As part of our ongoing debates series, we ask if biopics are doing more harm than good…
This month’s release of Straight Outta Compton must be commended for its impeccable timing, coinciding with a blatant problem in America concerning the dispensation of law and order among its many citizens of color. This is an issue that was raised by N.W.A 30 years ago, and has serious cultural importance now. But, while the movie itself is no doubt relevant, what does it really do to further the life and legacy of the central protagonists? Were the motives for releasing it truly genuine, or was it more about chasing a story?
Expanding our view to take in the genre as a whole, we ask:
Do Biopics Actually Benefit Their Subjects’ Legacy?
No – Biopics are about filmmakers, not people
Biopics, by their very nature, dramatize life with varying degrees of accuracy, and as such are open to many pitfalls. First and foremost, they’re limited in their focus. The narrative arc is more often than not skewed towards a period of accomplishment, neglecting a well-rounded portrayal in the process. By putting too much emphasis on certain events they often fail to do justice to influential factors that may have deserved more attention. This catch 22 repeatedly traps filmmakers between the need to make a story interesting enough to justify the $10 theater ticket, yet short enough to keep audiences engaged. As a result, biopics often suffer from contrived dramatic tension brought about through varying degrees of truth, often outlining the subject’s rise to fame (and frequent fall from grace) without any real human details.
Take Walk the Line, for example, which contains of a number of factual irregularities. Some of these were minor, such as Cash’s reasoning for wearing black all the time, the location of his brother’s death and his collapsing on stage in Las Vegas, yet some had a far larger impact. In fact, the portrayal of Cash’s first wife Vivian sees her as a virtual nonentity, except when she plays the crazed psycho who hated her husband’s career. Such inaccuracy even caused Cash’s daughter to walk out of the movie’s premiere, outraged at how it failed to present her parents in their truest light. Similarly, the momentous audition scene with Sun Records was not as dramatic as it should have been. Cash’s gospel song “I Was There When It Happened” that we see Sam Phillips reject in the movie was actually recorded by Sun Records in 1957. Although these forms of poetic license help keep the film within a specific timeframe, the slapdash approach to historical accuracy hinders the truth of the legend.
Then there are those occasions when biopics allow the status of the actor to overshadow the source material. When Ray was released in 2004, all the focus was on Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance. Similarly with Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. While all three won Oscars for their acting, the real issue lies in whether they played the role of the person well. Of course a film has be entertaining and certainly needs to have a plot, but at what cost to the integrity of the central protagonist themselves?
While Oscar panels lauded Streep’s performance in the aftermath of The Iron Lady, people who knew the late leader personally commented that Streep’s half-hysterical, overly-emotional portrayal of the first female British Prime Minister completely failed to hit the mark. Then there was the blatant untruth of showing Miss Thatcher dashing to the wreckage of Airey Neave’s car when he was murdered. Thatcher herself was not at Westminster at that time, yet it suited the filmmakers’ vision to construct a picture of a fraught and hypersensitive woman as the central protagonist. The Thatcher portrayed in the movie probably wouldn’t have lasted 10 months at office, let alone the 10 years she actually served…
However, such inconsistencies were largely overlooked when the movie hit box offices, because when an A-list actor is signed up to play a true-to-life story, they will always take centerstage. On so many occasions their acting of a “part” overshadows the need for accuracy, and the boundary between serious interpretation and self-interested vanity project becomes blurred. Such practice pours fuel on the idea that starring in a biopic is the richest form of Oscar bait there is.
Finally, there are the issues that arise when biopics are made on a living legend. Take the upcoming 2015 flick The Program, about disgraced pro cyclist Lance Armstrong. In my opinion, casting people to act out scenes featuring people who are not only alive and well, but of whom copious amounts of documentary footage already exists, seems wholly unnecessary. What’s more (judging on the footage that’s already been released), the movie seems set on damaging Armstrong’s legacy yet further by focusing solely on the 2012 doping scandal and overlooking his many other achievements – not least his battle with cancer. While Lance did cheat as a cyclist, he beat cancer fair and square, and if the filmmakers were to cast Armstrong to play himself then they perhaps wouldn’t be able to present such a one-sided portrayal. Surely it would be more culturally rich to document a legend’s life in full, especially if they are still around living it?
While I’m not going to argue whether or not these stories deserve to be told – these people are obviously of great interest in their own right – so often it seems biopics do nothing to increase an audience’s perception of the person themselves, or an appreciation of their work. More often than not they’re just a convenient hook for a semi-fabricated plotline, and that doesn’t do the person any true justice at all.
