By Bob Verini
Nov. 26, 2011
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.