The peril is that ultimately a biopic interpretation is totally dependent on impersonation
After a few years in abeyance one of the most odious trends in Hollywood cinema has reared its ugly head this with a vengeance this awards season — the biopic.
Biopics are as high concept as anything released as a summer tentpoles, and they always seem to be shamelessly positioned for award glory. Biopics are unique in entertainment in that all human foibles and repulsive character traits can be aired without audiences being repelled in the way they would if the antics were of a suburban non-entity.
In fact, the nature of biopics, compressing a lifetime of events into a couple of hours, make them ideal for a cavalcade of a life’s more sensational and grim episodes, terribly tempting for actors to go through the gears and throw in a few cartwheels. For actors they undoubtedly represent a very good opportunity to gorge at the award trough.
The peril is that ultimately a biopic interpretation is totally dependent on impersonation; even the restaging of actual events interspersed with capsuled accounts of complex situations, frequently simplified for dramatic purpose, is totally dependent on absolute mimicry, from the principals at least.
This season the number of actors with these projects is simply depressing, more so that at least three of them, Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady," Michelle Williams in "My Week With Marilyn" and Leonardo di Caprio in "J. Edgar," are probably all assured Oscar nominations, with the ladies serious contenders to lift a trophy. There’s also Kenneth Branagh’s Laurence Olivier to Williams’ Monroe. If the business wants to acknowledge the success, albeit middling, of Thor, they may invite him to the Oscar party, too.
This is all bad for creativity and originality, in scripts, in plots and particularly in acting. Yes, it is the nature of the industry for now, and possibly for the foreseeable future, that "serious" films are easier to make if they have the public recognition hook that a biopic can provide. it probably helps the of marketing departments, too.
I didn’t realize Streep had made so many biopics, graduating from working women as in "Silkwood" and "Music of the Heart" to Karen Blixen, Lindy Chamberlain, Julia Child and now and Margaret Thatcher, as well as the roman a clef work in "Heartburn" and "The Devil Wears Prada." It’s a format that suits her template style of acting with its obvious — some would say overegged — external trumpeting, adjusted to a recognisable character.
British reviewers have praised her scenes of "Thatcher" slipping into dementia, but political pundits have been less fulsome. Exactly everything that is wrong with the principle of biopics. Yes it’s acting, and yes actors can copy something they’ve only observed, but great acting needs something personal, and I don’t believe the confusion can be played as anything other than showmanship.
(Interestingly, in an effort to get the publicity machine moving, on the cheap, the controlling Weinsteins have allowed this film to be previewed, reviewed and discussed in the British press two months before its U.K. opening without a hint of an embargo.)
I have a hunch the old guard will like the gentle treatment of one of their own and reward Williams to redress all the trashy books that have pillaged the Monroe legend. Williams was sensational in "Wendy and Lucy," which was a very subtle star vehicle, and has been a staple of wonderful little films like "The Station Agent" and this year in "Meek’s Cutoff," which will be eclipsed by "Marilyn."
There’s also Andrea Riseborough, who played the young Thatcher on British TV a few years ago, now playing Madonna’s version Wallis Simpson, also for the Weinsteins. This Los Feliz resident has been marked by many as the next British acting great, but she has been talking so much sycophant babble about Madonna the whole episode will probably tarnish her career.
Anyone who has ever studied literature quickly learns that fictional characters are often based on real life, but similarly actors can still give a semblance of truth in their own form of fiction by creating characters by combining elements of personalities. One of the best unofficial biopics performances you’ll ever see is Dustin Hoffman’s unlikely decision to play Robert Evans in "Wag the Dog."
There have been high profile biopics in the past of countless king, queens and saints but these were based, to debateable degrees, on historical records or blatant fiction. The actors built the characters without studying archive footage. Despite all the very fine work from Helen Mirren over the years I’m utterly convinced that her work in "The Queen" is the most over-rewarded performance ever.
It is all impersonation. And what is imagined is done so flatteringly the whole film reeks of state propaganda.
It is time the acting branch, and the critics, put originality, subtlety and freshness ahead of ‘channelling’ no matter how uncanny.