Quentin Tarantino is known for famously expressing a dislike for the biopic (biographical film) genre by saying that they are “are just big excuses for actors to win Oscars. … Even the most interesting person – if you are telling their life from beginning to end, it’s going to be a fucking boring movie.” Obviously, many filmgoers disagree with this notion. Even a part of myself disagrees with Tarantino’s statement…but as time has gone on and as I have seen more and more biopics in my young film-loving life, I’ve also come to understand exactly what Tarantino meant by that statement. It doesn’t take too much digging up to see the very obvious trend in Academy Awards towards movies that are biopics. Look at the Best Actor category and it actually becomes slightly ridiculous how many of the winners portrayed real people in their films; Matthew McConaughey for last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln (2012), Colin Firth for The King’s Speech (2010), Sean Penn for Milk (2008), Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote (2008), and Jamie Foxx for Ray (2004). Out of the past 10 years, 6 years gave the Best Actor Oscar to a biopic. The Best Actress category possesses the same trend in which out of 10 years, 5 actresses got an award based on their portrayal of a real person; Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady (2011), Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side (2009), Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose (2007), Helen Mirren for The Queen (2006), and Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line (2005). Nominees for 2014 are obviously not announced yet, but I bet that the actors and actresses of the many biopics that were released this year will not be left out. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones of the The Theory of Everything, Benedict Cumberbatch of The Imitation Game, Steve Carell (and possibly Channing Tatum) for Foxcatcher, and Reese Witherspoon for Wild (not quite a biopic, in my opinion, but whatever the film equivalent of a memoir is) are all already in talks for nominations. Those don’t even encapsulate all of the other biopics that have been released this season! Big Eyes is the biopic of Margaret Keane, a famous painter who let her husband take credit for her work for years. Unbroken is the biopic of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian who was captured by the Japanese and became a POW during WWII. American Sniper is the biopic of the late Chris Kyle, the “most lethal sniper in American history”. Mr. Turner is the biopic of British painter J.M.W. Turner. That’s not even counting the biopics released earlier in the year which I do not have the patience to list. Anyways, my question is: why such an influx of biopics during the award’s season? What is it about a biopic that makes people fawn over specific performances from actors and why do they simply garner so much attention? Sure, they are all good movies. Most of the movies that I have mentioned so far have gotten above average reviews from critics and general audiences. However, there is obviously a trend during award’s season to favor biopics, and although I do not have the answer for why that is, I think it’s an interesting topic to think about.
Just this week I went and saw two really great films, both of which were biopics; The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. I did favor one over the other, which I will get to. First off, I’ll just give a small review of each film.
The Imitation Game is the biopic of British mathematician Alan Turing who developed a machine that decoded the Nazi Enigma code and helped win WWII. It is estimated that Turing’s contribution helped shave 2 years off of the war, therefore saving millions of lives. Sadly, Turing committed suicide in the early 1950’s. He was a homosexual and being gay was illegal at this time. When Turing was found out, he was forced to choose between prison and daily hormone injections which would effectively castrate him. He chose the injections and about a year after these injections ceased was when he killed himself. He was one the most brilliants minds of the century, and gave influence to what would become known as “the computer”. This man was amazing, but his life was cut short. I think this film is an extremely important film because it shows just that. It was a despicable time in terms of homophobia for both gay men and women. Think of all of the lives that got lost…lives that could have contributed something to the world but simply did not have the time. That is why I was excited all year for this movie to come out, and ultimately the movie did not completely disappoint. Cumberbatch is excellent, as is Keira Knightley who plays his female companion. It is a great film about an extraordinary man. However, I did have some issues with it. I felt like the movie got lost in between the second and third acts when a couple of fictional subplots were added in for seemingly no reason. These subplots are completely fictionalized and in my opinion they take away from the focus of the film. I felt like the focus of the film should lie in how extraordinary this man was and just how much the government wronged him due to his homosexuality, but the subplots added in the element of espionage which I felt like was an attempt by the writer, Graham Moore, and director, Morten Tyldum, to make the plot “more dramatic”. Overall, I felt like these plot points were completely unnecessary and detracted from the really amazing story that was already at hand.
The Theory of Everything tells the story of Stephen and Jane Hawking and is not your typical romantic story. If you are going into this movie prepared to geek out over science-y type stuff, you will be disappointed. It has been made clear in the previews that this film is not specifically about the intellectual side of Hawking, but is instead focused on the very unique relationship between husband and wife. It’s a spectacular movie that focuses on both Stephen and Jane, but pays most attention to the toll that taking care of Stephen whilst raising a family took on Jane. Redmayne is phenomenal in his portrayal as Stephen Hawking. Felicity Jones is also spectacular as Jane, but obviously did not have quite the job that Redmayne did. The two together work extremely well and the movie is worth the watch for the performances alone. Spoiler alert (but, not really), the two end up separating, but that is what makes this story really so remarkable along with being atypical. Neither Jane nor Stephen are portrayed as bitter or wronged by the other. Their choices are understood by us and we sympathize with both. We don’t take sides, because that is simply not needed. I ended up liking this biopic better than The Imitation Game, which I was not actually expecting. The reason I believe The Theory of Everything to be a stronger biopic is because despite that fact that there are absolutely no qualities in me that I share with the genius that is Stephen Hawking, I still found myself relating to his and Jane’s story. Stephen Hawking is on a level that I will never be able to fully comprehend (I’m Arts, not Science…like Jane), but his story still spoke to me. Despite the fact that Stephen and Jane’s relationship was a very unique one, I still found myself relating to it. The fact that some relationships simply do not work, or the fact that two people can just grow apart without helping it, are universal claims that I’m sure most people are familiar with. The point is, at the end of it all you have many, many happy memories to reflect on (and maybe even some children) that came out of it.
That is the true genius of the biopic, at least in my opinion; when one is not simply observing and learning facts about the subject (that’s what documentaries are for), but engaging with the story and relating to it. Don’t get me wrong, The Imitation Game is a fine film, really. It’s hard to mess up a movie when the subject is such an extraordinary man and the ensemble cast does so great. However, there have been some debates about the filmmakers’ choice to portray Turing differently than he was seen to be in real life. In the film, Turing is portrayed how geniuses are typically portrayed in movies and TV shows; as an outcast who possesses no knowledge whatsoever on how to connect with other people. Cumberbatch’s performance is vaguely familiar to his Sherlock; a genius who is disliked and misunderstood by his peers until they are won over by the odd charm that comes with his awkwardness. The real Turing was not seen as that type of man. In fact, he was known to be actually quite liked by his peers and in some instances was not shy at all about his homosexuality; whereas the Turing depicted in the movie was only uncovered as a homosexual when a detective felt that there was something “odd” about him and decided to pry into his life. It’s a good film, but I did not feel as emotionally invested in it as I could have been and the story just did not have quite the punch that I wanted it to.
Our culture’s obsession with not just biopics but memoirs and biographies/autobiographies as well can at least tell us one thing. Fictional or not, humans likes to hear about other humans doing things and feeling things that we can relate to ourselves. Maybe there is something about “based on a true story” that hits us harder than fictionalized stories do. I don’t know why. That might be a conversation for another post, perhaps after I cross off some more biopics on my “To-watch” list.