Yes – They Are Furthering Someone’s Legacy
In the same way that a telling biography sells by the truckload, biopics have become an increasingly in-demand part of the film industry. Part of the appeal is often in seeing which actor will be chosen to embody the person in question, while the real payoff comes from watching a powerful reenactment of said person’s life. As viewers, we crave these figures’ immortalization, and we hope for an unseen glimpse into their lives. As a result, biopics often cover the kind of topics the person might have tried to keep private, but that’s not always negative. While these films undoubtedly present just one side of a story, they present a story no less, keeping the figure in the public mindset and furthering their ongoing legacy.
“All press is good press,” or so the saying goes. While some of the content found in biopics does lean toward the unsavory, it wouldn’t be there had it not been a part of that person’s life to begin with. Johnny Cash’s alcoholism in Walk The Line; Lance Armstrong’s doping in The Program; Howard Hughes’ womanizing in The Aviator? To call on another great idiom, there’s no smoke without fire, and while these parts of the story are perhaps not an ideal way of remembering the deceased, they are usually based on fact.
For the most part, biopics are made to celebrate someone’s life’s work, not as a smear campaign out to show them in a deliberately negative light. It’s not always pretty, but what is shown is all based on real-life events, and the fact that they are having their story told is an honor in itself. It’s unrealistic to expect a person’s entire life story to be told in two hours, and it would be foolish to attempt to do so. By reducing someone’s entire existence to such a short time frame, key details would surely be missed, so to focus on a particular time period or fundamental event is by far the most logical way. It also means audiences should know they’re not getting the entire story, but simply a retelling of key points. So, while it’s expected that a film will center on the juiciest parts of their life (as well as the toughest battles they may have had to overcome), it all comes down to immortalizing who that person was, warts and all.
Much can be said about the flurry that ensues when an actor is chosen to portray a real-life person, as well as the inevitable critique of their performance and the subsequent awards-show frenzy that follows. Of course it’s a big deal. For one, it’s an honor for that actor to get the opportunity to play someone for whom they will likely have a degree of respect. But, secondly, it requires the utmost skill to convincingly pull off – it’s an acting holy grail, of sorts. It’s one thing to deliver a great performance of a fictitious character, but quite another to mimic and impersonate someone who has lived (or in some cases is still living) with enough conviction for it to be believable.
It helps when the person in question was somewhat reserved in real life, allowing the actor’s portrayal to bring them to life in ways that we were never privy to before. Consequentially, it’s more difficult to pull off someone who was heavily in the public eye. Take Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray. The musician and actor nails the late artist’s performance in public moments, while offering a rare insight into the man during private ones. Was his portrayal of Charles on the money? Absolutely, and when an actor does their job well, while the audience may realize they’re watching a brilliant performance from Jamie Foxx, the magic of cinema means they will get lost in the power of storytelling and Ray Charles will come to life onscreen. This gives another dimension to the icon while extending their story, either for younger generations who may not have experienced their work first hand, or by creating another layer in that person’s rich narrative.
But what’s the main reason biopics are furthering their subjects’ legacy? Exposure, relevance, and sales. Would Ian Curtis of Joy Division or Bob Dylan (who is still alive) be so well remembered or be as prevalent today had it not been for their biopics (Control and I’m Not There respectively)? Sure they would. But would they have sold as many albums as they have, and will no doubt continue to? Not a chance. A biopic is, in some ways, a very clever marketing campaign for an artist’s estate (or the artist themselves if they’re still alive), as the cultural presence it gives them comes with new and renewed interest in their work.
From those people discovering Joy Division for the first time to the band’s die hard fans, it’s no surprise that Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic boosted both exposure and sales, giving him a new life with modern audiences. Think of it as a kickstart to the system. Record labels are sitting on a ton of high quality, timeless music from innumerable artists over the years, but how do you boost sales of a stagnant ‘80s post-punk band from Manchester in the middle of the ’00s? You get them back in the public sphere thanks to a well-executed biopic, and the albums will fly off the shelves. Being too quick to judge what these films can deliver in terms of fiscal benefits and lasting heritage would be both simplistic and unfortunate.
So, while it’s easy to quip how Meryl’s British accent was a little off from Margaret Thatcher’s in The Iron Lady, or how Jamie Foxx overshadowed Ray Charles in the titular biopic, the main impetus of these films is to keep the legacy of so many legends alive. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Want more in-depth discussions of contentious fashion topics? Dive into the rest of Highsnobiety’s Debates series.