Beyond the biopic

Posted by · 6:10 pm · August 24th, 2008

Halfway through watching the recently uncovered trailer for Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” I felt my stomach sinking with involuntary dread, and it took me a beat or two to figure out why.

The problem didn’t appear to be the film itself; in fact, the relatively zippy trailer promises something somewhat tighter and wittier than I’ve been expecting from the odd (to my eyes) pairing of Ron Howard and Peter Morgan.

No, what had me grimacing in anticipation of things to come were the glimpses we are offered of Frank Langella as Tricky Dick – a showcase that, in the space of two minutes, manages to tick so many Academy boxes that Langella could probably nab a nomination for the trailer alone.

The studied gait, the mannered vocal cadences, the escalating, booming rage in his confrontations with Michael Sheen’s David Frost (anyone want to lay bets on the “when the president does it, it is not illegal” clip being used in the Best Actor presentation on Oscar night?) … all the elements appear to be in place for the kind of superficially impressive inhabitation of celebrity that has lately dazzled the voters on a yearly basis.

Let it be said, I’m not dismissing Langella’s performance – he may be very good indeed. (Though now that The Guardian has pointed out the vocal similarities between Langella’s Nixon and Sean Connery, that discordant parallel will remain firmly lodged in my brain.) And after a long career with two recent near-misses at an Oscar nomination (“Good Night, and Good Luck” and the wonderful “Starting Out in the Evening”), I could hardly begrudge the man some recognition.

But at the same time, if someone were to issue a moratorium on rewarding biopic performances for the next decade or so, I would be right on board. For the last ten years running, at least one of the four winning performances each year has been a portrayal of a real-life figure. Daniel Day-Lewis just broke a three-year biopic run in Best Actor category; over in Best Actress, a mere two of the last nine victors played fictitious characters.

I’m not so contrary as to assert that none of them were deserving, but I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little fatigued. More than that, I’m exasperated at how easily, and consistently, impressed the Academy has been by this particular trick.

Of course there are certain challenges posed by playing a real-life figure, particularly one as universally recognised and historically specific as Richard Nixon. (Get the impression wrong, after all, and people will pounce on you all the more swiftly.) But those challenges are no more significant – and are arguably less so – than those involved in creating an unfamiliar fictional character with no physical or vocal frame of reference besides the rudimentary building blocks provided by even the best of scripts (or original source material, as the case may be).

So I remain mystified that, year after year, critics and awards bodies so routinely laud mere verisimilitude in a biopic performance, without at least taking into account the infinitely larger amount of resources that actor had to draw upon than their fiction-playing competitors. To forge a sense of empathy and emotional connection between the viewer and a person who doesn’t really exist is the most fundamental challenge of acting, yet I can’t shake the feeling that the underlying reasoning in the mind of most people voting for Cate Blanchett’s Hepburn or Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin only goes as deep as, “Oh my God, he/she looked/sounded/sang just like so-and-so!” It kind of stuns me that the Academy’s acting branch, in particular, could have such a one-dimensional appreciation of their own craft.

When people consider the greatest film characters in history, there’s a reason why all the contenders – from Scarlett O’Hara to Terry Malloy to Antoine Doinel to Clarice Starling – are products of a writer’s imagination rather than portraits of existing figures: because the film, or at least the fictional source, is where they came to be. The viewer knows them through that medium first, hence their relationship is all the more intimate.

However finely wrought an impression the actor gives of Mahatma Gandhi or June Carter Cash or Richard Nixon, they will never own that character exclusively, and more often than not, history will reflect that distance. So when the Academy values Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi above Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy Michaels, they show remarkably little foresight as to what will actually resonate on screen in years to come.

Needless to say, exceptions exist. De Niro’s Jake La Motta is obviously a performance for the ages, while I honestly believe that Hilary Swank’s take on Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry” is the most deserving Best Actress winner of the last forty years. (I would venture that, as in both those cases, performances of figures less familiar to the general public endure better than portrayals of icons – though even there I must acknowledge that Blanchett’s faintly disguised Bob Dylan was, for me, the performance of 2007.)

The problem lies in the frequency with which the Academy rewards such performances: when they so obviously can’t discern between work that is genuinely inspired and interpretive (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote, Marion Cotillard’s Piaf) and that which is merely illustrative (Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles, Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II), you begin to question the point.

