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The problem with biopics

How can so many filmmakers make fascinating people seem so dull? By Alfredo Azula
/ Source: contributor

Moviegoers, brace yourselves.

It’s the Year of the Biopic, film critics say, so be prepared to be hammered with clumsy and shallow film techniques, shameless sentimentality, and a thousand-and-one clichés. Well stocked with classically tortured artists, hyper-inspirational sports heroes, and inscrutable political leaders, the biopic film catalog is crammed with insipid and dull movies that jerk their subjects around like marionettes, fudge accuracy, gloss over inconvenient truths, and pander to those in search of a good cry.

We’ve already encountered the stories of Che Guevera (“”) and Jesus (“”). Still to come, Alfred Kinsey (“Kinsey”), J.M. Barrie (“Finding Neverland”), Ray Charles (“Ray”), Alexander the Great (“Alexander”), Bobby Darin (“Beyond the Sea”) and Howard Hughes (“The Aviator”).

It’s not to say that the biopic is an irredeemable genre. “Ed Wood,” for example, is a quirky and charming portrait of an inept loser spurred by a blind optimism that would insure him an honored place in cult-film history. “Prick Up You Ears” offered an unflinching and fascinating portrayal of playwright Joe Orton. “Cobb” tackled the problem of glamorized sports heroes. This dark but rewarding film is framed around a sequence of arguments between baseball legend Ty Cobb, a hateful man determined to control how his life story is told, and a would-be biographer who just wants the truth.

Empty encyclopedia entriesToo many biopics seem to take their cues from “Frankenstein,” with their lead characters lurching artlessly from episode to episode. It’s as if writers and directors have lined up a series of milestones, filmed each one as an independent film and spliced the pieces together into a lumbering, mindless whole. The result is the biopic as encyclopedia entry brought to life, with little or no insight into what drove the subject to become someone who gained immortality as a historical figure.

“Frida” is a drearily pedestrian example of this soulless “womb-to-tomb” approach. In this 2002 Salma Hayek vehicle, moviegoers learn that Frida Kahlo was born, injured in bus crash as a teen-ager, became an artist, married Diego Rivera, put up with his womanizing, had an affair with Leon Trotsky, and then died, in that order. Left unanswered is the crucial question of what inspired her art, let alone why she became an artist. To their credit, the filmmakers did get Kahlo’s trademark monobrow down perfect.

“Man on the Moon,” Milos Foreman's 1999 take on Andy Kaufman, goes a step further. Jim Carrey spends most of the film aping Kaufman’s performances, at the expense of depicting the entertainer’s life off stage. Again, the viewer is left with little idea of why Kaufman did what he did. He just shows up on stage or television and the zany antics begin. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a cover album.

Perfect people, perfect lives

and in Focus Features' - 2004
and in Focus Features' - 2004

This year’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” places itself on the other end of this spectrum. For the first half of the movie, director Walter Salles avoids the usual clichés in his recounting of a short, but apparently critical, portion of the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. It’s only after the titular motorcycle departs the film that Salles seems to remember that this is, after all, the story of an unenlightened medical student who turned Communist revolutionary — and it’s time to get to The Message. Most people are content to experience one or two life-changing experiences in their life, but it seems 1950s South America was chock full of soul-shaking epiphanies just waiting to be encountered by any happy-go-lucky bourgeoisie youth on a road trip. It’s a wonder everyone else who traveled through the countryside didn't take up arms to fight the power.

Idealized characters are nothing new to the genre. It’s a grand old tradition dating back to the dawn of the movie industry: pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès cranked out an ode to “Jeanne D'Arc” in 1899.

Martin Scorsese's “Kundun” represents the high-water mark of contemporary hagiography. A beautifully filmed and epic tribute to the Dalai Lama, “Kundun” is a lavish display of the romanticized view some Westerners have of Tibetan Buddhism in general and the Dalai Lama in particular. The trial of turning the story of a living god into mass entertainment was enough to reduce a filmmaker who had created such gritty, worldly classics as “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” to a worshipful supplicant. “Kundun” is essentially a pious morality play, albeit a gorgeous one.

The manipulation dance

One of the more difficult challenges inherent to the biopic industry is the task of creating dramatic tension when everyone knows how the story will end anyway. The motley, amateur hockey team will win an Olympic gold medal (“Miracle”); the scrawny runt will make the football team (“Rudy”). So directors simply give up, and look for other ways to engage (read: manipulate) their audiences’ emotions. The favored technique is the hackneyed “triumph-of-the-human-spirit” sequence depicting victory in the face of overwhelming odds. History does teach us that there have been extraordinary people who have persevered and made seemingly hopeless dreams come true. But it makes no mention that moments of personal glory were accompanied by a booming orchestral score and time moving into slow motion before halting in a melodramatic freeze-frame.

Biopics are also notorious for scrubbing away aspects of their subject’s life that might be seen as tarnishing heroes or could make audiences uncomfortable. Some topics are particularly taboo and amazingly persistent. Fifty-six years after “Night and Day” ignored composer Cole Porter's homosexuality, Ron Howard's Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” deftly avoided any references to the bisexual encounters of mathematician John Nash.

Another Oscar-winner, “Ghandi,” steered clear of some of the odder personal habits of the founding father of the Indian state, including his practice of sleeping with naked girls in order to test his chastity and a zealous devotion to daily enemas.

Such omissions and other flaws that infect so many biopics do a disservice to their subjects. What some filmmakers forget is that heroic individuals are precisely such because they are, like everyone else, imperfect and occasionally given to personal follies. And — gasp! — heroes may even lead unconventional personal lives. What’s lost is the concept that mere humans can distinguish themselves and achieve greatness, a message ultimately more inspiring than watching a superman (alas, the overwhelming majority of biopics are about men) go through the paces of being, well, super.