We Hardly Knew Ye

Why do we watch biopics?
by Michael Atkinson  posted November 29, 2012
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With Steven Spielberg's Lincoln—a destined recombination of historical mythopoeia and Tinseltown sanctimony if there ever was one, even in the history of films about Lincoln—we come upon the ever-popular cultural reflex known as the biopic, a genre with very strange rules and a very suspect modus operandi. The allure is perennial and seemingly unassailable: audiences love the films, and find signification in them, almost as passionately as do filmmakers, screenwriters, and particularly actors, for whom the impersonation of a classic pop star or troubled artist or martyred civil rights legend translates to legitimacy, awards, and often eminence.

But what are the dynamic rewards for the filmgoer? The biopic is in many ways a kind of cinema that ferments and thrives on some of its audience's least reasonable instincts. It represents a form of gossip-and-sideshow spectacle that has little, in the end, to do with film, filmmaking, acting or, most of all, narrative. It is no small matter to ask, as movie viewers, why we're watching a particular piece of narrative cinema. Common reasons would include escapist sensationalism, simple wish fulfillment, schadenfreude, utopian daydreaming, calamity-thrilled symphorphilia, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God empathy—even, if you're lucky, poetic transcendence or intellectual electrification. Sometimes movies provide what we're anticipating (that anticipation, a bubbling cocktail of publicity and autonomous preconception and free-associative factors, is another volatile factor of moviegoing rarely addressed), sometimes they don't, and sometimes our desire in the dark is strong enough to fill the gap.

Why do we set out to watch, often with great enthusiasm, biopics? The genre routinely traffics in sanctimony and inspiration to a shameful degree—consider any sports biopic, from Knute Rockne All American (1940) to Soul Surfer (2011)—and there's always the weird attraction, manifesting in other cultural alleys as supermarket-opening celebrity impersonation and Saturday Night Live skits, of stunt casting. (The crown prince of contemporary stunt-casting failures must be Anthony Hopkins, who failed to be even remotely convincing as Richard Nixon, Pablo Picasso, or Alfred Hitchcock.) But the primary fuel behind our ardor for at least the idea of biopics is their ostensible trueness—the "true story" legitimizes the biopic by way of its extra-cinematic interfaces. Our not entirely disreputable impulse toward rubbernecking and gossip-mongering being what it is, this becomes the main reason we would deign to watch a biopic, and it changes the watching—we're not merely absorbing the film as a diegetic narrative and as a piece of filmmaking, but also as a version of "reality," a distorted and purposefully contrived window on a biographical and historical place and time that invests the film with special import.

This is a crucial problem, merely beginning with the queasy and tempestuous relationship traditional popular cinema has with "reality"—specifically, history, which even in an impossible vacuum can never come close to being a comprehensive or uncorrupted recounting of events. Documentarians know how even a single cut or shot choice obliterates what might have been once experientially true; indeed, you could look at Robert Flaherty's entirely enacted Nanook of the North (1920) as a biopic of whoever it was, a father or grandfather, who taught "Nanook" how to hunt with a spear and build igloos with a snow knife. Cinema isn't to be trusted on its best day, and yet dramatic films fashioned from someone's biography are met with eagerness and credulity, and commonly become part of how we remember the subject, converting what is already usually legend into codified, reconceived pseudo-myth. Nearly all biopics, if they were to have their "true stories" surgically removed from their narratives and from our consciousnesses, would never have the gravity to attract a budget, a director, a cast, or an audience.

But the simpler narrative problem is that lives are not stories. Lives, even tragic and/or high-achieving lives, do not have the shape or substance of stories, no matter how much we, because we're each undergoing our own as we speak, perceive the fact of living as narrative. Narratologically, stories are how we understand our own lives as they travel sequentially through time, but the inverse, at least in terms of feature-length cinema, is not automatically so. Lives sprawl, lapse, accelerate, disappoint, end unceremoniously; movies, being of limited scope and duration, have intent, and therefore structure. Your life is not a story if you make great art, drink a ton, and then drive your car into a tree. Neither is it a story if you become a pop star despite blindness and poverty and then remain one for 40 years, nor if you serve a few beleaguered terms as President and then are either retired or shot dead. An individual's successful career, whether it be inventing the telephone or writing a seminal book or breaking a sports record, has little or nothing to do with the potential for "story" in that person's life, but it has everything to do with why a biopic taking him or her as its subject might be produced. If it's "true" then it must be relevant. The tenuous rules of attraction are not cinematic, but culturally contextual.

