriating: I remember being 9 years old and watching Gandhi win the inevitable Oscar that I felt belonged to E.T.
Biopics are endemic to Hollywood. But now they’ve become epidemic. It’s hard to sort out the biopics opening in a given week, let alone a year. And when put together, a kind of sameness starts to emerge. Biopics often have their own rhythm — a certain and-then, and-then, and-then quality — and they turn on a kind of predictability. We know, for example, that very often they’re leading to a big speech, or a big historical denouement, with obligatory nods to other historical or biographical details along the way, even if those details are irrelevant to the ostensible plot. (An example: Selma has a touching scene that briefly references Martin Luther King Jr.’s extramarital affairs. Do we need it? Who knows? But if it wasn’t there, a certain part of the pundit peanut brigade would accuse the film of being a whitewash — even though King’s dalliances are largely irrelevant to the events in Selma. If the film was a purely fictional story, a reference like this would seem very tonally strange. But because Selma is historical, we don’t mind it.) Many of our biopics — even the good ones — now feel strangely like entries in a broad, vague franchise: this year’s variation on the brilliant scientist, or the famous musician, or the military hero, or the political figure.
Truly great biopics find a way to reinvent the form, even as they indulge in its many splendors. Lawrence of Arabia has all the booming self-importance of a “Great Man” biopic, but David Lean turns it into a movie about the sensuousness of the desert. The Last Emperor upends the typical rise-to-power structure and traces one man’s journey to anonymity. Scorsese’s Raging Bull is a meditation on bodies, blood, and redemption. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film about the human face. Goodfellas is … well, it’s Goodfellas. A lot of today’s biopics — not all of them, but a good number of them — don’t bother to reinvent the form. Rather, they settle into the clichés of the biopic like an old, comfortable pair of slippers. They’re not really interested in surprising or informing us; they’re more interested in coddling us.
Still, some recent biopics are great. Selma, Lincoln, and The Social Network are masterpieces or near-masterpieces. The Wolf of Wall Street and Mr. Turner are very, very good. I think Big Eyes is quite underrated. Even The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game have interesting qualities. There’s a broad trend here, away from the epic-journey-of-a-person’s-life films to let’s-watch-them-do-one-thing: Let’s watch Abraham Lincoln get the 13th Amendment passed; let’s watch Alan Turing try to break the Enigma code; let’s watch Jimi Hendrix the year before he became a superstar. As such, they’re often more modest than the biopics of yesteryear. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But sometimes I find myself wishing for the splendor and the go-for-broke, swing-for-the-fences ambition of films like Malcolm X or Gandhi. The problem is, will the next Gandhi feel like the next Gandhi if it opens the same weekend as the next next Gandhi?