Charlotte Palmer discusses the tropes which make-up the much loved biopic
Sitting down to watch a film on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon, I once again see those words slowly appear on the black screen’s surface – “based on true events”. It is another comforting biopic at the dismal tail end of the week, complete with: sensational plot, cheap swells of emotion, staggeringly good likenesses, egregious factual omissions, and the needless idealisation of people who are already highly idealised.
Maybe I am being too harsh. After all, it is those traits that make the big, bankable biopics usually so easy to watch, with their clichéd inspirational and motivational endings. The exception is Selma, Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the march to Montgomery from the titular capital of Alabama for the right for black Americans to vote. Selma shows that not all are confined within these tropes.
What then is the appeal of biopics? What is it that makes audiences and awards voters alike return to laud them time and again? These films can often be formulaic at the expense of a decent script and cinematography – witness the bland sturdiness of The Imitation Game. For biopics the transformation of the actor is their great special effect. It is the actor’s ability to convince those watching them that they are watching the real person, which attracts much attention. Once the marvellous performances have been appreciated, what is left? A mediocre, reductive script, bland visuals and the sense that it all could have been 15 minutes shorter. Slightly arrogant and stentorian in their approach, biopics love to tell you that their characters are great people and that you should not dare to disagree.
These films are usually easy watches, as there is not a lot of room for subjectivity. The filmmaker carries out the arduous task of researching their subject’s life, and then they have to decide on an angle, on what parts to leave out, what to elaborate on, and which historical facts to ride roughshod over. In all fairness, the filmmakers must pick a perspective that they then have to stick to for two hours or more. Despite accusations that the films is marred by patriotism in its one-sided view of the Iraq war, the Clint Eastwood-directed American Sniper made $89.2 million in three days, a record total for a January wide release. There is little room for filmmakers to explain ambiguities in fact or feeling, discrepancies between the film’s events and those in real life, or, most importantly, the fact that another person, another character, might have had a completely different experience of how things transpired. Rigidity is inevitable if the filmmakers do not want to get lost in such trifling technicalities as who says what, when, and why, because their film would never get made – it would never fit the shape of a palatable, uncomplicated narrative.
Perhaps this is what fascinates us about biopics. It is the unspoken boundary between truth and fiction that makes them worthwhile. The interest lies in wondering why the filmmaker made certain decisions and why they thought that those decisions would make a more edifying, or bankable film. Foxcatcher is an unsettling story about billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) and his wrestling protégé Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and the catastrophes that are caused by their partnership. Director Bennett Miller decided to change, and indeed amplify, du Pont’s mannerisms. Although his speech patterns and appearance are, in reality, strikingly odd, Carrell as du Pont speaks even more slowly, quietly and raspingly. Exaggerating the characteristics of the real-life subject can make more intriguing and immersive viewing.
My absolute favourite biopic, is the epically clichéd and helplessly goose-bumpy Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix on top puppy-eyed form as Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon as an impossibly beautiful June Carter. The whole film is just bonkers. All the country music celebrities are included – from a young Elvis Presley to Jerry Lee – and are accompanied by earnest musical interludes. I love Walk the Line for those typical biopic traits – the swells of cheap emotion, the sheer pointlessness. It has so many problems that it is hard to know where to begin.
The story is utterly skewed towards Cash – the ultimate American reformed rebel. The portrayal of his first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) is so offensively one-sided that the real Vivian actually wrote a book after the film was released, in an admittedly slightly over-the-top way of separating herself from the harpy she saw onscreen. Watching Walk the Line makes you wonder how the story would go if it were told from Vivian, or June’s, point of view. But it’s not – they are not the American heroes.
Perhaps that is the point of biopics – they are not really meant to embody the lives of real people. They instead represent the film-ready version, which has been shaped to fit the mould of a linear story, romanticising a life, or often further romanticising a mythic figure. A film produces an appetising version of a life that is going to sell at the box office. With film studios repeatedly falling back on safe choices, it is likely that more biopics will be made in the future. It is not necessarily the quality of them that’s the problem, but the boredom-inducing quantity.
Selma is in cinemas on the 6th February.
Featured Image: Atsushi Nishijima