Nothing’s more fashionable in Hollywood today than the biopic, an ever present genre showcasing a life story. As the Oscar race is heating up, it is becoming abundantly clear that the genre shows no signs of slowing down. Loosely adapted narratives captivate audiences with extraordinary stories of seemingly ordinary people. These true stories also serve a dual purpose as strong star vehicles for awards season. What better way to win an Oscar than to master the nuances of a real life individual.

Adam Rottenberg

But something has always bothered me about these cookie-cutter Hollywood portraits — everything seems way too easy. A life is summed up in a two-hour time frame, encapsulating all the trials and tribulations of a man into one all-encompassing story. The viewer is left with no loose threads, no ambiguity. Either the film ends at with major life event or the subject’s death; sometimes these two are one and the same. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work that way.

This fall is no different than years past. Both “Kinsey” and “Finding Neverland” attempt to bring out the greatness of their subjects while simultaneously bringing its stars into the Oscar hunt. Liam Neeson (“Kinsey”) and Johnny Depp (“Neverland”) have had their chances at statuettes in the past, but with these star-centric movies, the actors have never had a better opportunity. Throw in Jamie Foxx’s career-defining performance in “Ray” and the entire field seems to be littered with biographical characters.

Hollywood has perverted the genre into being about the star capturing the individual rather than their body of work. Though the performances garnered out of these films are the brilliantly acted roles they were designed to be, the focus is paid to the actor, not the subject. Charlize Theron embodied serial killer Aileen Wuornos to horrific and Acadamy Award-winning results in last year’s “Monster,” however, the audience seemed more taken aback by the former model’s physical transformation than the pathos of the troubled murderess. It’s a rampant problem that seems almost inherent in the formula; biopics breed vanity projects. Kevin Spacey’s upcoming “Beyond the Sea” about singer Bobby Darin, appears to be an egregious example of the star overtaking the person. Spacey wants to play and sing the works of a youthful Darin in spite of his receding hairline and unknown vocal talents.

The performances in biographical pictures are generally top notch — even in the most mundane examples — but the films suffer from their historic branding. Frequently, questions about the legitimacy of the events arise. Whether it’s the omission of a darker side of the character or mundane aspects of their life, the biopic often fails to characterize the individual fully. Questions about John Nash’s sexual orientation were left on the cutting room floor for 2001’s Oscar winning “A Beautiful Mind,” but not even the whole story could save that film from its many faults and my boredom.

More often than not, I find myself wondering how the writers ever surmised the circumstances of these events. Wolfgang Peterson’s 2001 “true tale” “The Perfect Storm” perfectly epitomizes the problems with the genre. If you haven’t seen the movie, sorry to spoil it — although the film itself is wretched and you shouldn’t waste your time — but the entire final act is fictitious. How can Hollywood market a movie as a true story when the climactic conclusion can’t possibly be known? The writers concocted a melodramatic and heroic end for its protagonists, but for all we know, the fishermen could have been wetting their pants and crying for their mommies since they all died and had no means of communication.

Historical inaccuracies aside (especially when considering Oliver Stone’s “nonfiction” work), there are other fundamental flaws with biographical films. When the words “Based on a True Story” show up on the screen, there is always a reason to be leery. Maybe someday filmmakers will be able to find a way to intertwine a narrative with history, but these films seem more like make-believe than fact. I’ll admit, they do occasionally work — as was the case with Scorsese’s brilliant “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” — but those exceptional works are better viewed as fictional accounts than fact. “Goodfellas” also had the benefit of the involvement of the real Henry Hill, its subject, and had one of the most skillful hands behind the camera. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, true stories deteriorate into schmaltzy, feel- good tales featuring memorable performances. Hollywood needs to stick with what it knows, not fabricate biographies.

 

Adam is just bitter that no one has called to make a film of his life story. Console him at arotten@umich.edu.

 

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