The never-dying Celebrity Biopic: The diamonds and the rough

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

With biopics being announced every other week, Emma Kiely explores how the genre has invaded our screens, and what ones actually deserve the space.

Biopics are marketed as an insightful journey into the lives, painful or wonderful as they may be, of the most famous people to ever walk the earth. An all-access pass into the glamour, heartbreak, fame, and glory of world leaders, rock-stars, starlets, and murderers. Such prestige films include the life story of Cleopatra, Judy Garland, Malcolm X, and some woman who invented a mop. But they got Jennifer Lawrence to play her so we all convinced ourselves it was a story worth telling. Celebrity biopics have proven to be the meeting point between box office success and award prestige, so naturally hundreds of them are now churned out each year. The biopic effect has taken over our cinemas and screens. You need only turn your head to find yourself face to face with an actor dressed up to look like another actor staring smugly out of a ‘for your consideration’ poster.

We have to ask ourselves whether this mass supply of real-life films is taking away from the sentiment of the biopic. Are they really trying to honour their subject? Or are they just keeping the company suits happy? In recent years, the obsession with biopics has been furthered by the success of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018); the biopic of Freddy Mercury. Both the film itself and its star, Rami Malek, swept awards shows. The film made 900 million dollars and somehow won Best Editing (much to anyone who had seen the film’s outrage).  Since 2000, ten of the best actress and eleven of the best actor Oscars have gone to actors who played a real person. So when Rami Malek’s name was called at the Oscars, the celebrity biopic solidified its image as an actors’ one-way ticket to that stage and statue. 

Looking back at the evolution of the biopic film, The Story of The Kelly Gang, released in 1906, is considered the first ever feature-length biopic made. It was 1934 before a biopic received the fame that the genre would later become comfortably acquainted with, when Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra became the highest-grossing film of 1934. It was remade in 1963 and was noted as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s finest performances. And to no one’s surprise, it is being remade again with Gal Gadot. The biopic genre really does not live by the old adage “If it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it.”

Like all genres in film, there are diamonds to be found in the rough. Though in the celebrity biopic genre there is just so much rough. Failed biopics are usually just films seen for what they actually are, Oscar-bait. Amelia starring Hilary Swank as the titular pilot was dismissed by critics faster than you can say “conspiracy”. Naomi Watts put her career dangerously on the line when she tried to bring Lady Diana to the screen just for a place in the Oscar race. And let’s not forgot the biopic of London’s infamous Kray twins that was marketed with the line “Love Like a Legend” and then depicted Reggie Kray raping his wife who subsequently killed herself. 

If you want to see a celebrity biopic that is as authentic and engaging as the real-life story (unfortunately they’re the ones that don’t seem to be as successful at the box office) then look no further than Control. Anton Corbijn’s 2007 biopic depicts the real-life tragedy of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, played by one of the most sinfully underrated actors in the UK, Sam Riley. The film follows the rising success of Joy Division in Northern England in the 70s and the subsequent marital and personal problems of Curtis. It highlights the grim and bleak side of stardom, but without the hotel crashing and excessive alcohol and drugs that many rock and roll biopics love to home in on (Netflix’s The Dirt being a prime example). Curtis was known for his eccentric dancing on stage, due in part to his epilepsy which is another major theme of the film. Riley emulates it perfectly, without any sense of mocking. It’s a tragic tale in its purest form and the final scene, set against one of the band’s most famous songs, “Atmosphere,” will leave your heart throbbing for days. 

However, to me, the biopic to end all biopics, is Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. Natalie Portman stars as the first lady in the days after JFK’s assassination. Lerraín’s hazy, stream-of-consciousness style keeps the audience afloat during one of the biggest tragedies in modern American history. The chaos and calamity is interrupted by some of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen, as Jackie turns for guidance to John Hurt’s Catholic priest, as they stroll through the Massachusetts Winter countryside. Here you see the woman that lies beneath the Chanel suits and American dreams; a woman worried for her children and for her future as she walks into the unknown, with no man beside her for the first time in her life. Larraín captures the tragedy that circulates the American dynasty with such precision, yet the film is so hypnotic, feeling like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one dazed experience, much like the effect grief has on a person. It’s a side to the Kennedys that we’ve never seen before, omitting all the glamour and glory and peeling back to reveal what was actually there the entire time, grief and pain. 

Two honourable mentions, particularly for the true-crime community, are Patty Jenkins’ Monster with an unrecognisable Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos and Tom Hooper’s Longford starring Jim Broadbent. Lord Longford, a Labour politician, formed a close friendship with Myra Hindley when she was incarcerated for committing the infamous “Moors Murders” with her boyfriend Ian Brady in 1960s Manchester. Neither of these films glamorise the suffering or pain that surrounds these stories, but does offer a narrative that goes beyond the gory details. 

Now with Timothée Chalamet set to play Bob Dylan, Kate Bosworth as Sharon Tate, biopics on Elvis, Marianne Faithfull and David Bowie all lined up to take our money, it’s apparent that biopics will never end as long as people keep buying tickets. As these films are churned out in mass production it omits any sense of integrity, honour or respect which these films declare to have for their subject. That’s not to say that extends to all celebrity biopic films in existence. A really heart-warming fact that I learned whilst in San Francisco was that the town hall was damaged shooting a film in the early 2000s and the city declared that filming would never be permitted again in the building. Yet when Gus Van Sant said he needed the building for his biopic of Harvey Milk, the city agreed that he needed the town hall to tell Milk’s story right, and he was permitted three days of filming. Van Sant shot 30% of the film in those three days. 

So, like everything in life, there’s two ways about it. Do I think films can be an effective way to tell someone’s story, to have their subject’s voice heard or to celebrate their accomplishments? Yes. Do I think production companies are ruining it and churning out soulless celebrity biopics for money and prizes? Definitely. Would I be surprised to hear that they’re making a biopic about Kylie Jenner’s child next year starring Kim Kardashian’s child? Absolutely not.