6 Ways Hollywood Biopics Get Things Really Right … And REALLY Wrong.

AMADEUS (1984)

Oh, the great Hollywood biopic. You beautiful, hot mess of a movie genre, you. You’re kind of like Longfellow’s proverbial little girl with the little curl: when you are good, you are very good indeed (Amadeus, La Vie en Rose, American Splendor) but when you are bad, you are horrid. And the funny thing about you is that, unlike other movie genres where sins can be atoned by virtue of strengths in other areas (the script sucked, but it sure was pretty to watch; the acting was great, but the structure was a mess) if a biopic is cast wrong, well, there ain’t nothin’ on God’s green earth that’s gonna save you. Just do yourself a favor and stick a fork in it, because more than any other genre of film, casting makes or breaks the film.

See, what happens is this: if you slap a blond wig on Colin Farrell and expect us to believe that he’s Alexander the Great, or put John Wayne in some Mongol headgear and call him Genghis Kahn (if you haven’t seen The Conqueror … well … don’t) then the joke’s on you. Your script can be Pulitzer prize-winning material, with the most stunning cinematography ever put to the screen, but if you cast a turkey in the lead, you’re gonna have a turkey of a film. Because a biopic requires complete fidelity and trust between the audience and the actor on a level not matched in any other genre.

Getting it Right: MILK (2008). Getting Oh-So Wrong: THE CONQUEROR (1956)
Getting it Right: MILK (2008). Getting Oh-So Wrong: THE CONQUEROR (1956)

The fact is, even shaky biopics with script and pacing issues can still be salvaged by grace of the lead. See Robert Downey Jr. who dazzles in Richard Attenborough’s well-intentioned but hopelessly meandering Chaplin. Or Martin Scorsese’s love letter to Hollywood, The Aviator, in which Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn stole the film from Leonardo DiCaprio and made us wish it was her biopic rather than Howard Hughes’. Or Daniel Day-Lewis (yes, you best believe I was gonna work in a DDL reference here somehow) who is an absolute marvel in Lincoln, is even more of a marvel given the fact the film itself is quite flawed. And … then there’s Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady. The woman got an Oscar for her performance as Margaret Thatcher–which was textbook Streep–for her great work in a really bad movie. But never for a moment, even with the disjointed narrative structures and script problems, are we in doubt that any of the aforementioned actors are exactly who they are meant to portray.

All of this self-indulgent exposition does have a point: today, the first trailer of the upcoming Grace Kelly biopic Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman as Kelly and Tim Roth as Prince Rainier, was released. The film is slated to debut, fittingly, at the Cannes Film Festival and it will be several months before American audiences get to have a look. Now, it is always a risky thing to make predictions based on trailers–especially since these days they are all seem to be cut from the same assembly line cloth. Suffice it to say, Grace of Monaco boasts a fantastic cast: Kidman is an obvious–and very safe–choice to play Kelly, and Tim Roth being a powerhouse thespian supreme is more than capable of knocking any role out of the ballpark. The question is, then, which of the 6 main branches of the biopic genre will Grace of Monaco fall into? Bet you didn’t know that the biopic has 6 main branches, did you? Well. It does. (Coz … I say so …)

1. The Textbook Epic

In a word: Ghandi. Synonymous with the words “oscar bait,” these are the films you will watch on several occasions, due to circumstances beyond your control, throughout the course of your academic career. And they will most likely end up being your only connection to major world events. I’m willing to bet you know more about WWI because of Lawrence of Arabia, over anything you ever learned in high school. (And it seems a safe bet that Lincoln is already on the curriculum of high school American history teachers everywhere.)

2. The Artsy Period Drama

Amadeus, La Vie en Rose, Frida, Bright Star, The King’s Speech, I’m Not There, Raging Bull— all are visually virtuosic triumphs, crafted with precision and passion by a director that not only has something to say, but has the courage to say it with creative flourish. Melodramatic at times, sure, but lord if these films aren’t a beauty to behold.

3. The Modernists

Here is where your American Splendor’s, and Milk’s, and The People vs. Larry Flynt‘s, and your Sid & Nancy’s, and your Norma Rae’s, your Miracle Worker’s live. These films make no pretense of being a “biopic”: they are more often than not just simple, human interest pieces that tend to sacrifice flair for an under-the-skin, often uncompromising approach to the material.

4. The [Insert Celebrity] Story

This is where you find your entertaining glossy– which often also means they are highly fictionalized and over the top. Hailing largely from the studio era of Hollywood, films like The Glenn Miller Story, The Eddie Duchin Story, The Pride of the Yankees, and Sergeant York are all films that would surely make a fact-checker apoplectic. But they’re awfully fun to watch. The formula is not archaic either: from La Bamba, to Ray, to Walk the Line,  mainstream movie-goers still love a popcorn-friendly biopic.

5. The Mixed Bag

This is the most crowded category because there are just so damn many of them. Here is where the film tries, genuinely hard, but it just can’t make it. Beyond The Sea, Lady Sings the Blues, Great Balls of Fire, The Doors, Hitchcock— they’re all the little engines that, well, just couldn‘t. Some of these don’t work because of casting (Dennis Quaid’s Jerry Lee Lewis) direction (Oliver Stone’s The Doors and Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea) or a mixture of both. (Although Diana Ross is stellar in Lady Sings the Blues–the film suffers from a case of not being able to quite take itself out of the ’70s.)

6. The WTF

Alexander. Amelia. Liz & Dick. Little Ashes. The Boy in Blue. Evita. Night & Day. The Conqueror. Hollywood? Refill your prescription meds, please. Thank you.

So which will Grace of Monaco fall under? Well, the cast is solid gold, but the trailer feels a bit Douglas Sirk-ish. I’m betting a solid #4, here. (Although I will be thoroughly delighted if it turns out to be a #2.) Take a look at the trailer and make a guess:

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