It’s no secret that a biopic is the surest route to Oscar love. Academy voters need only catch a glimpse of artfully applied facial prosthetics and hear an actor’s best impression of a historical figure, and they’re swooning. But considering how critically well-regarded and frequently made biopics are, it’s shocking how many of them wildly miss the mark.
That’s because there’s a certain art to the biopic that many filmmakers are either unaware of or willfully ignore. It’s almost as though the mere fact that they’re telling a true story makes them feel that they have a duty to be as boring and conventional as possible. But they needn’t fear, because we’re here to sort this whole thing out once and for all.
The Actual Performance
It seems like this should be the hardest element to completely botch, but it’s actually where many biopics trip over themselves: How do we properly bring to life these historical figures? A lot of importance is placed on making an actor look and sound as much as possible like the person they’re portraying. But fake teeth and spirit gum do not a compelling performance make. It’s obviously beneficial if an actor bears at least a passing resemblance to the character, but in the quest for a picture-perfect match there’s a real danger of an actor becoming over-reliant on all the makeup and padding, and turning in a performance that’s little more than impersonation.
Although Rami Malek received an Oscar for his efforts as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, he’s a prime example of this common misstep. As the famed music icon, approximately 80% of his performance comes from a set of very distracting prosthetic teeth and second-rate mimicry. Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017) falls into the same category. He’s doing a pretty impressive impersonation of the beloved prime minister, but at no point is the audience truly able to forget that they’re watching Gary Oldman in a fat suit and 10 pounds of makeup.
Contrast that with John Lithgow’s performance of the same role in the Netflix series The Crown. While Lithgow looks and sounds less like Churchill than Oldman does, he somehow manages to capture his spirit and personality in a way that helps us understand who he really was beyond the speeches and almost mythological status he acquired.
Of course, there’s an exception to every rule. In The Elephant Man (1980), for instance, John Hurt’s laborious transformation into John Merrick seems to have given the actor greater access to his suffering.
It certainly helps when the historical figure is well-known but not necessarily an icon. The Aviator (2004) is able to get away with a lot because viewers aren’t particularly familiar with what Howard Hughes actually looked like. Leonardo DiCaprio’s under no pressure to perform an impersonation and can focus instead on bringing a three-dimensional character to life. Oddly enough, he should have had that same opportunity when he was cast in the lead role in J. Edgar (2011) — no one cares what the FBI director looked like — but Clint Eastwood still felt the need to bury him in poorly applied aging makeup which lessened the impact of his performance.
The Aviator also shows that if you’re aiming for a straight impersonation of an icon, you better not miss. Cate Blanchett’s Academy Award-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn is a master class — she somehow manages to capture her voice and mannerisms and spirit so effortlessly that at times it’s possible to forget that it isn’t actually Hepburn on screen.
It’s also important to make sure that films are being made for the right reasons, and not to embrace the vanity project. Approximately zero hearts were charmed by the decision to have a 45-year-old Kevin Spacey star as young Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (2004), or when Johnny Depp had an entire film built around the fact that he wanted to play Whitey Bulger in Black Mass (2015). Just because you really want to play a character in a film doesn’t mean that you should.
There’s a gulf the size of the Grand Canyon between saying, “Hey, there should be a movie about [insert historical figure]” and actually writing a worthwhile script about them. And to be fair, that is a pretty tall order. You’re dealing with a person’s entire life; how are you supposed to decide which are the important parts?
A lot of writers elect to postpone this decision indefinitely, and just throw everything in there. That’s why we have so many bloated biopics that begin with a few obligatory scenes from childhood, then the teen years, adulthood, and maybe even old age if someone really didn’t want to edit their magnum opus. It’s not a problem in and of itself — there are plenty of biopics that follow this tried and true formula and succeed. Chaplin (1992), for example, gives us almost every single moment of Charlie Chaplin’s life, and it’s delightful. But a lot of that is due to Robert Downey Jr’s inhumanly charismatic turn as the silent film star, which to this day is probably the performance of his career.
