There is no such thing as a great biopic. Don’t @ me.
Two recent ones — “Vice,” a mean-spirited look at former Vice President Dick Cheney, and “On the Basis of Sex,” a reverential portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — remind us that movies often attempt biographies, especially at year’s end when there are awards to be had, but rarely do them well.
Issue numero uno is that it’s tough to cover an accomplished person’s life in two or three hours, unless that person does the filmmaker a solid by dying young. (“Without Limits” gracefully covers runner Steve Prefontaine’s whole life, but he died at 24.)
My own story probably could be biopic-ed in the length of a Pixar short, but the lives of Cheney, Ginsburg, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln are too jam-packed for a feature-length film. What they need is the space a biographer can give them. Just ask Robert Caro, whose 3,500-page, four-volume bio of Lyndon Johnson still hasn’t reached his second presidential term. Books also are better than movies at conveying the inner lives of people and at tracing the passage of time — both essentials in telling a life story.
That’s why it’s possible to emerge from a biopic feeling like you understand its subject less than you did when you went in. Exhibit A: biopics that win Oscars for their “importance” but quickly vanish from the memories of people who care about the movies.
Attempting to cram in an entire life results in “Gandhi” or “Ray,” honorably boring films that proceed from point A to point B to point C so dutifully that they lose the point along the way. Movies like those cover the key bases, yes, but they’re bloodless and dull because they record events without attempting to make sense of them. And, since they require an actor to age over the course of many decades, these biopics also often feature a lot of indefensible makeup. (Musical biopics such as “Ray” present an additional problem, in that they’re almost designed to make us wish we were watching the real performer do their stuff, instead of a knockoff.)
“Vice” is off-puttingly bilious and messy but at least it never bores us. Cherry-picking the lowlights of the veteran politician’s life, “Vice” smartly takes a deep dive into a defining event, the 9/11 attacks, arguing that was when Cheney fulfilled his secret dream of hijacking the presidency. That happens early in the movie, which then dips back and forth to make its case that Cheney (Christian Bale, who used his Golden Globe acceptance speech last Sunday to show he’d already dropped the 40 pounds he gained for the role) duped George W. Bush into being a figurehead for a de facto Cheney presidency.
Maybe its focus is so tight that “Vice” doesn’t count as a biopic. That term tends to be applied to birth-to-death movies, but writer/director Adam McKay’s movie belongs to the best category of biopics, those that choose a specific event in a person’s life to illustrate the whole.
Think of the great “Miracle,” for instance, which is sort of a Herb Brooks biopic but is really about the preparation for and competition at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Or “Jackie,” about the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Or “Julia,” which is so much not a biopic of writer Lillian Hellman that its title refers to a friend who fought the Nazis in World War II. “Julia” homes in on a single chapter from one of Hellman’s three controversial autobiographies, a winning strategy that’s also observed by the one inarguably great biopic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” which needs nearly four hours to cover two decades of T.E. Lawrence’s life.
One other issue with biopics is whose bios they choose to pic. There’s a list on IMDB.com called “Top 50 Greatest Biopics of All Time” and, although it’s less than two years old and was assembled by someone who is presumably aware that there are at least two genders, the number of female subjects among the 50 films is zero. All but 12 are white men and all but one are straight. That IMDB list is problematic for several reasons but so is the fact that it’s not easy to think of biopics about women, much less good ones (there’s “The Queen” and, um ...).
So give “On the Basis of Sex” credit for recognizing that Ginsburg has a story worth telling and also that it would be impossible to cram her 85 years into a couple of hours. “Basis” only takes us up to Ginsburg’s first trial, a landmark gender-equality case that set up the rest of her career as an attorney and jurist.
The movie might be better if it were just about that case, Moritz vs. Internal Revenue Service — who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama, especially when the underdog wins and the IRS loses? — instead of trying to shoehorn in Ginsburg’s education, alternate careers and children, whom the movie conveniently forgets about for long stretches.
Written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Danel Stiepelman, and personally vetted by its subject, “On the Basis of Sex” is, like many biopics, too respectful. Biopics tend to get made about heroes, so it makes sense that most are admiring but they frequently cross the line from affection to canonization. Watching “Basis” (or “Remember the Titans” or “My Left Foot” or “The Battle of the Sexes”), viewers may find themselves wondering if maybe just once the real protagonist yelled at a kid or forgot to say thank you. Humans make mistakes, but the saintly subjects of biopics seldom do.
Having the subject of a film mark up the script with red pencil is not the only road to a too-respectful biopic. Some filmmakers must make nice to obtain rights to their subjects’ music (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” whose two Golden Globe wins, like all Golden Globe wins, are not an accurate reflection of the film’s quality) or art (“Basquiat” was denied the use of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, resulting in a biopic that contains none of the work that defined him). As a result, subjects often have the leverage to gain control over the movies, meaning most biopics are “authorized.” Which is too bad. Anyone who reads books knows the best bios are the unauthorized ones because they can explore the darker corners of their subjects’ humanity. And because sinners are more interesting than saints.
Maybe biopics are best when they break with convention completely, like the hallucinogenic approach of Jim-Carrey-as-Andy-Kaufman in “Man on the Moon” or the cubist approach of perhaps the most unconventional biopic ever made, “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.”
It’s exactly what the title promises. Recognizing that it’s impossible to sum up a life in two hours, “Thirty Two Short Films” offers what might be called glimpses of the great concert pianist, the idea being that the sum will be greater than its parts. Current bestseller “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret” takes the same approach, with smashing success, and in both cases the unusual form has a bonus: The pieces are not fitted together for us, which means we’re invited to help make sense of the material, to help create meaning.
There’s modesty and honesty in that approach, which was also used by Paul Schrader in “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” and Todd Haynes in “I’m Not There,” with Bob Dylan played by multiple actors, and “Superstar: The Life of Karen Carpenter,” which substituted dolls for actors.
Another movie that employs that strategy, one that would be the best biopic of all time if it weren’t (kind of) fictitious, is “Citizen Kane.” Borrowing heavily from the life of William Randolph Hearst, the Orson Welles movie employs a skip-around approach that creates the impression you’ve seen every important moment in the life it depicts.
You could argue that those unconventional movies give up on the concept of biopics by not taking a birth-to-death approach but I’d argue that they reject the idea of summing up a life in two hours, promising instead to focus on what’s most interesting or unusual about that life.
I want to believe in the possibility of good biopics because they’re not going anywhere. In fact, they appear to be increasing exponentially every year. In 2019, we are promised Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, Zac Efron as (believe it or not) serial killer Ted Bundy and a pair of Oscar winners, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore, as young and less-young Gloria Steinem in “My Life on the Road.” Here’s hoping the filmmakers find a way to inject a little life into these life stories.