It’s a question with no precise answer and no particular set of rules attached to it. Loosely, a biopic tells the story of life, usually one of both triumph and failure and, of course, accomplishment.
Think Chaplin or Ray, standard bio-films that follow the life of their “great” subjects from childhood to death, going over all of the big moments while sure to add a couple “poignant” small moments many viewers didn’t already know about. Sometimes these films bookend their subjects’ lives with elderly collections of the past or last will and testaments (remember Milk, if you can).
Others work are framed in a similar fashion, only under a thinner scope, i.e. the significant event/achievement said subject lead/started/was part of. Think Patton, which begins with his victory in North Africa than Sicily than Normandy, charting his WWII command as a filter through which to study his life. In a (slightly) similar way does Lawrence of Arabia unfold, quickly checking off the historical moves in which he becomes a British military officer so as to concentrate on his brilliant tactical leadership of the Arab Revolt of 1916 and its aftermath. Sticking with the war hook, another easy example (from a much more complicated angle) is Schindler’s List.
All this to reiterate the titular question: what is the art of telling the story of a true life? How can one capture the awe of something, and someone, that really happened?
Not surprisingly, many biopics play like visual audio books (see the aforementioned Chaplin and Milk), full of information and intended emotion that fade out as they fade in, as facts and chronicles of something greater than the images portray. In layman’s terms, much more boring (and dry) than the life it’s based on.
To combat this, many biopics go the creative route, never once touching on the real events but rather the “real emotions.” Examples of this includes Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (which examines Bob Dylan’s life through five separate versions of the artist) and the avant-garde heavy 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (which does include, in fact, 32 short films), both masterpieces in their own right. But not necessarily true to the life being portrayed, at least in any historical sense. These two films merely use their subjects as a catalyst through which to make their own art. And while it’s commendable, doesn’t it discount said film as a biopic?
This writer would argue yes – and also argue it’s for the better. Biopics, as a genre, fail far more than they succeed for all of the aforementioned reasons. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s certainly not the sincerest (or most original) form of art.
Some, however, break the mold whilst staying honest to the subject’s biography. The most perfect examples of this include The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Malcolm X, Shattered Glass, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. All of these filmmakers take a life (Jean-Dominique Bauby, Malcolm X, Stephen Glass, Jake LaMotta, Henry Hill respectively) and add their own lives (and ideas) into them.
Julian Schnabel, director of Diving Bell, quite literally gets inside the head of Bauby, using the camera as a filter through the protagonist lives his life, paralyzed and half-blind, alone in his thoughts and regrets. Lee’s Malcolm X relies on Alex Haley’s recorded autobiography, shooting his film with an epic scope, employing countless wide lens and extreme close-ups to intensify each scene. There’s no middle ground in Lee’s film and that’s the lynchpin. On the flip side, Shattered Glass is a small film with a small focus and a humble, middlebrow view of its subject and situation, namely plagiarism and the desire for success. Both Bull and Goodfellas, both directed by Martin Scorcese, depend largely on the other people in the subject’s life as a means to define the subject fully, a la the Joe Pesci brother character in Bull and the Lorraine Bracco wife character in Goodfellas. Scorcese’s films are less biopics then multiple character studies centered around semi-real events.
In the end, the focus cannot be the real-life person, but rather who/what the real-life person was to those who knew him and those who were affected by him. At the finale of Shattered Glass (SPOILERS), once it’s revealed Stephen Glass has been fabricating his incredible stories, the viewer is shown how his co-workers react/lives are changed by his lies, from his new editor and one-time friend (Peter Saarsgard) to his only remaining supportive co-worker (Chloe Sevigny). Also consider The Aviator (not Scorcese’s best biopic but a classic in its own right): the film’s focus is on Howard Hughes (played by a fantastic, and a fantastically devoted, Leonardo DiCaprio) but not on all of his life or even most of his life, but rather the most productive years, in which he both took on the world and began to lose his mind. Scorcese, ever the Hughes buff, chose to remember the eccentric dreamer that way and, in turn, chose to have his audience remember his subject the same way.
Simply running through the life of a great figure is lazy and without ambition. Ray Charles was, after all, bigger than his songs and his affairs and his blindness. When one looks back at Lawrence of Arabia, a similar in set-up to The Aviator, it’s easy to point out the filmmaker’s own, personal obsession with both the subject and the aesthetic surrounding said subject’s story. David Lean’s Arabia is sandy and endless, his cuts the same. Viewers are offered long tracking shots a la Great Expectations and sweeping moral conflicts a la The Bridge Over the River Kwai. This is a Lean film that happens to be about T.E. Lawrence rather than a movie about T.E. Lawrence’s life organized by David Lean.
A biopic honors a life, but in order to fully do the life justice, it must also honor itself, which is a silly way to say a biopic should not, can not, be an imitation but rather an extention. People go to the movies not primarily to learn, but to feel. We must feel these people’s lives rather than hear about them. That, of course, will always be a great challenge and biopics that succeed deserve all the accolades available.
What do you think of biopics?