The Inherent Flaw of Biopics
It’s usually entertaining to see your favorite historical figures and celebrities fully fleshed out. The costumes, the music, the attitude- whatever or whoever it is you’re watching is suddenly brought to life in a way you previously would have had to have lived it to understand.
And they can make some serious money too. With 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler grossing more than five times it’s budget, the money made from say, the book it was based on, are guaranteed to go up as well.
So what’s the problem with them? It’s too easy to say “They change things from what really happened!” Although that will usually be the case. But there’s something more to these biopics that could be brought to light each time one is released.
2005’s Johnny Cash film, Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon is considered a critical and financial success. The story mostly revolved not only around Cash’s beginnings in life and career, but his on and off romance with wife to be, June Carter. Audiences seemed to accept Phoenix’s role as the man in black while Witherspoon’s portrayal of June was also met with appreciation. The two also did their own singing rather than have a voice over for the live performances. Nothing against a recording but it also made for a nice new soundtrack with covers of Cash classics as done by the actors portraying them.
So what’s the problem with this? A hit movie, great performances and remade classics? Sure, they streamlined some stuff because there’s only so much time, but a few changes aren’t harmful, right?
Well, yes and no.
Like I said, it’s too easy to say that the problem with biopics is that since they change things, it taints the real life drama that the source figure went through. Even The Butler was an especially torrid subject when it came to the Oscars, as so many majorly traumatizing events the main character went through…didn’t happen to the real life figure, Cecil Gaines.
And while that aspect is an intriguing enough subject on its own, there’s something else that sticks out to me as an issue to the prospect of summing up a person’s life in two and a half hours. And that’s the idea that someone’s life can not only be summed up in a message, but that whatever is put into that movie is often accepted as fact by the vast majority of audiences that watch it.
Now I’m not talking about a movie like Goodfellas where many people don’t even know it’s (more or less) based on a true story. When you watch Scorsese’s Goodfellas, you’re not watching a story about Henry Hill and his true life rise to power in the mob. You’re watching a story that’s meant to sum up the mob in that time period. Things that have been changed aren’t changed as much to make the characters to seem morally better or worse than they were but to sum up the actions of a bunch of people’s entire lives in three hours. Scorsese’s films seem to have always gotten a pass in a way because most of his characters are horrible people to begin so Jordan Belfort sleeping with a hotel full of hookers in a night isn’t much different than him sleeping with a hotel full of hookers in a week’s time.
So summation and changes themselves aren’t the issues here.
2005’s Walk the Line changed some things as well as flat out adding in things that never happened while the point remained the same- Cash’s life was filled with gray areas where he tried to balance all too much at one time. The woman he loved and the woman he was with. Prior responsibilities he’d had with the freedom of the open road.
That was the point right? From the title to scenes of Cash creating his hit song of the same name based on life experiences, the man in black’s life was about making the tough choices and figuring out you really wanted. Walking the line.
That was what it was about, right? I don’t actually know. I just saw my boy Cash having a good time, cheating on his naggy wife (I’m sure the family of the real life counterpart appreciated that) and getting with the woman he should have been with. She was way hotter anyway! He lived a hard life even with the success he achieved but that fueled his music!
In all seriousness, it’s difficult to make a movie about what really happened, have a cohesive message, and make your main character, based on a real person, likable. From this, we get a clutter of a person that didn’t really exist, along with a message to sum up their life. Titanic can a have a point, Predator can have themes, but whatever you decide to make the overarching motif can be just as easily done away by the negative and positive of the main character. Some may focus on Johnny Cash the cheating drug user and some may focus on a guy who was ultimately justified in whatever he did because, hey, he was successful anyway right?
The point is, the movies based on the lives of famous people, aside from being scattered with untruths and inconsistencies, really just tell a mess of a person’s life that doesn’t have a story that they can get across in two hours. There’s too much there to accurately portray and not have people leaving with a strong impression if they know what to think at all.
2013’s Jobs was an example of this as well. Though people gave credit to Ashton Kutcher’s depiction of Apple guru Steve Jobs, many left the theater wondering what to make of the movie that seemed to jerk back and forth between showing Jobs the creative genius and Jobs the fundamental jerk. Neither seem to be very close to the real guy and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what the freaking movie was actually trying to tell me.
If a person lived a simple life that seemed to have a consistent message throughout is one thing, though I can’t see that happening. It seems the best that could be done is to write a script based on what the persona of a famous person said versus the behind-the-scenes side of things. But until someone’s life can be so easily split down the middle, we’ll only be able to get misleading and simplified stories that seem to do the subject of interest more damage than good.
So if you had a movie based on your life, what would you sum your life message up with?