Of course, for all we know, the Oscar talk for Langella may come to nothing – the Best Actor field is crammed with hefty possibilities, yet more of them in biopics (Sean Penn in “Milk,” Foxx again in “The Soloist”). And again, I’m not judging whether or not Langella is deserving – until I see a whole film, rather than a two-minute trailer, I can’t possibly say. But as unfair and otiose as this is to say, I don’t really care how good he is. There are a million flavours of characterisation – and of performance – out there; it’s time for the Academy to broaden their palate.




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14 responses so far

  • 1 8-24-2008 at 8:24 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I don’t know how much I agree with you… a performance is a performance, and you know when you’re watching a great one. Just because a performance is of a real living historical figure doesn’t make it any less impressive if it’s well performed. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marion Cotillard, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, and Charlize Theron give some of the absolute best performances of the decade, and to discredit them by saying they’re merely “imitating” or “acting as other people” is wrong.

  • 2 8-24-2008 at 8:26 pm

    N8 said...

    Great read, Guy, but I have to disagree with your assessment of Ben Kingsley’s Oscar-winning performance.
    I saw the film “Gandhi” before I had ever seen any photographs or film footage of the real Gandhi, yet I was completely convinced and moved by Kingsley’s performance. The accuracy of his immitation was incidental.
    Don’t mistake me, we all loved Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”, but I still think Kingsley’s Best Actor win is one of the best decisions the Academy ever made in that category.

  • 3 8-24-2008 at 11:46 pm

    John K said...

    I’m with Speaking English. I can’t agree with the idea that playing a historical figure is somehow easier than playing a fictional character. Even assuming that actors in biopics have an “infinitely larger amount of resources” from which to draw – I don’t agree with this either – they then have to overcome both preconceptions of what the performance should be like and the idea that they are in fact just doing an imitation. If anything, playing a real character makes it MORE difficult to “forge a sense of empathy and emotional connection.”

    “When people consider the greatest film characters in history, there’s a reason why all the contenders – from Scarlett O’Hara to Terry Malloy to Antoine Doinel to Clarice Starling – are products of a writer’s imagination rather than portraits of existing figures”

    I think this is faulty logic. The reason why the contenders come from works of fiction is because most people don’t consider historical figures to be “characters.” If the question were framed to ask about “greatest performances” or “most moving performances,” then plenty of contenders would come from biopics.

    Sorry, I’m not trying to be abrasive. I just thought you severely discredited Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” and had to respond accordingly.

  • 4 8-25-2008 at 12:20 am

    Martin Edwards said...

    I completely agree with you, Guy, this recent trend is growing old for me, as well.

    Two specific years I must fly off the handle on: PSH in Capote. He was essentially anointed the winner before Capote was even released, so much so that we had one of the best performances of all time (yes, I said it) with Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain completely ignored, relegated to the “happy to be nominated” category when it was announced. I’ll never get my full respect for the Academy back after that one.
    Jamie Foxx for “Ray” is the other. While I admit I thought the winner of that year was in another biopic, “The Aviator,” due to the mystery of his personal life that Howard Hughes left us with, that probably falls more into the “lesser-known celebrity” interpretations. DiCaprio makes Hughes completely his own, while still capturing what little we do know about Hughes to the T. That’s the way all biopics should be. Another example, ironically, is Anthony Hopkins’ “Nixon.” While not perfecting the vocal rhythm and bigger aspects of Nixon, Hopkins does perfect the subtle idiosyncrasies that work in the film and make it all the more powerful. We’re not watching an imitation when an actor does something like that, we’re being drawn in by sheer performance level.

  • 5 8-25-2008 at 1:29 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Great responses, everyone, thanks.

    Speaking English, I’m not discrediting most of these performances – many of them are fine accomplishments. (I say as much in my piece – both Hoffman and Cotillard, while not my personal favourites in their categories, were deserving winners.) And nowhere do I use the overly reductive word “imitating.”

    I’m just calling for a little discernment and a little diversity. When biopic performances are rewarded so often, it reduces the lustre of the truly exceptional achievements in that bracket.

  • 6 8-25-2008 at 6:48 am

    Bryan said...

    Two of the finest actresses working today:

    Cate Blanchett garnered 5 oscar nominations – 4 for biopics (I’m including I’m Not There in that).

    Kate Winslet garnered 5 oscar nominations – 1 for a biopic.

