Please Explain: Biopics

As a child, I loved seeing movies about famous historical people. Films like “Pride of the Yankees” and “Brian’s Song” had a way of showing these men as mythical figures. Sorry, but my innocence left a long time ago, and so did the appeal of biographical motion pictures.

The first problem I have with these films is how can you show someone’s entire life in a 2 hour time frame? Sure you can demonstrate some of their characteristics and even a few major events that happened to them, but it is bound to fail compared to any decent biographical book on the same subject.

Even one of the best biopics ever made, “Malcolm X” falls short, because how can you condense such a man in a little more than 3 hours and get the real truth? Author Alex Haley’s 2 greatest works were the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots”. The latter was presented in a long TV mini-series, which allowed for enough time to give a true essence of Haley’s book. While Spike Lee did a great job of hitting the bullet points of Malcolm X’s life by basing the screenplay on X’s auto-biography as told to Haley, the lack of time Lee has causes the film to fail versus the book.

Another problem I have with the genre is that it’s hard to focus on the story. I say this because no matter how good a job someone does portraying the actor, it’s hard to watch the film without thinking “hey, Jaime Foxx is doing a good job impersonating Ray Charles.” This problem keeps me from staying truly connected to the film.

I have been friends for a long time with Frank Caliendo, who I believe is the pre-eminent impressionist in the world. I name drop here to establish that I’m not a snob about people who mimic the famous. I love to watch people impersonate others in a comedy sketch or on a talk show panel, but even I am not about to spend 10 bucks at my local cineplex to watch “Boom! The John Madden Story”.

When I finish watching a well-done biopic, I can acknowledge that the people involved with the film did a nice job, but I also feel kind of empty from the experience. There is something about seeing a big Hollywood film covering the life of a famous person which leaves me with that “made for TV movie” feeling.

The one way a biopic can still connect with me is by showing the life of someone I know little or nothing about. The best of the genre are “Raging Bull” and “The Elephant Man”, which both follows this formula. Jake LaMotta and Joseph Merrick were not household names and their lives didn’t exist in your high school history textbook. By not knowing much background about the protagonist, these extraordinary films are able to engross their audience much like a great fictional screenplay does.

The one director who has managed to make consistently interesting, if not flawed biopics is Oliver Stone. Stone plays loose with the facts to the point where his films are more docudramas than true historically-accurate recreations. “Nixon” and “The Doors” do a great job of displaying the essence of character (or lack thereof) from the famous men they focus on. Similar to the historical fiction of a Gore Vidal, Stone tries to make a broader point than “here is where Nixon’s and Morrison’s boyhood homes were”, taking on more the social significance their lives had in impacting the times that they lived in.

Historical movies which cover short periods are a whole different matter, as the good ones never have a “paint by the numbers” feel. “Schlindler’s List”, “Hoosiers”, “Rob Roy”, and “Braveheart” are some of the best films I’ve ever seen, as by covering a short period of time, they have a more authentic sensibility to them. While technically considered biopics, I think of them as being in a different category, as these films are focused more on a specific event, not just covering one famous person.

I’m done with movies like “Walk the Line”, “Ray”, and “Ali”. If I want to learn about Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, or Muhammad Ali, I will pick up a book or watch a documentary. I think most biopics are great for kids who want to learn more about a famous historical figure, but besides a few exceptions, I feel they are vanity exercises for the participants involved in making the film. Please Explain why I’m off on Biopics.

18 thoughts on “Please Explain: Biopics

  1. 2.  Hey, I didn’t say Stone is always right-on when it comes to dialogue or casting. (See Meg Ryan in The Doors.)

    Kilmer was brilliant, though. The only biopic performance I can think of off the top of me noggin that I liked better was Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin. I guess DeNiro wasn’t too shabby in Raging Bull, either. (insert smiley face)

  2. 3.  My problem with biopics of the ultra-famous is that you know how the movie ends from the beginning. “Walk the Line” was a good movie, well-acted, etc. – but I knew that he gets the girl in the end. Where’s the suspense in that?

    “Ali” vs. “When We Were Kings.” That’s enough to explain the sentiment of your last paragraph.

  3. 4.  In the end, it seems like your problem with biopics is akin to many people’s problems with novels being adapted to movies. You just end up not getting the complete picture that you do with a novel. And like the best biopics, the best literary adaptations tend to be of books that are not well-known or fairly short and focused.

  4. 5.  I think biopics work as a genre when they are presenting a cliff-note version of someone’s life who’s interesting, but not interesting enough to the viewer to read a whole biography or watch a documentary. If Ray Charles or Johnny Cash are two of your favorite people, I don’t think you’re going to want to see Ray or Walk The Line to get information about them.

    With those two movies, specifically, your watching for the acting and singing. You know you’re not going to see The 400 Blows (or the adult film of the same name).

    If anything, I have more of a problem with Oliver Stone. I don’t want the Cliff Notes on history.

