The Problem With The Biopic Genre

Ignoring some of the ethical problems surrounding making a film about such a divisive figure whilst she is still alive, let’s take a minute and ask ourselves whether any biopic ever needs to be made in this day and age? I mean, back when cinema was still in its infancy the biopic was a go-to genre for many Hollywood producers, but the people they chose were either so-called “idols of production”, inspirational figures known for doing great things, like Florence Nightingale (The Victoria Cross, 1912), or historical figures such as Cleopatra (Cleopatra, 1917). One possible reason for this focus on biographical stories was that people were still suspicious of the medium, and choosing to make a film about someone people are aware of, was an easy and reliable way of getting bums on seats. What’s that? Producers falling back on reliable genres just to make a buck, sound familiar?

Perhaps the fascination with the biopic these days points more to the fascination with celebrities. Back then the concept of celebrity didn’t really exist in the same way it does now: people knew who these films were about, but they didn’t know their life stories already and, more importantly, Youtube wasn’t already full of videos of the character in question, their lives hadn’t already been documented, recorded and placed in the public domain. Youtube hadn’t even been invented yet. Hell, the internet hadn’t even been invented yet! What an age. I heard that they shat in the street n’ all.

In the grand scheme of things I suppose Margaret Thatcher is a ripe subject for dramatisation, considering her life was one massive drama already. There’s a lot of angles to come at the film from too: a woman in a man’s world rising to succession against the odds; her legacy now in comparison with the current political climate; her various political acts and love affair with despotic General Pinochet…what do you mean that didn’t happen?

You can’t blame producers for green-lighting biopics, considering they’re always there or thereabouts come award season – 5 of the last 7 winners of the Best Actor Oscar have played historical figures (Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Colin Firth as King George). Meryl Streep practically has the gong in her hand already for her performance as Maggie, but will an imitation – often a very good imitation but, essentially, mimicry, like what Allistair McGowan does – ever match up to an original cinematic character, created from an original story, a tight script and an actor at the top of his craft? A biopic has never given us a Travis Bickle. It has given us Jake LaMotta, which proves that Martin Scorsese is perhaps the only director who can polish a turd.

Essentially, there is one word that can be used to sum up the biopic, and before I reveal to you what this word is (edge of your seats), I should point out some biopics which don’t fit into this category. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pucini’s American Splendor, which plays with the idea of whether a piece of art can ever create an accurate image of a real person; Sofia Coppola‘s ultra-stylish Marie Antoinette; the aforementioned Raging Bull, one of the finest films ever made. None of these films are what biopics almost always are – formulaic. Walk The Line, Ray, The King’s Speech, Finding Neverland, The Queen, good though they all are, are all pretty much the same film, just with a different star / obstacle to overcome, a fact beautifully parodied by Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan in 2007’s Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story. Planned biopics about Jade Goody and Susan Boyle show that there’s no shortage of interest in seeing lives already played out on screen played out on a slightly bigger screen. It’s only a matter of time before the cinema consists of a string of internet clips of our favourite celebrities, ordered chronologically from birth to death, like some bizarre Orwellian nightmare. Still, at least we’ll be charged extra to watch it in 3D, eh?

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