    Maybe that’s been Winslet’s trouble getting her overdue recognition.

    Just saying. Not debunking Blanchett in any way; I still think her the finest actress today.

  • 7 8-25-2008 at 8:27 am

    John Foote said...

    Full agreement with Guy on Hoffman and Kingsley…the Oscar belonged to Hoffman that year for his stunning performance a in “Tootsie” which is simply one of the greatest pieces of acting ever put on film. Bio-pics are tricky because as Guy astutely points out so often the good response is based on whether or not the actor looks or sounds like the character they are portraying. I love Cate Blanchett but found her work in “The Aviator” to be all surface while Virginia Madsen in “Sideways” brought to her role genuine soul. As much as I liked Jamie Foxx in “Ray” I found the same issue…too little depth. A few years back Denzel Washington gave a magnificent performance in “Malcolm X” only to see Pacino get the Oscar for one of the worst performances ever to win the damned thing in “Scent of a Woman”. Anthony Hopkins likely gave the besat performance of his career as “Nixon” even though he neither looked nor sounded like Nixon, he captured the man’s soul with his performance. Sadly far too many actors when portraying real life characters go for the look and sound, and forget they need to inhabit the character from the inside out rather than the opposite. For all great performances, it begins on the inside and manifests itself outwards. I am in agreement with the criticism on Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s win for “Capote” less a performance than an impersonation while Ledger gave a deeply felt performance in “Brokeback Mountain”. Too often as Guy points out, the Academy, audiences and even film critics fail to look pasty the surface. Without soul, there is no performance. My God, Bruno Ganz found soul in Hitler in ‘Downfall”!!!!!

  • 8 8-25-2008 at 11:23 am

    M.Harris said...

    I have no problem with the “biopic thing” you may ask me if I’m weary of it and my oponion is the majority of the pictures that the academy looks at for Best Picture are biopics.There are not a ton of films that don’t potray a dead or alive human being that are nomination worty.Sure there’s some that could be argured but isn’t a part of acting and I say “a part”of it at least sounding and looking like the person that your portraying.Now of course the performance has to be “deeply felt” but I just don’t think any actor should be just thrown into the “impersonation catergory” because he or she has mannerisms and voices down to a tee.I no I wouldn’t want Ghandi to sound like Howard Hughes.

  • 9 8-25-2008 at 2:07 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “There are not a ton of films that don’t potray a dead or alive human being that are nomination worty.”

    I disagree with this on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin. You honestly believe that, in any given year, there are more worthy biopics than there are worthy feats of fiction?

  • 10 8-25-2008 at 4:04 pm

    M.Harris said...

    Your point is well taken Guy maybe I should refrase that “that the academy says is oscar worty”which doesn’t make them the academy right(I disagree with a lot of the things they choose and I will admit they do tend to lean towards the biopic) but there the one’s making the choice.Like I said before not every pitch perfect impression lacks depth and feeling and this is not directed at you I just at times get a little tired of some acting as if talking and walking like someone is some type of gimmick(hell I wish I could do “impersonations”as good as some of these people)but like they say art is subjective and this is just my oponion.

  • 11 8-25-2008 at 4:05 pm

    M.Harris said...

    Your point is well taken Guy maybe I should rephrase that, “that the academy says is oscar worty”which doesn’t make them the academy right(I disagree with a lot of the things they choose and I will admit they do tend to lean towards the biopic) but there the one’s making the choice.Like I said before not every pitch perfect impression lacks depth and feeling and this is not directed at you I just at times get a little tired of some acting as if talking and walking like someone is some type of gimmick(hell I wish I could do “impersonations”as good as some of these people)but like they say art is subjective and this is just my oponion.

  • 12 8-25-2008 at 7:28 pm

    Walter said...

    a little off-track, but is the trailer using the theme from Saw at the end?

  • 13 11-14-2008 at 11:08 pm

    Aerin said...

    It’s a bit of a chicken/egg question, really. You’d have to look at past Oscar stats to pin down the beginnings of the trend, but I posit that after the Academy had noticed a couple of strong biopics, studios took notice and started focusing on those for their Oscar bait. I think it’s as much a trend in filmmaking as in the Academy, personally. I’m glad to see that there are still films like “Benjamin Button,” “Doubt,” and “Rachel Getting Married” getting Oscar buzz.