This week marks the UK release of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic of the revolutionary 16th American president. Already a critical and commercial triumph across the Atlantic, it looks set to enjoy similar success both here and around the world. The film is also leading this year’s award season, its unabashed patriotism and bravura performances helping garner an impressive twelve Oscar nominations. Even BAFTA, traditionally biased towards home-grown talent, has chosen to favour Lincoln over acclaimed British productions, including Skyfall and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Yet Spielberg isn’t the only filmmaker with a biopic to promote; in just a couple of weeks cinemagoers will be treated to Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, which recounts events surrounding the making of the master director’s Psycho. In fact, 2013 looks set to be a bumper year for biographical movies, with such famous names as Princess Diana, Grace Kelly and Steve Jobs all set to receive the big screen treatment. Bearing this in mind, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the long history of the genre and why it remains so enduringly appealing to audiences.
With portrayals of historical figures appearing in the earliest silent films, the biopic is almost as old as cinema itself. While experimenting with the medium’s storytelling possibilities, the very first filmmakers instinctively recognise its potential for depicting memorable moments from the past. One of the oldest surviving examples from this period is Jeanne D’Arc, Georges Melies’s 1900 account of the legendary French martyr. After the studios gained control of Hollywood in the 1930s, it wasn’t long before biopics soon became standard fare, the likes of Queen Christina and The Stratton Story providing lucrative box-office returns.
Since the end of the Golden Era, several scholars have argued that the biopic has fallen from prominence. However, while there may be some element of truth to such claims, the genre has continued to remain a staple of Anglo-American moviemaking. Indeed, whether they’re about cultural icons of the past and present (the Dali Lama in Kundun, Johnny Cash in Walk the Line) or lesser known faces (Pamela Smart in To Die For, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind), each year scores of films are dedicated to telling the story of history’s most notable individuals.
This is not to say that these movies should necessarily be considered objective or historically accurate, since many directors and screenwriters tend to view their subjects through rose-tinted glasses. Spielberg seems especially guilty of this practice, his much-lauded Schindler’s List proving a particularly revealing case. Based on the life of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who helped save the lives of 1,100 Jewish workers from Nazi persecution, many critics claim that the film implies he had a greater hand in rescuing his employees than was actually the case.
Equally, there are instances of directors providing unabashed critiques of their subjects. This typically follows the pattern of an outspoken liberal filmmaker attacking a right-wing political figure. Oliver Stone, for example, has painted damming portraits of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, while Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar depicts the former FBI chief as a manipulative obsessive. Attempting to justify their biases and inaccuracies, filmmakers usually hide behind claims of poetic licence – Kathryn Bigelow has recently explained the difficulty of constructing a coherent and engaging narrative that also rigorously adheres to the facts. Nevertheless, the frequent adoption of a vérité aesthetic all too often seeks to blur the distinction between fiction and reality.
Of course, such questions of veracity rarely seem to concern award bodies; as Lincoln perfectly demonstrates, biopics are frequently the first to be showered in golden statuettes. There are doubtless a variety of reasons for this, but I suspect voters are easily drawn to the mythic trajectory that many of their narratives trace. After all, most biographical films either depict the struggles of an oppressed hero who must overcome insurmountable obstacles (Ghandi, Braveheart) or show how a person of standing can fall from grace (Raging Bull, The Last Emperor).
Performers in particular seem likely to be singled out for high-profile awards, with no less than six actors and seven actresses having won Oscars for playing real people in the last decade. This is hardly surprising, since it’s the performances that arguably make biographical films so popular with audiences; transformed by layers of makeup, we are encouraged to compare the interpretations with our own recollection of the subject. In many cases, such as last year’s The Iron Lady, a scene-stealing central performance can lead even the most mediocre film to financial success.
At over a century old, then, it looks like the biopic is here to stay. Partial to a Hollywood-style history lesson myself, I can’t say I’m disappointed by this prospect. While Lincoln and Hitchcock have already raised a few eyebrows with regards to their factual accuracy, I will almost certainly be first in line to see them at my local multiplex. If it’s a facts and dates you’re looking for, read a textbook. Otherwise, just take them for what they’re ultimately supposed to be: big-budget entertainment, inspired by real events. Inspired being the operative word.