The biopic has been a Hollywood staple since the early days of cinema, but this year’s crop seems particularly bountiful, spotlighting the struggles of creative artists (Melies, Shakespeare, Marilyn Monroe), political power brokers (J. Edgar Hoover, Margaret Thatcher, Aung San Suu Kyi) and thought leaders (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung) — as well as baseball trendsetter Billy Beane and the scattering of famous folk among the casts of “Midnight in Paris,” “Anonymous” and “W.E.”
The fourth quarter always brings a slew of biographies, which seem to be a inside route to copping big prizes: Six of the past 10 best-actor Oscar winners and eight of the past 12 actresses have limned real people.
But to film companies, a prize takes a backseat to box office. With multiple entertainment choices 24/7 and reality TV flourishing, audiences seem to crave facts, and biopics ideally combine fascinating stories with the added kick of knowing that the story is true.
Oscar races in the past few years offered tales of real people who weren’t household names, such as “127 Hours” and “The Blind Side,” as well as offering insights into public figures who aren’t natural subjects for the genre, including “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network.”
More than in the past, this year’s roster is heavy with looks at well-known individuals — some of whom have been depicted multiple times in previous films — taking the angle, “You think you know a lot about this person, but there’s plenty you don’t know.”
Every biopic should bring a distinct point of view, what philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset called “a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified.” The last thing you want is a series of heavily researched “and then I did this” moments, inviting the audience to practically count the scribe’s 3×5 research cards dropping along the way.
We’ve witnessed catalogs of notable events before, and “Chaplin,” “Amelia” and “Beyond the Sea” “Hoffa,” “Cobb” have all taken the rap for presenting narratives largely uninflected by interpretation.
But a controlling idea can string events together in a compelling way. To writer Dustin Lance Black, J. Edgar Hoover seeks the masses’ adoration as a substitute for the love that dares not speak its name when Mama Hoover is around, and so a monster is born.
For Christopher Hampton in “A Dangerous Method,” Jung’s puritanical background butts heads with his patients’ insatiable sexuality, causing a nervous breakdown and a passionate ambition to cure those similarly afflicted. “Moneyball’s” Billy Beane is a failed player who still wants to influence the game, while Georges Melies (per “Hugo”) is a disenchanted filmmaker who has abandoned his craft.
Once the interpretation is in place, one has a choice of three structures.
The tricky “oaks from little acorns” approach locates a great life’s essence squarely in its earliest years. And “Young” is frequently in the title: “Young Mr. Lincoln.” “The Young Victoria,” “Young Tom Edison.” (This year, “Young Goethe in Love” suggests a romance with a free-spirited feminist — which could be interpreted as enough to transform a carousing wastrel into a literary giant.)
The second and most common framework is the riskiest. Telling an entire biography “sperm-to-worm” permits scribes to shovel in all their favorite research tidbits within a more or less preordained starting point and finale.
But cramming so much info into a couple of hours comes at a price. Every knock on a door in “Anonymous” carries earth-shaking import.
A smart framing device, like George M. Cohan regaling FDR with career yarns in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” can mitigate the sense of a life trudging along with chronological predictability. “J. Edgar” includes edgy time-jumps encouraging us to put the pieces together, while an infirm Maggie Thatcher’s foggy reminiscences will be used to unify “The Iron Lady.”
Another argument against all-encompassing life stories is the ungainliness of such a device. Most lives aren’t lived in a clean, satisfying trajectory. Scribe and Marilyn Monroe admirer Adrian Hodges admits, “I was never attracted to telling her entire life, with such a tragic arc: that troubled beginning; the great, brief glorious period of ‘Some Like It Hot’; and then that tragic downward curve, all that sordid stuff with the Kennedys.”
Colin Clark’s book “My Week With Marilyn” offered an alternative. “You could tell the whole story of her life in just that moment,” says Hodges. “The few days of happiness with him that would help people remember she was a real woman, not an icon, not an Andy Warhol portrait.”
And that’s approach No. 3, the “Best Bit.” “A Dangerous Method” focuses on two key cases of Freud and Jung that illustrate their decades of work. Ron Shelton uses Al Stump’s article “Ty Cobb’s Wild Ten Month Fight to Live” as the focus of his biopic “Cobb.” And a truly canny choice will fool audiences into thinking they’ve seen everything. “Patton” (1970) barely covers three years of Gen. George Patton’s long career, but because the screenplay incorporates the man at his inspiring best and vindictive worst, it seems to convey the general in full.
Then there’s the whole historical accuracy question. We know author Clark never skinny-dipped with the world’s most glamorous movie star. Was Shakespeare really a preening, illiterate buffoon who elbowed Ben Jonson out of the way to front for the “Anonymous” Earl of Oxford? Did J. Edgar Hoover really don his mom’s dress as a declaration of independence upon her death?
And do we even care? It’s rare enough to be treated to a warts-and-all portrait full of interesting incidents, and a sense of why that portrait matters. Maybe that ought to be enough; maybe the questions of veracity on the margins just don’t matter.
“What can you say about anyone?” Marlene Dietrich famously asks in “Touch of Evil.” “He was some kind of a man.” Nail what kind of man or woman the subject was, and a biopic can soar.
But with biopics come bio-hazards. And it’s a good time to take stock of them, what with Lincoln, Jackie O. and Natalie Wood waiting in the wings, plus a slew of music figures from Sinatra, Liberace and Michael Jackson to Kurt Cobain, John Lennon and Tupac.