Enough with the Biopic

A Re-Examination of Cinema’s Least Interesting Genre

by Jon Lisi

5 January 2015

Life-spanning biopics are still the ultimate Oscar bait in 2014. Here’s hoping that no one will be biting in the future.
 

If 2014 has taught us anything about the state of cinema, it is that the biopic remains a highly privileged genre in the industry. It rests comfortably alongside the superhero blockbuster, the YA adaptation, and the always anticipated horror sequel as a staple in Hollywood’s creative arsenal. There have been biopics about famous politicians, infamous murderers, and everyday heroes. Just when audiences think that they have seen them all, along comes another one about this tortured musician or that ostracized activist. Hollywood, it seems, will not rest until every public figure’s life is depicted on the silver screen.

Perhaps the most common formula for the biopic involves the story beginning at childhood or some defining moment in youth, and then concluding at old age or an untimely death. These life-spanning biopics highlight the struggles and setbacks, and usually end with an uplifting scene that reinforces the significance of a real person’s legacy. Gandhi (1982) and Walk the Line (2005) are two model examples of the “life-spanning biopic”. Films that rely on conventions like these were sagely spoofed by John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), one of the funniest comedies in recent years.

Event biopics, on the other hand, chronicle an event in a real person’s life. Filmmakers do not bother to tell the life story, and instead focus on a specific period in time that rarely spans the course of a few years. These are films like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Moneyball (2011). Life-spanning biopics focus mostly on providing audiences with the greatest hits of a person’s life, whereas event biopics focus on one of these greatest hits and delve deeply into its implications for the person’s story.

Although there have been a number of excellent life-spanning biopics in the past, particularly Raging Bull (1980) and Malcolm X (1992), most of them are generic and repetitive, and lack the auteurist stamp that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee can provide. 2014’s The Theory of Everything, for example, could have been made by anybody, and indeed it feels like every other life-spanning biopic that came before. As we watch Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones portray the Hawkings, the only takeaway we’re given is that it sucks to suffer from disease, but life goes on anyway.

The life-spanning biopic has been around since the early days of Hollywood’s studio system. In Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (University of California Press, 1996), film historian Tino Balio explains that Hollywood produced life-spanning biopics at a rapid pace in the ‘30s in an attempt to garner prestige. Prestige pictures like the life-spanning biopic were given bigger budgets and stars, more elaborate costumes and sets, and a grander narrative scope. Films like The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939) sought to establish Hollywood’s sophistication, and elevate cinema as a respectable art form akin to literature and theater.

Many of these life-spanning biopics often received awards attention and critical praise. The Life of Emile Zola, for example, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was named the best film of 1937 by Film Daily and The New York Times. In addition, its star Paul Muni was taken seriously as an actor, and Balio notes that “Muni and the Warners biopic set a high standard, and the appearance of a star in a biopic was taken as an index of his or her seriousness as an artist” (192).

cover art

The Theory of Everything

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis

(Universal)
US theatrical: 26 Nov 2014 (General release)
UK theatrical: 1 Jan 2015 (General release)
2014

Cinema has changed drastically since the ’30s, but the life-spanning biopic continues to be considered a prestigious subgenre, and movie stars continue to appear in them in order to earn credibility as accomplished actors. 2014, for example, has given us the aforementioned The Theory of Everything about physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Jones), The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Unbroken about Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), among others. Despite a few exceptions, namely the decision to shoot in color, these films are problematically similar to the life-spanning biopics released in the ‘30s. These similarities suggest that Hollywood has not found a way to reinvent the subgenre for 21st century moviegoers.

Life-spanning biopics are a cheap ploy for the industry to garner awards attention. They are produced solely for this purpose, and they give newcomers like Redmayne an opportunity to overact for their peers. One would not be unreasonable to venture that in Hollywood, you are not considered a serious actor until you can portray the life of a real person. This conjecture is evinced by the respect that is bestowed upon actors in these life-spanning biopics, as well as those in the past like Jamie Foxx (Ray), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) and Ben Kingsley (Gandhi). The more mimicry and makeup that is needed, the better, and if you happen to play a person with a debilitating disease, like Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, you are bound for Oscar glory. All of your peers will acknowledge how “brave” you are to take on such a challenging role.

The industry must realize that not everyone needs to have a film made about them, and not every biopic needs to chronicle a real person’s entire existence. If the industry wants to remain relevant, it must distinguish between life-spanning biopics and event biopics, and produce more of the latter and less of the former.

cover art

Foxcatcher

Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall

(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 14 Nov 2014 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2015 (General release)
2014

A number of event biopics were released in 2014, and they are among the most memorable motion pictures of the year. Foxcatcher, for example, portrays the tragic relationship between John du Point (Steve Carrel), Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), and director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman wisely limit the narrative’s scope to when the Schultz brothers joined Team Foxcatcher to train for the 1988 Olympics. This allows the audience to study the psychology of the characters, and contemplate what led du Pont to commit murder. By focusing on a specific period in time, the filmmakers provide more insight into these people than a life-spanning biopic ever could, precisely because they are able to slow the story down and focus on the details.

