With the Oscars on the horizon, our cinemas are predictably awash with bait for the Academy’s consideration. However, there is one genre of film that is seemingly the most appealing of all: the biographical film, or biopic, as it is better known.
Biopics have, in recent years, become a staple on the Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress nomination lists, and the film genre for which Oscar recognition is almost guaranteed. Last year, four of the ten nominees for Best Picture – The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network and 127 Hours – were biographical films, while Colin Firth was awarded Best Actor for his portrayal of King George VI. In the previous year, Sandra Bullock picked up her Best Actress Oscar for playing the evangelic surrogate mother of American football player Michael Oher in The Blind Side, the film based on Oher’s teenage years.
This is not to say that these films were necessarily unworthy of their Oscar nomination or their awards (although Sandra Bullock’s selection is, at least, highly debatable), but this trend indicates that Hollywood producers are becoming increasingly one-dimensional in their attempts to grab the attention of Oscar voters.
With biographical films becoming increasingly prevalent on Oscar night and with no sign of their production rate slowing this year, it is a good moment to reflect on the biopic genre. With films such as J. Edgar and The Iron Lady being considered by the Academy this year, Hollywood is being continually validated for producing mediocre biopics that prop up attention-grabbing lead performances. It seems that all Hollywood biopics have found the formula for awards and have become rather homogenous; a person with a unique talent or vision who must overcome opposition to their ideals is impersonated by a well-known actor, who, with a good make-up department and the appropriate weight adjustment, bears a striking resemblance to said person. Hollywood is overly focused on the presentation of the biographical subject and such films rely on close-ups of the actor to convey the deep emotions of the character, rather than give any kind of comprehensive study of the biographical subject, often leaving the productions without any real substance.
The main trouble with biopics is that they freely flit between the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. Despite using first-hand accounts, real events and, sometimes, archival television footage, biopics insist on fitting enigmatic and unique people from recent history into character archetypes and their lives into narrative conventions, so they can easily be consumed by a mainstream audience. For instance, the recent biopic J. Edgar, concerning J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial founder of the FBI, deals with the question of Hoover’s supposed homosexuality. The inclusion of such questioning, despite its foundation being based purely on rumour, is supposed to paradoxically create a more relatable and “real” character for the audience, thus allowing for close-ups of Leonardo DiCaprio to be encumbered with a false sense of meaning and feeling. This use of pure conjecture as fact in the film also prompts the question: to what extent are filmmakers allowed to stretch the details of their subject’s life for the sake of standard narrative structure and Oscar glory?
Condensing a person’s life into two hours of entertainment means that the biopic constructs characters with only a basis of selective set events. As a result, the biopic often serves more as a highlight reel of the subject’s life, rather than any kind of exploration of their influence or societal impact. This is no more apparent than in the recent Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. Margaret Thatcher was, undoubtedly, a divisive figure in British life during her time as Prime Minister, and the film never really takes a definitive standpoint on her politics, sailing through many of her most important decisions and their consequences in montage.
Furthermore, with movies such as The Iron Lady, the pre-existing perceptions of the biographical subject must be considered before committing their life story to film. Audiences, especially those who experienced the consequences of Thatcher’s political rule, have a strong opinion of Margaret Thatcher long before the lights go down, and it is impossible for them not impose their own perception onto Meryl Streep’s depiction of her on screen.
In a similar way to the summer schedule being full of blockbuster adaptations of comic books, the award season schedule is becoming increasingly saturated with biopics. In recent times, biographical films tend only to use pre-existing material of subjects’ lives, in lieu of any original content, and then shoehorn it into a satisfyingly conventional narrative structure for the pleasure of the Academy. Ultimately, Hollywood studios, with their apparent motivation to reconstruct every semi-notable person’s life on screen for the acquisition of golden statuettes, are forgetting the most important element of any biopic: the person themselves.