A few weeks back, at a friend’s birthday party, I was talking to some casual moviegoers, which is something those of us who write about movies should do more often. They were a married couple, and the husband (a tech guy) was asking me about Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle’s recent film about the Apple co-founder. “It’s great!” I told him. “Tell her!” he replied, pointing at his his spouse, who wouldn’t go see it with him. She shrugged; based on the commercials, she explained, it just didn’t look interesting to her.
I knew what she meant. The ads seemed to promise a conventional walk through what is, to put it charitably, a well-reported life — just another biopic, with nothing to separate it from the many similar dramas currently saturating movie screens. “Do you know about the structure?” I asked, easing into hard-sell mode. She didn’t. So I ran down how, instead of adhering to the traditional biopic script, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ingeniously told Jobs’ story in just three long scenes, set before three key product launches. “Well, that actually sounds interesting,” she replied. “The commercials I saw didn’t have any of that.”
Even if my pitch landed, it was too late to help Steve Jobs, which was a somewhat unexpected box office loser, only earning $17 million on a (rather low, by studio standards) $30 million budget. But Jobs was just one of several high-profile biopics to eat it commercially this year. Trumbo, Jay Roach’s biopic of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, has grossed just over $4 million. The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ $35 million 3D biopic of tightrope walker Philip Petit, sputtered out at $10 million. Legend, with Tom Hardy as the British Kray twins, is currently fumbling in limited release, while the David Foster Wallace-inspired End of the Tour came up just shy of $3 million last summer. Truth, with Robert Redford as Dan Rather, topped out at $2.4 million, its grosses almost identical to those of the Tobey Maguire-fronted Bobby Fischer drama Pawn Sacrifice. Even the buzzy Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy pulled a mere $12.5 million domestic.
Yes, I know, I know, box office isn’t the one and only yardstick, particularly here in Prestige Movie Season™. But the problem isn’t just that these movies aren’t making money; most of them also aren’t very good. Notices for Legend, Truth, Trumbo, and The Walk were mixed at best (other critics were much kinder than your correspondent); Pawn Sacrifice is so terrible, it plays like a parody of the biopic genre, something akin to Jake Kasdan’s brilliant 2006 satire Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. So if most of them stink and no one’s seeing them, why are so many biopics still getting made?
When Steve Jobs premiered at the New York Film Festival, Sorkin told the film press, “I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was a biopic… the conventional cradle-to-grave structure, where you land on all the greatest hits along the way.” A week later, at the same festival, Don Cheadle said of his forthcoming Miles Davis drama Miles Ahead, “I was presented with several takes on it, that I thought were kind of standard biopic stories, cradle-to-grave stories, chronological events in his life, and I just wasn’t interested in doing the story in that way with the particular artist, this singular artist who was always about trying to do it differently than it had been done before.” The similarity of those statements is telling (filmmaker Alex Gibney also used “cradle-to-grave” as a pejorative when describing his Jobs documentary The Man in the Machine last spring, so that’s apparently the term of art here); if a biopic backlash is in the air, filmmakers are smelling it, and doing their best to wave the scent away from their work.
And why shouldn’t they? Even the most casual viewer can recognize the pitfalls of the form, in which the reduction of an entire life to a single short-form narrative results in clumsy expositional dialogue, one-dimensional characters, comically obvious historical markers, and tediously unimaginative soundtrack cues. It is, as Gibney notes, “a stone-skipping exercise,” in which the complexities and conflicts of a noteworthy life are, in most instances, reduced to telegraphed caricature and secondhand insight.
The sub-genre was so exquisitely worked over in Walk Hard (“What do you think, George Harrison of The Beatles?”) that it’s sort of surprising we can still approach it with a straight face. And Kasdan didn’t even get there first; the best biopic I saw in 2015 was a revival screening of Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which (among its many virtues) satirizes tropes that were already tired when Haynes made the movie, clear back in 1988. This is not an exaggeration. Aside from the spot-on inelegant dialogue (“What is that? Is that Karen? I think we just found our lead singer!”), the scene-setting archival footage of Nixon, protests, and bombs dropping over Vietnam could’ve come straight out of Pawn Sacrifice.
In subsequent films, Haynes has carefully avoided the traps he sends up in Superstar; he wittily fictionalized David Bowie and the glam-rock scene in Velvet Goldmine, and dramatized Bob Dylan’s chameleonic life by casting six different actors to play characters — none of them sharing his name — inspired by his personality and personae in I’m Not There. At the Superstar screening, I asked Haynes about his awareness, and subversion, of biopic tropes. “That was the genre I was self-consciously trying to evoke for the viewer,” he said, “and using, as they all do, the sort of… happy songs on the road up, and the sad songs on the road down, entailing a level of disclosure about self-destructive behavior, or things that aren’t known to the public — all of those things.”
