Biopics May Be Oscar Bait But Getting Them Right Is Tricky
As soon as the trailer dropped for Judy, the new biopic about Judy Garland, Renée Zellweger became the front-runner for this year’s Best Actress Oscar. The physical resemblance was uncanny, as was the actress’s ability to channel the legend’s voice and mannerisms. Playing the famous is catnip for actors, and if done properly, it can lead to glory. Just ask last year’s Academy Award winners Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite) who both won for playing famous British royalty. Still, biopics aren’t as easy to get right as one might think, and they present all kinds of unique storytelling challenges.
The main issue that must be decided when doing a biopic is just how much story is going to be told to convey the famous person’s life. In fictional scripts, the narrative rarely covers decades. In biopics, it’s quite common. That’s an awful lot of storytelling and deciding what to keep in and what to keep out becomes a major challenge. In this year’s hit Rocketman, the third act spent a great deal of time focusing on Elton John’s drug problems. Such lowlights make for great drama, and star Taron Edgerton nailed it all, but the film was also criticized for ignoring some of the more positive aspects of John’s later life. Where were his friendships with Princess Diana and Ryan White, the teenager who died from AIDS propelling John’s charity work for 30 years? With so much story to tell, it’s often too much for a two-hour movie.
Because of this type of conundrum, more and more biopics of late have decided to tighten their focus and eschew any of the typical ‘cradle to grave’ sensibilities. Less is almost always more, and additionally, writers have likely begun to recognize that today’s audiences consume more and more of their communications in bite-sized pieces. It’s easier to grab such viewers if you don’t overwhelm them.
Granted, Rocketman covered nearly fifty years of the musician’s life, but Judy was a film more on-trend with how biopics have gone lately. It chose to focus on the last year of Garland’s tragic life, specifically her six-week run at a London nightclub and all the controversies that came with it. By focusing on this snapshot version of her life, more than the expanse of it, the film was easier to understand, and the message of the story made all the clearer. In those weeks while she struggled to get through her cabaret contract, the film showcased the problems that Garland battled all her life: domineering men, sexism, and a misguided solace in drugs and booze.
The smaller focused biopic template, concentrating on one major time period to illuminate its subject, came largely into vogue with 2005’s Oscar-winning Capote. Before that, the decades-long examination of a famous person’s life was more the norm, proven by films like 1982’s Oscar-winning Best Picture Gandhi or 2004’s Ray, about blind musician Ray Charles. While such films exhibited great strengths in acting and production values, their narrative often became unwieldy, trying to tell so much and turning their scripts into rather pedantic “this happened, then this happened” episodic chapters.
The script for Capote, based on Gerald Clarke’s biography of the same name, concentrated on just six years of author Truman Capote’s life, specifically, the time it took him to write the true-crime novel In Cold Blood. Even though the script minimized its focus, the character of Capote was revealed wholly by covering just that period. The angst that Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) went through to chronicle the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas was enthralling narrative unto its own. Not only did it capture the author’s intrepid approach to the case’s details, but it showcased how his vanity eventually overwhelmed any empathy or sympathy he originally felt for those involved in the crime. By the end, Capote’s ego turned the tragedy into a need for his own personal fame and glory. That specific takeaway was writ large by its concentrated narrative focus.
Movies are different than books obviously, and most avoid the A to B to C style of chaptered storytelling. Still, many scripts feel the need to include an overabundance of flashbacks to convey the expanse of a celebrated person’s life, and that can be a double-edged sword. While flashbacks can be hugely cinematic and show rather than tell, more often than not they present the past as carved in stone. Showcasing the subject of the biopic telling their side of a past story often frames it more personally as it’s gazed through their knowledge accumulated through time. It also provides actors with compelling soliloquies that stand out because they tend to be so rare onscreen. One of the most impactful parts in Judy showcased her regaling friends with stories from her childhood, colored by the insights that she’d gain only as a grown woman.
Pairing the right actor or actress with the part of a famous person is crucial too, as audiences must believe who they’re watching on screen. Actors already bearing resemblances to their roles are half-way there. In 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, actress Sissy Spacek shared a similar physique and wide-eyed innocence as her subject Loretta Lynn that made her seem all the closer to her. Same with Val Kilmer, who bore such an uncanny resemblance to Jim Morrison that it only took the right wigs to exact his physical impression as the rock star in the 1991 biopic of The Doors.
Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other hand, bore no physical resemblance to the man he played in 2011’s J.Edgar. He was too tall, too handsome, and too follicle-blessed to play the short, ugly, and bald-headed FBI head Hoover. Thus, director Clint Eastwood buried DiCaprio under makeup that was not only distracting but didn’t help him seem any more like the famed G-man.
Fortunately, a decade later, such letdowns in the makeup department are rare. John C. Reilly looks nothing like golden era screen comedian Oliver Hardy, but the makeup he wore in the 2018 biopic Stan & Ollie was astounding. If you’ve seen the trailer for the new film Bombshell, you know too that similar feats are occurring as both Charlize Theron and John Lithgow has been turned into the spitting image of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and Roger Ailes, respectively, via makeup.
Actors playing famous people have to walk a very fine line between performance and impersonation as well. Capturing the essence is the key component for success, but some feel the need to become a carbon copy of their subject. Rod Steiger spent months studying every aspect of W.C. Fields to play him in 1976’s W.C. Fields and Me and insisted on exacting makeup, but his performance ended up feeling more like a technical exercise than a performance. Steiger nailed all of Field’s surface schtick without ever really getting inside the skin of his subject.
On the other hand, Dustin Hoffman felt no need to literally impersonate comic Lenny Bruce in 1974’s Lenny yet he managed to capture the man’s essence throughout the film. Similar stellar results occurred when Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line. The actor’s actor looked nothing like Cash, and even his singing wasn’t a perfect imitation of the country legend’s rumbling baritone, but in every other way, Phoenix captured the combination of roguishness and vulnerability of the man. Sometimes, all it takes is the right attitude, no putty noses or chins necessary.
Finally, biopics, like all relevant period pieces that are made, must speak to our modern world. When setting out to write a biopic, what does the author want to say about the celebrated life that provides genuine meaning for today’s audiences? Was the subject ahead of his time, a victim of it, or a product of the period? In the new film Dolemite Is My Name, comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) struggles as a black man to be heard by the public, get funding for his ventures, and realize his big dream of making a movie. The fact that his struggles back in the 1970’s speak to similar prejudices going on today for the African-American community makes the bittersweet comedy resonate all the more. The story also speaks to anyone trying to make it in Hollywood and the enormous obstacles placed in their way.
The best biopics tend to show their subjects, warts and all, focusing on how their flaws may have hindered their rise, or perhaps how they helped achieve glory. One of the discoveries that made Lincoln such a fascinating work back in 2012 was how it showed “Honest Abe” to be anything but when it came to his efforts to abolish slavery. He lied, threatened, cajoled, and even bribed various members of Congress to get onboard. It may have seemed sacrilegious to portray him in such a way, but it was factually correct, presenting a much truer portrait of the 16th president than had ever been presented onscreen before. (And any biopic that can move its subject from icon back to a human being is a good thing.)
Perhaps most importantly, a biopic should address how the famed subject impacted the world and changed the course of history. In 2008’s Milk, we get a clear picture of how San Francisco politician Harvey Milk helped bring the cause of gay rights out of the closet and into the mainstream. This biopic showcased his fight for humanity and how it helped adjust perceptions of those in the mainstream. His story became a plea for equality and acceptance no matter one’s race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. Such biopics are not just great narratives, they end up being a story for all of us, and indeed, about all of us.
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