  5. 6.  Scott, I don’t really plan to disagree with you about biopics (don’t bifocals help people who are biopic?), but I think you’re missing a big reason why some of the more recent ones don’t work. The reason is that when the subject is a popular culture figure from the second half of the twentieth century, there’s already so much footage of the actual person and their image and face are so familiar, that there’s no need to have an actor portray them. A perfect example of this is Ali. Why was that movie necessary when When We Were Kings told the same story using footage of the actual men involved? One of the reasons men such as Ali, Cash and Charles are worthy of these films is that they were so incredibly unique. Foxx did a great job, and Smith did passable one, but Phoenix wasn’t even close, and it destroyed the movie. Nixon and The Doors, despite strong lead performances, suffered similar problems (as well as the others that come with them being Oliver Stone films). This is why there will never be a good Elvis film. It can’t be done. In an time in which documentaries are becoming increasingly mainstream, the biopic, despite it’s recent popularity, has become something of an anachronism when the subject is a recent public figure.

    That said, for less photographed figures (LaMotta, Merrick) or pre-photographic figures (Motzart leaps to mind), the biopic is still an effective genre to my mind. Books can tell you what happened, but a good biopic gives you a sense of atmosphere, costume, setting etc. you just can’t get from text.

  6. 7.  I enjoy biopics if they’re done well, but I suppose that’s true for any movie.

    Like you said, the less you know about a subject, the better. Writers are able to take more liberties with the character then, as well.

    My favorite recent biopic is Cinderella Man. I knew absolutely nothing of Jim Braddock, and I suppose that helped. I didn’t even know if he became champion, lost the title bout, or died in the ring. His life was a blank slate to me.

    I enjoyed Ray and Walk the Line as well, though I knew a little more about both protagonists. I was only able to forget I was watching Foxx and Phoenix for but a few seconds here and there. Still, I enjoyed the performances and music enough to recommend both pics.

  7. 8.  it’s hard to watch the film without thinking “hey, Jaime Foxx is doing a good job impersonating Ray Charles.” This keeps me from staying truly connected to the film

    This could be remedied somewhat by casting unrecognizable actors in the lead roles. That seldom happens, of course, because the people making the movies care more about making money than they do about making good films.

    Another problem with these movies is that it seems inevitable that much/most of the dialogue is invented by the screenwriters, who can (whether intentionally or not) manipulate viewers’ opinions of the characters in the films with the words put into their mouths.

    I rarely watch these movies, and when I do, I rarely like them.

  8. 9.  I like the discussion here. Cliff really nails it with the advent of so many extra media avenues which cover celebrities so extensively.

    I did like Cinderella Man for many of the same reasons as was discussed. I had never seen Braddock fight, so I could sit back and enjoy Crowe’s performance. It was a bit too Hollywood during certain moments, but Crowe is such a powerful actor that I was willing to accept more of this schmaltz.

    The idea of using an unknown actor is an interesting idea. I think of the Buddy Holly Story, which was really good. I’d never seen Gary Busey before this film and his performance was the reason that a low-budget film was so good.

    Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Tom Hulce in Amadeus, and Forest Whitaker in Bird were the 3 other musical biopic performances that I can think of that I’ve liked a lot. Didn’t know a lot about any of the 3 and outside of a few old clips of Mozart on Youtube, hadn’t seen any of the figures on video. *

  9. 10.  Can’t think of anything better then having Kirsten Dunst sitting on my lap while I’m eating a frosty and watching “Walk the Line”.

  10. 11.  First of all, Caliendo was awesome on Letterman the other night.

    But re: biopics, it may be all well and good for you to pick up a book and read about these famous figures Scott, but how much of the moviegoing public is willing (or able) to do this? I’m talking not only about the cost of books, which in itself is quite a bit higher than movies these days, but the time and mental energy it takes to put yourself fully in someone else’s shoes as opposed to sitting in a theater for 2-3 hours and watching a movie. I mean sure, “Malcolm X” was a terrific book, but did people read or even know about it before the movie was made?

  11. 15.  10 That would certainly improve the experience of watching that movie.

    11 Are you serious re: The Autobiography of Malcolm X or am I being to thick to pick up on your vicious sarcasm?

  12. 16.  Walk the Line showed a very limited portion of Cash’s life, which was cool. I kind of agree with you that the whole birth-to-death-with-fine-print-addendum-before-the-credits has been done to death. Ray was just OK.

    I think of a movie like 8 Mile, which isn’t exactly a biopic but avoids the biopic (or semi/pseudo/quasi-biopic) cliche by showing a very limited time elapsed. As Ebert noted, instead of being the usual rags-to-riches, it was rags-to-better-rags. That’s also why I liked Walk The Line. A lesser movie would have shown 40 years instead of 10 (or whatever it limited itself to).

    I think post 11 was not sarcastic at all. Remember, 50% of the population is below average in intelligence. And Malcolm X is a figure from a bygone era. Collectively, we have a short memory.

  13. 17.  I think the problem with Biopics, is that the focus on accuracy usually leads to a boring, by the numbers movie. The obsession with recreating people on the screen is ludicrous. I would much rather watch compelling fiction than a 100% accurate mimicry of some famous person’s life. Then I don’t usually read biographies either. I usually don’t care about the life details of people I admire. The best biographies usually involve a specific historic period of time and several people (Positively Fourth Street, about Bob Dylan, the Baez sisters and Richard Farina springs to mind). Apparently, a ton of new biopics are coming out soon, including Johnny Depp as Freddy Mercury and Zooey whoever playing Janis Joplin. snore.

  14. 18.  What 17 said!

    I’ve felt that way since Geoffrey Rush beat out Billy Bob for the best actor Oscar by doing the best impression rather than the best acting.

    Cliff is also dead on up in number 6.

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