Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 7, 2013
Biopics, or biographical pictures, were once big business in Hollywood. With The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola and Juarez, Paul Muni cemented his legacy as the biopic’s number one actor. The same year Muni won Best Actor for playing Pasteur, Best Picture went to The Great Ziegfeld, a biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, played William Powell. Of course, the same thing still happens with regularity. A whopping nine of the last fourteen best actresses (that’s nine for, five against) have won for playing a real-life person. This year’s Day-Lewis award… sorry, I mean, Best Actor award, went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of the title character in Lincoln. Biography has always meant two things to Hollywood: 1) Built-in audience and 2) Oscars. But do we need them anymore? No, not the way they used to get made, that is. That kind of biopic is dead and gone or, at least, it should be. It’s obsolete.
The biopics of yesteryear straight up through the end of the twentieth century followed a basic template. A few scenes of childhood or young adulthood, followed by a dull parade of events, in order, from said title character’s life. Think Yankee Doodle Dandy or Night and Day. In 1944 Wilson, a stodgy biopic of the 28th president, managed to give a small nod to almost every incident in Wilson’s life, as long as it portrayed him in a good light, and when it was over the viewer had no sense they watched a story but, rather, an encyclopedia entry re-enacted for the screen. Not every biopic was like this but, it seemed, the bigger, more successful ones were. Long, trudging re-enactments of the subject’s life with little to no imagination or flair.
Even through the nineties, they continued in this mold. Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin attempts to tell every damn second on Charlie Chaplin’s life, making sure that nothing in particular is covered long enough to build up any interest in the audience. The movie, while providing a good vehicle for the talents of Robert Downey, Jr, ended up as so many before it, a re-enactment of the subject’s three paragraph entry in Who’s Who of Film. But not every bio went about the process that way.
From the beginning, there were biopics that handled things in minutia instead. A small slice of life as opposed to an all-encompassing overview. Or perhaps just a skewed vantage point from afar. The Scarlett Empress was never in any serious danger of becoming a stodgy biopic but when Josef von Sternberg has Marlene ride her horse up that staircase at the climax, scaling flight after flight in that glorious, insane ending, it was saying more than anything else, biopics don’t have to be by the numbers affairs. They can actually be imaginative and beautiful.
In 1970, Patton took only a small portion of General George Patton’s career, a couple of years during World War II, and using only those two years gave a full and rich portrait of the man behind the stars. Eight years earlier, Lawrence of Arabia had done much the same thing: Isolate but a few years and use those to develop the character and nature of the subject without worrying about covering every famous incident or meaningful event.
By the mid to late nineties, the template was falling apart. As the age of information moved forward, access to information on anyone and anything grew. While in 1944 a young person may have “learned” about President Wilson’s life on film, now a film could feel free to focus on an aspect, a single event or, even, weave the character in and out of a fiction, like The Hours. It was no longer necessary to educate the viewer on the subject (they could do that themselves by Googling the person’s name) and so the filmmaker was freed up to interpret the subject’s life instead or focus on an overview.
The most recent example of this was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Rather than give us a full account of Honest Abe’s life, the movie presented the topic of the passage of the thirteenth amendment instead, the amendment outlawing slavery. But by calling the movie Lincoln rather than some more creative or descriptive title of the plot, the movie is saying this is a biopic of the 16th president, not a re-enactment of the fight for the thirteenth amendment. What it’s saying is if you want to get an understanding of Lincoln, the man, you don’t need to see him as a child or a young lawyer or any of that other standard fare we’ve all seen a thousand times. No, if you want to understand Lincoln, the man, you need to understand his fight to get the thirteenth amendment passed. Just like understanding Patton is best suited by showing those two years during World War II or Lawrence by showing his campaign in the desert.
Another great recent biopic was Capote and, coming several years before Lincoln, informed us in much the same way. That is, it took an isolated event from Capote’s life, his interviewing of the killers featured in his book In Cold Blood, and made that the biography of its subject. The name of the movie is Capote, not The Killers or The Making of In Cold Blood. The movie is saying, as Lincoln would follow suit years later, that this is how you understand Capote. Read his Wikipedia entry all you want but you won’t get the same understanding that you’ll get here. And that is a magnificent step forward in biographical filmmaking.
From the beginning of the biopic to now, there has always been an uneasy mix of the two styles. There have been the interpretive biopics (The Scarlet Empress) and the re-enactment biopics (Wilson) but there were many more of the latter in the Golden Age than the former. From the nineties on, though, the former has taken hold. Finding out about a famous or even not-so-famous figure is easier than ever: Turn on your computer or phone and type in their name. Done. Who needs a day by day reconstruction of someone’s life when you can call up online in seconds. A more interpretive biopic can tell us so much more about the person by isolating something important in their life and telling us every bit of it from a different perspective, instead resorting to the same old, dull recitation of the facts. The old way of making a biopic is dying and let’s do all we can to speed it along to a long waiting grave. The new way, or the way that’s been around from the beginning but is now in full favor, does something much more extraordinary: It tells us more by giving us less. Here’s hoping for much less from here on out.
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