Other films in 2014 similarly follow Miller’s path, such as Selma and Wild. Selma stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., and director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb highlight King’s involvement in the civil rights marches of Selma, Alabama in 1965. Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of self-discovery, stars Reese Witherspoon as a woman who treks the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in order to find herself. Both of these films focus on a particular period in a person’s life, and neither of them attempts to chronicle the entire existence. As with Foxcatcher, this enables the filmmakers to delve more deeply into the characters’ mental and emotional states.

When made well, event biopics are more fascinating than life-spanning biopics because filmmakers are able to do more with less. Life-spanning biopics, with their tendency to show us all the major events that happened to a person, inevitably follow the same narrative formula, and ironically fail to illustrate anything interesting about the person it aims to aggrandize. Rather than offer insights into the person’s character, they merely highlight events in a person’s life without bothering to contextualize or consider the cumulative significance. They fail to convince us why we should care, other than because the person being portrayed is already an established public figure with a reputation.

Event biopics, on the other hand, do not take the audience’s devotion for granted, and make an effort to persuade the viewer why this particular event in a person’s life warrants the cinematic treatment, and convinces the viewer that real life is often more dramatic than fiction. The “based on a true story” banner renders event biopics more relevant, and makes for a more powerful cinematic experience. Foxcatcher is as carefully constructed as the best fiction, but since the people actually existed and the events actually took place, the audience cannot help but be more involved in the narrative.

Life-spanning biopics perpetuate laziness within the industry. They normalize a production culture in which filmmakers rely on the established reputations of their subjects to lure audiences into the theaters. They assume that audiences will flock to see a film about Hawking simply because he was a popular figure. The only way to halt the production of these films is if audiences stop paying to see them, and awards groups stop honoring them. The Theory of Everything is the epitome of all that is wrong with the life-spanning biopic, and it shows that little has changed since the subgenre’s industrial establishment in the ‘30s. The Theory of Everything is not the only life-spanning biopic released in 2014, but it is the most egregious case of Hollywood capitulating to tired tropes. By contrast, the event biopic genre continues to prove itself fascinating, and I welcome the industry to produce more provocative films like Foxcatcher in the future.

An example somewhere in between the event and life-spanning biopic is helpful here. In 2007, Todd Haynes released I’m Not There., the definitive anti-biopic. In the film, Haynes chronicles musician Bob Dylan’s life, as a traditional life-spanning biopic would, but has different actors play different Dylan personas; it is never clear which persona is inspired by Dylan’s life and which is inspired by his work. I was bewildered by this bold experiment, and hoped that it would reinvigorate the subgenre for a new generation of filmmakers in the 21st century. Despite the film’s immediate success, it failed to inspire change within the industry.

The life-spanning biopic is arguably the only subgenre that has stayed the same since the early days of the studio system. It has escaped revision because it is too insular and does not leave enough room for flexibility. The only option is for filmmakers to chronicle the trials and tribulations of a person’s life from youth to old age, and since that has been done countless times, the subgenre is rendered redundant. Lame attempts to switch things up by rearranging the chronological order of events, as Phyllida Lloyd does in The Iron Lady (2012), do not cut it.

Every once and a while, a filmmaker like Haynes comes along to experiment with the form and breathe new life into the life-spanning biopic. In most cases, however, little changes, and the industry reverts back to the usual rubric. If the industry wants to sustain its sophistication in the digital era, it must either substantially reduce the production of life-spanning biopics, or at the very least reinvigorate the formulaic nature of these films. In addition, directors and writers ought to focus more on event biopics that provide brief glimpses into the lives of real people.

I believe that this may happen sooner than we think; already, I cannot help but wonder if the culture is beginning to shift. Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, for example, was not nominated for any Golden Globe or Screen Actors Guild awards, despite the obvious push in recent months by Universal Pictures. This is the kind of uplifting life-spanning biopic that would have been celebrated years ago, but now it appears there’s more interest in innovative fiction like Boyhood, Birdman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, in addition to event biopics like Selma, Foxcatcher, and Wild. Is this indicative of a cinema culture that has finally moved past the life-spanning biopic, or of a particular film that for whatever reason has failed to catch on? Only time will tell, of course, but I remain optimistic that life-spanning biopics like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game are lingering in the undertow of a wave that has already crashed.

Splash Image: Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

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