By Brett Yates
As we enter autumn, the fare at the movies starts to get a little more serious, which means that, from here on out, Hollywood’s offerings won’t consist solely of sequels and comic book adaptations. Some of the films out there—like the recently released “Sully” and “Snowden,” with their stern single-word titles demanding a popular familiarity and respect for their important protagonists—will, for instance, be biographical dramas.
In their typically reverential tedium, biopics represent perhaps the weakest of film genres, but telling the stories of great men may nevertheless be the task that Hollywood regards most solemnly of all its self-appointed duties, after the need to sustain and honor the memories of Holocaust victims: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has included at least one biopic among its Best Picture nominees every year since 2009.
The ceremony that broke the streak in 2008 fielded an unusual all-fiction lineup, sandwiched between 2009’s “Milk” and 2007’s “The Queen,” and you sort of have to wonder whether voters in the final year of the Aughts didn’t simply assume, based on its biopic-like title, that the heavily nominated but now mostly forgotten George Clooney legal thriller “Michael Clayton” told the true story of some titan of industry or politics—you’d probably otherwise have to go back to 1998 to find a set of nominees without a biopic, depending on how you classify movies like “The Hours” (based on a novel in which Virginia Woolf was a principal character) and “The Insider” (which concerned a tobacco industry whistleblower whose personal life, however, wasn’t the primary focus of the movie).
In fact, it’s often difficult to determine what is a biopic and what isn’t: the most recognizable species, possibly the worst kind, is the type that simply spans the life of its subject from beginning to end, a highlight reel broken up into something resembling structure by moments of discord and dysfunction. Others—like “Capote”—isolate a single representative period or episode from the subject’s life to stand in for the whole; however, these must be distinguished, subtly, from based-on-real-events dramas (like “Spotlight”) that are mostly interested in the events themselves rather than a particular person who participated in them.
The first biopic to win Best Picture was 1936’s musical “The Great Ziegfeld,” followed the very next year by “The Life of Emile Zola,” a story of the French novelist who transcended the limited significance of art when he publicly stood up for a Jewish military captain wrongly convicted of treason. Though little-seen today, this righteous, inspiring tale more or less set the blueprint for the Oscar-worthy biopic, although it wasn’t joined by another in the winner’s circle until 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” All in all, fourteen or fifteen specimens (depending on whether one counts the insanely boring “Olympic drama Chariots of Fire,” a sort of co-biopic about a Jewish athlete and his Christian peer) have taken home the big prize.
Looking back at the prominent biopics of earlier eras (“Patton,” “Gandhi”) and of the past couple years (“Steve Jobs,” “Trumbo,” “American Sniper,” “The Theory of Everything”), I’m struck by how male the genre is. With few recent exceptions (like “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon), big-budget biopics seem capable of addressing the lives of women pretty much only if Meryl Streep—whose “Out of Africa,” concerning the life of the writer Karen Blixen, won Best Picture in 1986—is involved. Streep later was nominated for her turn as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” and won an Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in the otherwise completely awful “The Iron Lady.”
Streep’s latest foray into the genre, “Florence Foster Jenkins” (released in August), tells the WWII-era story of a wealthy New York socialite who, as the world’s worst soprano, nevertheless proudly exhibited her vocal “talents” on stage and on wax, becoming a camp icon of her time. Although Streep, skillfully faking musical incompetence, occupies the center of each of the film’s major set pieces, her almost purely ridiculous character is shoved aside for a significant portion of the running time, and the movie’s dramatic hero ultimately becomes Jenkins’ husband, played by Hugh Grant, whose noble and loving efforts to allow his ill wife to fulfill her dreams without the interference of critics, hecklers, or reality in general—even as he conducts an affair with a younger woman—supply the narrative with suspense and ambiguity.
Similarly, the 2011 Marilyn Monroe biopic “My Week with Marilyn”—another rare female-oriented entry in the genre—chose to portray the life of the screen goddess indirectly, through the story of a youthful filmmaker who encountered her on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl”: it’s not so much about her as it about the young man’s experience of her. In this way, even the movies about women become movies about men. It was possibly for this reason that the critically derided David O. Russell comedy “Joy,” with Jennifer Lawrence as entrepreneur Joy Mangano, was so exciting to me: it was unapologetically about the life of a woman—a classic full biopic, unfurling from the heroine’s childhood, that found new life in the disorder of the genre.
Things may change someday; even so, the core values of the genre—in its literal-mindedness, in its belief that the stuff of headlines is the primary stuff of life and that “great deeds” and major historical events are of interest above all else—feel, to me, almost irreducibly male. The biopic exists, confusedly, to serve the public world of men, which of course wants to see itself on the big screen, even as art surely belongs to that other world, whatever it is.
By Brett Yates