The sheer slipperiness of "truth" combined with the biopic's structural deficit equals, nearly always, a void of narrative essentiality. And if a narrative feels inessential, arbitrary, or less than imperative, then no amount of showboat acting or historical frisson will rescue it. (This simple idea, it seems to me, cuts to the quick of most discussions of fictional culture—and obviates far too many semi-autobio workshop novels as well. Does the narrative have a solid and provocative reason to exist? Actually, novels, which usually require five or 10 or more hours to experience, have more opportunity to indulge in inessentiality. Television series, which are, or at least behave as though they are, potentially infinite in length, have even more, often to their detriment. But a movie, like a poetic lyric or a symphony or a four-minute pop song, is a compressed form, with no small amount of its beauty and eloquence arising from this compression, and so requires a relatively concise payload of cohesion and purpose.)

This is why there are very few, if any, great biopics—and the films that stand out do so because they have a thematic reason to be. Is the life a story? Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) may be the crowning example—a straight-on big-budget biography that uses its mysterious central figure to autopsy the entire matter of British imperialism and colonial power and the nascent tradition-vs.-progress battles of the 20th century. Of course, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) uses the inessentiality of Jake LaMotta's life to make its own American Dream-heat-death point. And Tim Burton's magical Ed Wood (1994) is not only the rare biopic comedy, but also an ambivalent ballad about the allure and betrayals of the Hollywood daydream. (Still, here too the extra-cinematic knowledge of Wood's life and work is crucial to the film's thrust; without it you may well be lost.) Other sound examples are harder to find—certainly, the Oscar-favored genre brand, epitomized by Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), My Left Foot (1989), Ray (2004), Walk the Line (2005), The Queen (2006), Milk (2008), and so on, are narratives no one would've thought to conjure if the crutch of "true story," whether triumphant or tragic, wasn't available.

I'm leaving out from the discussion radical meta-biopics ranging from Straub and Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) to Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1974) to Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), or semi-avant-garde auteurist pioneerings like Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible films (1943-48), which come packing their own seminal set of formal priorities. But among mainstream genre efforts, there's room to consider the undervalued integrity of something like Richard Eyre's Iris (2001), which summons a deep well of irony and universal woe by contrasting the indomitable, intellectually vibrant Iris Murdoch in her youth with the Alzheimer's-afflicted basket case she became in her 70s. (She couldn't have just had cancer or congestive heart failure—she had to devolve from England's biggest brainiac to a helpless puppy dog, crystallizing a poignant reality about the fragility of human attainment.) Eyre's movie might not be the most thrilling based-on-memoir film of the last quarter-century, but it had a palpable thematic purpose that reached beyond the particularities of Murdoch's unholy reversal of fortune.

Spielberg's film seems to be a salmagundi of all of the above, assiduously procedural about policy and politics as it mucks around in cliché and hagiography, all of it more interesting as grade-school history than as cinema, and more a wax museum come to life than a "captured" place and time. How could it have been otherwise? The base layer of our relationship with biopics might have something to do with our desire for grandiosity and spectatorial awe, not to simply position us as worshippers, but to bring us nose-close to greatness, to show us how it's done and how it feels. A small, neurotic part of us uses the biopic as a template on how we might run our own lives—or emphatically not. (I wouldn't blow my rock stardom on doping to an early death—would you?) Would we make the same decisions, face extremities as courageously, quash our fears so gracefully? Our insecurities and semi-conscious desires are in constant hungry cry, and biopics are often only another form of self-help culture, an Oprah genre, built to satisfy our most infantile needs. But the truth we don't actually want to hear secretly lives in the ellipses of these films—that fame does not educate, success and failure are often painfully subjective, and the greatest painters, presidents, authors, and pop stars do not know any more than we do about living. They just got lucky, most of them, and perhaps then they got unlucky. The EKG of their biographies, boiled down into a two-hour film and representing only a fraction of what their lives must have actually been like, tell us that much and little more. 


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DreamWorks Pictures
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg
Photo Gallery: We Hardly Knew Ye


biopic  |  Steven Spielberg


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct