Bad Biopics: Authenticity and Accuracy are Historical, Not Dramaturgical, Concepts


No shock here.  The virtually unbroken string of bad biopics apparently continues with Amelia. I will see it out of almost unqualified admiration for director Mira Nair, but nothing in the many reviews I have seen suggests that the film transcends  standard, tired biopic conventions.

Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” probably came the closest to reviving the whole genre. In fact, Van Sant may have fully succeeded (your call). But there are, I think,  some good reasons that biopic screenplays usually stink up the house:

– including every obligatory “sacred”  historic moment,  regardless of  how well they fit  into a coherent story or how true they might be

– the over-investment in making sure the actors look and sound like the people they are playing. I have always felt that  physical resemblance only works when the effort put into makeup, however precise,  is exceeded by the even greater  performance of a brilliant actor.  It makes perfect sense that the two best “look-alike” performances I have ever seen were by actors who are consensus members of the pantheon — Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang and Sean Penn in Milk. )

– the unavoidable hagiography

– the drive to be so exhaustively complete  that the story sinks from the weight of its self-conscious authority

– a director or actor so obsessed with an historical personality that he or she confuses the character in the film and the actual person being depicted.  (Kevin Spacey and Bobby Darin?) Rare but spooky.

The baffling thing here is that a great filmmaker like Mira Nair took on Amelia.

Mira Nair. The Mira Nair who made Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. The brilliant, luminous Mira Nair.

We need to remember that authenticity and accuracy are historical, not dramaturgical, concepts.

The very best films about lives don’t take on the heavy and weighted obligation of completeness. They pick an episode in a life and, through the unfolding of events and character during that episode, reveal aspects of a complex life. Capote, Henry and June, and Downfall (Der Untergang) are three good, random examples. These films also succeed by embedding the main character in a world of comparably interesting ,  and maybe even more  interesting,  characters.

I’ll leave you with one admittedly unconventional recommendation and one worry.

Recommendation: My favorite biopic really isn’t a biopic at all.  But with its crazy sensibility, hilarity, cast of grotesque characters, and overwhelming quirkiness, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is my favorite “life-story” of them all.

Worry: Spielberg, as you may know, is doing Lincoln. I believe Liam Neeson got the part. My fear is that Lincoln’s  complex, even anguished , life could be buried beneath “Private Ryan” schmaltz,  expensive costumes, overwrought John Williams music,  the flood of signature close-ups of Lincoln’s face, and the quest for accuracy.  None of these equal compelling drama and conflict.  In fact, all this nonsense often hides a lack of compelling narrative.

We’ll see.

ed wood

4 thoughts on “Bad Biopics: Authenticity and Accuracy are Historical, Not Dramaturgical, Concepts

  1. I want you all to know that, despite his lame attempts at humor, my friend Dominic is an accomplished artist, filmmaker,and music video pioneer.

    And the answer is no, Dominic, but “Glen or Glenda” by the immortal Ed Wood is a contender.

  2. Pingback: Anti-Biopics « Media and Mayhem

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