More often than not, this kitchen sink approach has the effect of creating a muddled, unfocused narrative and exposes a filmmaker as not really understanding what story they want to tell. Haifaa al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley (2017) tries to do way too much, with characters and plot elements introduced and then discarded seemingly at random.
Instead, many of the more creative and successful biopics opt for one of two storytelling devices:
Focusing the narrative
Why tell the entire life story of a historical figure when you can zero in on a specific part of their life that reflects who they were as a person? Lincoln (2012) covers just a few months as Abe tries to get Congress to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Stan & Ollie (2018) focuses on Laurel and Hardy’s final live tour, a last grasp at relevance during their twilight years. Frost/Nixon (2008) doesn’t bother to cover David Frost’s entire television career or Nixon’s presidency, just the events leading up to their famous interview showdown. All of this allows for a more tightly constructed narrative, and one where we have room to breathe rather than being whisked around to a dozen different time periods.
Shifting the lens
There’s something to the idea of seeing our historical figure through the eyes of a tangential character. In Amadeus (1984), the focus is undeniably on Mozart, but it’s colored by how Salieri, a man torn to pieces by Mozart’s unparalleled genius, views him as a musical rival. Salieri could practice for the rest of his life and never equal the drunken, buffoonish prodigy. We learn everything we need to know about Mozart through Salieri’s bitter jealousy.
My Friend Dahmer (2017) carries on in a similar vein. It’s always wise to tread lightly when dealing with films about serial killers, lest we glamorize their behavior or cause anguish to victims’ families by insensitively depicting the murders. But My Friend Dahmer takes a different tack, one that neatly sidesteps these issues and effectively drives home the chilling reality of how little you really know about the people who surround you: It shows Dahmer as a young man through the eyes of a fellow student at his high school, one who befriends him without realizing the monster he would eventually become.
The Battle Between Fidelity and Style
Obviously, it’s great to have a biopic that is historically accurate and doesn’t spend the entire film making things up in pursuit of a better story (or worse, erasing key parts of the historical figure’s identity in an attempt to make them more “palatable” to audiences.) But it’s just as important, if not more so, to develop a cinematic style that reflects who the person actually was.
To turn the story of Elton John’s life into a brash, over-the-top musical spectacular while at the same time framing it all with his journey to sobriety as Rocketman feels exactly right. In contrast, to make a movie about Freddie Mercury and Queen that is so PG-13 and conventional and dare we say chaste is an insult to the famously flamboyant rocker’s memory. This hurts films especially when they try to tackle creative icons. Sure, The King’s Speech (2010) is unimaginative and bog-standard, but it doesn’t chafe as much because one could hardly expect an avant-garde film about one of the most down-to-earth and conventional royals in English history.
Matt Smith puts in an excellent performance in Mapplethorpe (2018), about the famously controversial and profane NYC photographer. But to have a dull and by-the-numbers film made about him is the last thing that guy would have wanted — he lived to rile people up! And Mary Shelley was a pretty dark and macabre figure, so why is so little of that supreme goth presence in the film about her?
There are a lot of fascinating ways that creatively ambitious filmmakers have found to inject their subject’s energy into the film. I, Tonya (2017) plays with the frenetic, he-said-she-said nature of Tonya Harding’s narrative by having Margot Robbie break the fourth wall and insist that even her own film is getting the story wrong. In Marie Antoinette (2006), Sofia Coppola subverts the expectations of a historical biopic by cultivating a modern, youthful decadence that perfectly captures the person even as it takes significant liberties with the events. At Eternity’s Gate (2018) uses distorted visuals and sound to give audiences an insight into how Vincent Van Gogh may have actually processed the world around him. All of these techniques are effective in exploring and celebrating the life of an extraordinary person.
As we can see, the road to making a successful biographical feature is long and full of perils. The more beloved the historical figure, the higher the stakes. But it can be done, if one is careful to avoid the missteps as outlined here. Really, the greatest asset a filmmaker can have while making a biopic is a little bit of imagination. A straight line may be the most direct path between two points, but it’s hardly the most interesting.