Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: Good and Bad Biopics

By  · Published on October 26th, 2009

The successful biopic is something that takes a truly masterful hand to accomplish. A lifetime, like history itself, contains no inherent narrative – no arc or three-act structure – yet, like in studying history, we narratavize the exceptional human life in order to better understand it. In biopics this involves a lot of condensing, creative liberties, and difficult executive decision, requiring delicate filmmakers to execute properly and convincingly.

Biopic is also sometimes an elusive definition, as not every movie based on a true story should be considered a biopic of its lead character, and it’s often difficult to distinguish the two. Capote, for instance, despite the title, is hardly a biopic of Truman Capote, but specifically portrays the writing of In Cold Blood. Yet one could argue that it is a biopic because it covers one of the most significant, or at least the most notorious, event in that author’s life, and many of the best biopics often cover such significant events rather than focus on the life as a whole (Ed Wood comes to mind).

But a fascinating life story does not necessarily make a good biopic. This weekend’s new release, Mira Nair’s Amelia – an inevitable biopic of Amelia Earhart and a clunky mess of a film disguised as Oscar bait – shows that the interest of the subject does not entail a successful telling of the story; just because we find her fascinating does not mean the filmmakers should suppose we will find her narrativized life story fascinating from the get-go. Too often the formula of the biopic is to cram as many important life incidents as possible into the running time while treading on the appeal of the character, which is why these films are so often better-known for the oft-recognized embodiments of the individual by the lead performers rather than the merits of the films themselves, a conundrum that often allows for incredible performances within weak, directionless movies (e.g., Jamie Foxx in Ray). Too often do biopics do no more than tread on the magnetism of the life portrayed and equally, if not more so, on the performer portraying that figure. This practice is especially prevalent in the musical biopic, a genre all its own that has made recognizable some of the genre’s most apparent clichés: overcoming a tragic event/adversity/poverty in childhood to achieve recognized musical talent and fame until an addiction (drug, sex, alcohol) is fought and (sometimes) overcome. It’s funny that a single unique, exceptional life story can be told in the exact same way time and again.

When a biopic succumbs in total to these clichés, often enough these true stories don’t ring true at all. Some filmmakers don’t realize that a movie based on fact is not enough, that a “based on a true story” title card can’t be expected to be all that is required to suspend disbelief. All movies – be they based on fact or works of pure fiction – need some degree of conviction in order to come off convincingly. Don’t just tell us your story is true, make us feel the truth, the reality, the immediacy of an allegedly important life story. Convince us that we have something to learn and gain from observing this person.

We deserve better biopics, and several trends need to be wiped off the map for that to happen.

First of all, don’t try to contain an entire life in your movie. This is the first big misstep, thinking that a life story can be successfully and adequately told in the running time of a film. This brings with it inherent contradictions, as any life story usually necessitates creative liberties for narrative focus, so trying to fit as much information into a life story while condensing that story usually results in people nitpicking your facts. Admit from the outset that you can’t fit an entire life in your film, and the story that truly needs to be told becomes a lot easier to recognize. Usually biopics portray famous people, so it should be assumed that the audience knows about the person portrayed to some degree going in, so under that assumption, there’s a lot of groundwork that really doesn’t need to be laid. We don’t need to know these characters from birth to death – some biopics manage to tell us a lot about a person’s youth without portraying it through subtlety and inference. Bronson, Milk, and Control are three recent, and three very different, biopics which focused on a small portion of their characters’ lives, and as a result they gave us coherent, compelling stories and convincing cases of the importance of the figures portrayed. They were self-sustaining, not overwhelming.

Second to this, embrace creative liberties. Filmmaking has an inherent fiction. Putting Will Smith in front of a camera and calling him Muhammad Ali is a lie in of itself, so let go of any loyalties you feel to each little detail and work on telling the best story possible. Sometimes making a fiction out of a real person approaches an essential truth about them that a strict-to-the-details story can’t achieve, like the meandering psychedelic mosaic that is I’m Not There, a film that admits from the outset that some famous lives elude understanding the more one investigates, and that one person can in fact be an amalgamation of many.

Next, don’t be afraid of making your figure an asshole. Everybody’s human, and most often even the most beloved public figures (or, rather, especially the most beloved public figures) make shitty decisions. Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and even Amelia Earhart did things in their lives that justifiably made them, at least temporarily, assholes. Because the story is so often meant to be inspirational, we hold the lives of these famous people (especially if they have passed on, silenced from expressing counterpoint to their cinematic double) to such a high regard that we become timid to shed any negative light on them at all. If you want to portray a life, don’t make them a saint, a figure so pure and unapproachable that even their shortcomings are framed as virtues. Show us the true life, warts and all. Instead these movies deal with issues of infidelity, irresponsibility, and drug abuse with kids’ gloves, diving in briefly and then emerging as if there are no long-term consequences when famous people commit such acts.

Lastly, lose the destiny crap. Nobody is destined to become the world’s greatest country singer or the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. It takes a great deal of hard work, failure, compromise, ass-kissing, and most of all, sheer coincidence for infamy to happen. But ever since John Ford’s The Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) biopics have framed their characters solely through hindsight, as if every event of their life was a preordained essential step towards their inevitable achievement of success. Nobody is famous solely because of their talent. These figures rose about at a time when masses needed something that in turn made such a figure magnetic, larger-than-life, turning Amelia Earhart into Amelia Earhart. Timing is essential to cultural resonance, and it’s a process more complex and more significant than some connect-the-dots achievement towards notoriety – there’s a reason it happened at this particular place and at this specific time and that’s what makes it interesting.

The central flaw and contradiction of Amelia is that it shows, through Richard Gere’s character, how celebrity is manufactured through media manipulation and commerce, yet the movie itself succumbs to the same clouding mythology that enables such a cult of the celebrity in the first place, elevating the figure being filmed to a status above the flawed, mortal human being while simultaneously relegating them to nothing more than an icon of delicately constructed significance rather than a fallible, imperfect, multidimensional personality. We don’t go to a biopic to see a famous person in the same way we’ve seen them everywhere else in media – we expect and deserve something more intimate and real.

What do you think? What are some biopics that you think work well and why?

Related Topics: