How to walk the line between fact & fiction

Regardless of the truth, biopics are Oscar staple

Oscar season is biopic season for obvious reasons. First off, biopics are almost always serious-minded, whether it be the recently nommed “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” or the 2002 best pic, “A Beautiful Mind.”

In some respects, biopics are the ultimate chance for actors to show their chops. What better way for a thesp to let audiences know that he’s branched out from his own comfortable persona than by embodying someone else whom people already know from another context? Better yet, the performer often has to put on weight or alter his face, thus showing far he’s willing to sacrifice appearance in favor of commitment to craft.

And then there’s all that research.

“I met with his generals. I met with ministers. I met his girlfriend. I met with so many people,” says Forest Whitaker of his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” The press simply loves tons of research.

An actor also often has to alter his or her voice — often to impersonate a familiar one — a salient demonstration of acting ability that lay nonactors can understand. Biopics make an actor seem deferential, as he or she appears to be bowing before another person whose life is worth portraying — often a noble do-gooder or a fellow artist.

It is no surprise, therefore, that three of the last four actor trophies have been for the protagonists of biopics — Truman Capote, Ray Charles and Wladyslaw Szpilman in “The Pianist.” Other actors have won playing Claus von Bulow, Mahatma Gandhi, Jake LaMotta and Antonio Salieri.

Reese Witherspoon won for her portrayal of June Carter in “Walk the Line.” In fact, five of the last seven actress winners and five of the last eight supporting actress winners have gone to thesps playing real-life roles as well.

The trend is less evident in supporting actor Oscars — the last one was Jim Broadbent as Iris Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, in “Iris,” and before that Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood” (perhaps that’s because of the abundance of quirky roles for male character actors).

Several best picture winners have been biopics, including not only the recent “A Beautiful Mind” but “Braveheart” and “Schindler’s List.”

Not that biopics are an Oscar shoo-in, as there are many challenges to overcome before being deemed Academy worthy. A main question is how much of the person’s life to include. Among this year’s crop, only “Marie Antoinette” straightforwardly depicts a long sequence of events in the subject’s life along the lines of “Ray” and “Walk the Line.”

Instead, most focus on a particular formative period. “Fur,” an “imaginary” biopic about Diane Arbus, focuses on 1958, when Arbus transformed from a housewife into a famous photographer. “Copying Beethoven” is set in 1824, late in the composer’s life, when he wrote his Ninth Symphony. “The Queen” tells of only one week out of Queen Elizabeth II’s 54-year reign, and she shares the spotlight with Tony Blair and Princess Diana. “World Trade Center” relates a harrowing 24 hours in the lives of a few firefighters and their families.

Though “Infamous” depicts Truman Capote’s writing of “In Cold Blood,” writer-director Douglas McGrath attempted to show how the experience affected the rest of his life. McGrath says that in the last part of the film he consciously sucked out the pic’s “merry wit” and replaced it with sadness.

“It’s really one personal disaster after another for him after ‘In Cold Blood,'” McGrath says. “He was so emotionally attached to Perry Smith, that to see him killed, it kind of ruined the rest of his life for him.”

On “Catch a Fire,” producer Robyn Slovo says the creators specifically chose to focus on Patrick Chamusso’s joining the African National Congress and bombing an oil refinery, and left out other parts, such as his trial and his time in prison.

Another big biopic issue is the balance between accuracy and drama. As Peter Morgan explains his “Queen” script, “Every single scene with the queen takes place in a place where there’s no precedent for getting any fact or matter of record. It takes place in meetings that we could only imagine.”

Morgan had a rule of thumb on writing the “Queen” script: “Stuff which unquestionably happened we tended to do in archive footage, and the stuff that didn’t, we dramatized.”

Many of this year’s films, while based on facts, create fictional characters to make the stories more dramatically viable. For instance, in “Hollywoodland” the audience learns about the death of the actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck) through a fictional detective (Adrien Brody). Producer Glenn Williamson notes the gumshoe helps the audience relate not only to Reeves’ death but also his troubled life.

“Reeves always wanted something more,” Williamson says. “His fame and his stature as an actor wasn’t enough. The Adrien Brody character is on a similar path, because his life is kind of a mess and he has a real awakening uncovering the details of George’s life. There’s a moment in the film when, for Adrien Brody’s character, it sinks in, ‘I’m headed there.'”

“The Last King of Scotland,” based on a novel, tells the story of Idi Amin through a doctor named Nicholas Garrigan, who is a fictional amalgam of three different Amin advisers but is ultimately the film’s true protagonist. “Garrigan is the one we go on the journey with,” says Jeremy Brock, who co-wrote the script with Morgan. “Garrigan is the one who goes on the journey of moral significance. He’s the one who changes. Idi is Idi. Garrigan’s the one who goes from innocence to knowledge.”

Taking a more novelized approach is “Bobby,” in which writer-director Emilio Estevez attempts to portray the title character through an ensemble of fictional characters in and around the Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was shot.

“It stems from where my interest was lying, and that’s in the ordinary people — I was really taken by what the loss meant to all of us,” Estevez says. “Rather than straight biopic, where I would be forced to do an account of the day, I was able to create characters that I thought would be emblematic of the times.

“This hotel would be a microcosm of everything happening in America, and, in the tradition of (filmmaker) Irwin Allen, I would flip this thing upside down. This is a disaster movie.”

Stephen Schaefer contributed to this report.