As awards season starts to rev up, we are presented yet again with an assortment of biographical movies, or biopics, based on the life of famous people. This year’s menu movies about Judy Garland, Harriett Tubman (opening today!) and Pope Francis. But while this kind of cinematic homage to historically important figures is one of the Academy’s very favorite genres (five out of the last eight acting Oscars went to actors playing a real life person), it often has the exact opposite effect on critics. When it comes to biopics, the party line states that “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Now, there is a lot of truth to this. Most biopics tend to be both episodic and formulaic, thus providing a narrative structure that not only lacks urgency but is thoroughly predictable. This particularly true of movies about famous musicians, where the rise, fall, and rise again narrative seems impossible to avoid (were the lives of Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Freddie Mercury really that similar to each other?) But it is also true that there have been many great movies made out of the lives of famous people, you just need a little creativity. In order to put an end to the yearly onslaught of mediocre biographies, let me offer five artistic choices that can result in the most unexpected of movies: an interesting, exciting biopic.
Let us start with what might be one of the most controversial ways to turn a famous person’s life into an interesting movie: just make some stuff up! What’s so great about Milos Forman’s Amadeus (adapted from the play of the same name by Peter Schaffer), is that while it uses the lives of two historically important musicians as its premise (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri), it feels free to morph the details of their relationship in order to make a thematic point. The rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, as depicted in the film, may be historically inaccurate, but it makes up for one of the best movies about the jealousy and desperation that accompany anyone who sets out to be an artist. Another great example of this approach is Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which plays loosely with the life of conquistador Lope de Aguirre to make one of the great movies about colonization and madness.
Perhaps the most common way to turn a biographical film into a, well, good film is to avoid trying to depict a person’s whole life, and instead focusing on a specific moment of particular importance. This is the approach Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner took when they decided to focus their biography of Abraham Lincoln not around the man himself, but about the political machinations that went into securing the passage of the 13th amendment. What is so great about this strategy, is that it provides a very specific narrative structure to the movie, which ends up becoming a “mission film” rather than an episodic recount of a person’s achievements. This is the same approach taken by Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which is as much a movie about the collection of activists that made the Selma to Montgomery marches a reality, as it is a biography of Martin Luther King.
3. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Paul Schrader’s biopic of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima begins on the last day of the controversial man’s life, then intercuts the events of said day with discreet moments from the man’s life as well as colorful adaptations of three of his novels. I think the best way to refer to this approach is as Fragmentary, as it creates multiple story-lines – not all of which exist in the same reality, and some of which are connected thematically rather than narratively. The creative ambition of such an approach is apparent, even if it can result in dense and difficult films. If you want examples of this method resulting in movies that are a little too intellectual for my taste, check out Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (about Bob Dylan) and Velvet Goldmine (which is technically not a biopic, except that it’s all about David Bowie.)
4. Marie Antoinette
Largely criticized and dismissed around the time of its release, Sofia Coppola’s approach to retelling the life of the French Queen might be the hardest one to describe. While it is not at all Fragmentary, it shares a certain vision with Mishima and the Todd Haynes films in that it would much rather embody the life of its subject rather than merely present it. What makes Marie Antoinette so stimulating is the way in which Coppola uses anachronistic design, music, and aesthetics to draw a line between the decadence of European aristocracy and the depressive emptiness of contemporary rich people – which fits perfectly with her whole filmmaking project, which has always dealt in one way or another with privilege. I find similarly ways of aesthetically embodying a person’s life in movies like Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.
5. All That Jazz
Nominally, this is a fictional film about an overworked film and theater director by the name of Joe Gideon who faces his own mistakes and mortality. In reality, everyone who watches this knows it is a thinly veiled autobiography by overworked film and theater director Bob Fosse. Autobiographies can be tricky – it’s not always fun to hear someone celebrate themselves – but when they are approached with a healthy dose of critique and self-examination, they can also be incredibly illuminating. Fosse’s movie provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind one of the great artists of the twentieth century – whether we find him likable or not is a whole different story. Fosse’s film, of course, was inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, which was perhaps the first time a director went transparently autobiographical in their work. Woody Allen made a career out of this approach, and this year we have Pedro Almodóvar doing the same in the lovely Pain & Glory.
Conrado Falco is a New York-based playwright who loves movies. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNewYork).