Or, So You Think You Can Win An Oscar?
If there’s one reliable route to Oscar-dom, it’s the biopic. The Academy bloody loves a good biopic. It even loves an average one. If an actor needs a pick-me-up, there’s no surer way than playing a real-life actual human being. Extra points for bald, fat or skinny, obviously.
This year’s nominees included Spotlight, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies and The Revenant amongst the Best Pictures, plus Steve Jobs, Joy, Trumbo and Straight Outta Compton among the acting and writing categories. Of the eight biggest awards, only one (Brie Larson for Room) went to a piece of pure fiction. This was, in short, a very good year for films based on real events and real people.
What works so well about many of these films, though, is that they don’t feel like traditional biopics. If you don’t know what that feeling is exactly, you need only watch the trailer for The Man Who Knew Infinity, the upcoming film based on the life of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan:
Feel familiar? You might be forgiven for mistaking it for another film based on the life of a notable academic:
It’s a parody only insofar as no one’s got around to making it yet.
Infinity is part of a certain class of biopic that must now be considered the most formulaic film around. Forget the bigger-bigger-bigger trend of Hollywood blockbusters, the worst offenders of predictability and cliché are the worthy, cradle-to-grave, often British biopics. Recent examples include The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and The King’s Speech. Bad films? Not per se. Predictable? As they come.
The best biopics would all be great films whether their characters were real people or not. Ultimately it didn’t matter if Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer was real any more than it mattered that Seven’s John Doe was fictional; Zodiac would still rank amongst the finest films of the millennium if James Vanderbilt and David Fincher had invented the character whole-cloth. Can the same honestly be said about The Theory of Everything? How much weight would that story hold without real-life Steven Hawking?
Clint Eastwood’s recent output is a good point of comparison. It’s the difference between Invictus and American Sniper, and J. Edgar. Fictionalise the first, and you’ve got an engaging underdog sports movie set against a backdrop of racial tension; Sniper and you’ve got a Hurt Locker-style dramatic thriller; but it’s not clear what would be left of the latter if it didn’t carry the weight of Hoover the man.
There are great and famous and important people whose lives absolutely merit two-hours on the big screen. There are also plenty – plenty – who do not. Stature is not enough; neither is fame or success or anything else that isn’t story. Story maintains a film. Story keeps us interested.
If we’re just watching a series of vignettes connected by an ‘and then and then and then’, then save our time and distribute the Wikipedia article. Great biopics aren’t highlight reels or timelines; they’re dramas and thrillers and comedies and even, in the case of Straight Outta Compton, hip-hop superhero origin stories that have more in common with The Avengers than Walk the Line or Get On Up.
The torrent of biographical films isn’t stopping anytime soon; not as long as they maintain their grip on awards season, continue to provide capital-A Acting opportunities for actors, and (to some degree) coddle fearful studios in a blanket of existing intellectual property. The best biopics have always been more than just a showy performance and solid craft, though. They best biopics have always been able to stand on their own, shoulder-to-shoulder with their fictionalised brethren.
So a few more Steve Jobs-s and a few less Danish Girl-s, please. A few more Social Network-s and Captain Phillips-s and Wolf of Wall Street-s. These are the biopics that stand the test of time. The stature of the person doesn’t bestow greatness on these films. These films are great regardless.