This week sees the UK release of On the Basis of Sex, a biopic covering the education and early court cases of esteemed US Supreme Court Justice and living legend Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It joins a long line of biopics and historical dramas dominating awards season, including five of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees as well as several of 2018’s other standout films, such as First Man and Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
Biopics’ prevalence at this time of year makes sense; these real-life, often-familiar stories can make for fascinating feature films with high visibility and “important” subject matter, which plays well to prestige audiences. The figures and stories they portray have already captured hearts and imaginations, and seeing a team of celebrated, talented creatives reanimate these people and events allows a humanising insight into subjects normally confined to history books and news reports. Structural problems arise when the creators trust that the larger-than-life power of the beloved (or at least known) subjects will carry the film with little dramatic refocusing, giving biopics a reputation for formulaic storytelling and a reverence verging on boredom.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a textbook example from this awards season – its oversimplified plot races through Freddie Mercury’s pre-fame life to Live Aid and his death with little reflection on the inner lives of anyone involved. Earlier in the decade, Get On Up (2014) and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) also lose their charismatic, chameleonic star performances in paint-by-numbers sequences. The strongest representatives of this genre shake off such biographical formulas, focusing intently on one chapter of a life or eschewing traditional storytelling structures to provide a fresh, unconventional reimagining of famous figures. Essentially, these biopics are less concerned with providing a quasi-educational, faithful biography than with bringing out the universal, uniting elements in a well-known life.
Several recent historical films exemplify the first category’s tight focus on singular moments and emotional motivations. The centrality of Neil Armstrong’s personal grieving alongside his public image in First Man (2018) turns Damien Chazelle’s biopic from a political and exploratory epic to a masterful private drama. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) foregrounds an intensely personal loneliness and search for meaning; the literary forging becomes an amusing side activity serving this emotional arc. Me and Orson Welles (2008) focuses on Welles’ 1937 Julius Caesar stageplay instead of the director’s entire life to its immense strength. While the veracity of some events and supporting characterisations are questioned, it allows Christian McKay’s mercurial Welles to captivate without the burden of historical commentary. Likewise, My Week with Marilyn (2011) fits the title to a tee, keeping the focus on Marilyn Monroe’s and Laurence Olivier’s time filming The Prince and the Showgirl and allowing Michelle Williams’ and Kenneth Branagh’s humanising performances to shine.
Lincoln (2012) is another strong biopic thanks to its dramatic focus on the 16th president’s fight to pass the Emancipation Proclamation. However, it is weighted down by an awareness of its historical significance and an unnecessary choice to flash forward to Lincoln’s assassination. Rush (2013) handles this historical context with more finesse; while the film covers James Hunt’s and Niki Lauda’s early careers and 1976 rivalry, the epilogue exploring their later lives feels a natural progression earned by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl’s sensitive, nuanced portrayals. The specificity of their personalities is so well defined that each action and choice feels organic, not historically predestined.
I’m Not There (2007) may be the quintessential unconventional biopic. With six actors taking on the role of Bob Dylan throughout different stages of his life and career, it becomes a series of vignettes exploring the iconic singer’s many personas. While some critics viewed it more as a collage than a conclusive narrative, its abstract approach to portraying a life proves that biographical films need not stick to representing the facts through chronological narration. Additionally, one hopes that the upcoming Marie Curie biopic Radioactive – drawn from Lauren Redniss’ graphic biography – uses its creative source material to further break the biopic formula. Regardless of the narrative style, these films all share a focus on the human, not the historical – the latter exists merely as a backdrop for the former’s connection with the viewers.
Back to this week’s release: On the Basis of Sex follows Justice Ginsberg’s law school education between 1956-1959 and ends with the Charles Moritz tax case in 1970. The focus is thankfully narrower than Ginsberg’s entire career and ends well short of her Supreme Court appointment, but the 14-year range and clear break between law school and the landmark case makes it feel as if checking the boxes of her life were more important than adding specific insight. The ending has been criticised for being overly neat and victorious, but it closes the film without dragging out a quasi-educational biographical narrative.
Meanwhile, the biopic on many film fans’ minds over the past week has been the recently announced Stardust. Starring Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone, and Marc Maron, it will follow David Bowie’s first tour of America in 1971. It is a promising premise: its focus on one epoch of Bowie’s eventful life should keep the film from sprawling into rote biographical delivery. Though considering the singer’s multiple reinventions, cocaine-fuelled breakdown, and subsequent return to the spotlight it could easily turn into a Bohemian Rhapsody-style morality tale without such a specific time frame. That said, one hopes that Bowie’s life someday gets the I’m Not There treatment – if anyone’s life suits an unorthodox depiction, it’s his.
Unfortunately, however, the production already appears to be on unsteady ground – Flynn is 11 years older than Bowie was during this tour and Bowie’s son Duncan Jones has spoken out against the film, denying family involvement and musical rights. The unusual casting and troubling lack of permissions are more relevant to questions of historical accuracy and respect (discussed previously on this site), than they are to the biopic’s narrative structure. Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see if and how this production translates its subject to the screen.