Yet he primarily approaches these films with a feeling of affection — and fascination. “I, in spite of or as a result of, or symptomatic of the films that I’ve made that have tried to shake up the biopic, I still find myself to be a sort of incessant lover of the biopic,” Haynes said. “I just love watching biopics. I think there’s just something about how fake they are that I find really amazing and interesting and captivating. And we watch that; it’s a crazy pattern of attempts for an actor to transform, and take on the tics and mannerisms and looks and hairdos and makeup of the famous subject, whether they sing the song or lip-sync the song… all of these ways that we minutely judge the performance or the quote-unquote reality, and the inability for that ever to be satisfied. Something about that cycle, wanting things to be real — and they never are real — but wanting them to be real again, I just find really compelling.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s on to something. It is a cycle we do indeed perpetuate every time one of these films is made: the announcement of the star who’ll play the star, the customary squinting and head-tilting and discussions of whether he/she (usually he) can pull it off, the first stills (or, even better, the first unofficial on-set paparazzi shots) of the actor in their full hair and makeup and costume and oh man I can sorta see it, the side-by-side still photo comparisons, the first teaser and/or trailer and its accompanying “Watch X become Y” blog posts (I’ve done ‘em, we all have).
It’s all grown quite familiar — so much so that you can’t help but wonder, while perusing those box office grosses, if it’s backfiring. When the most interesting thing about these pictures are such surface elements as casting and makeup, which can all be sampled and critiqued ahead of time, what’s the point of actually seeing the movie? Particularly when so many follow the same playbook, leading many viewers to feel like if they’ve seen one, they’ve seen them all?
So, again, why make them? For the actors involved, it’s a challenge that’s quite often rewarded with an Oscar nomination or win, but these films are more than that; for prestige movies, which lack the easy audience awareness of the franchises and tentpoles that prop up the blockbusters, biopics thrive off the same kind of #branding. They may not have a “cinematic universe” to bounce off of, but if you’ve heard of/like Steve Jobs or Brian Wilson or David Foster Wallace, maybe you’d like our motion picture?
Make no mistake, true stories can still make for great cinema. One of the year’s most acclaimed movies, rightfully, is Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, while The Big Short, The Revenant, and Bridge of Spies have all been warmly received by critics. And they can make money: Scott Cooper’s Black Mass is inching close to $100 million worldwide, and Woman in Gold was one of the biggest indie hits of the year. The difference is clear: all are about a story – a single, compressed narrative – rather than a life. By using a pin lamp in lieu of a floodlight, a smart filmmaker can translate drama from real life to the big screen, with enormously satisfying results.
And, for that matter, biopics can do the same. The best of this year’s crop (Jobs, Tour, and Love & Mercy) all focus on moments over lifespans, allowing their individual scenes to focus on conflict and relationships instead of a laundry list of biographical high points. Similarly, the two best biopics of recent years, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, discarded even the limited scope of a Jobs or Mercy and concentrated on a single flashpoint — the ratification of the 13th Amendment and the 1965 voting rights marches, respectively — to let the drama of a defining moment tell the story of a life too rich for the confines of a single feature film. (There’s also a case to be made for leaving biographies to the nonfiction filmmakers. They’re a lot more profitable — Amy is the year’s top-grossing documentary — and there’s never a question of whether the star can capably “capture” the subject.)
Then again, we may be looking less at a case of moviegoers and critics growing tired of biopics than of moviegoers and critics growing tired of the same type of biopic. Nearly every one of this year’s bumper crop focused on a white man; Pawn Sacrifice, Steve Jobs, Love & Mercy, and Trumbo represented the even more precise subset of “troubled white men who make everyone around them miserable, yet must be tolerated on account of their undeniable genius.” And with I Saw the Light (Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams), Genius (Colin Firth as Max Perkins), The Program (Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong), and Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden) in the pipeline for 2016, it looks like more of the same is on the way.
Yet the year’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful biopic, and one of its most profitable movies in general, was something quite different. To be sure, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton trafficked in many of the tired tropes typical of the genre, but it did so with its own undeniable energy and force, and more importantly, it used them to dramatize the kind of lives that seldom make it into the center of a prestige biopic. If David O. Russell’s Joy does similar damage at the box office over the holidays, the takeaway might not be that the biopic is dead — but that it, like so much of Hollywood’s product, would be wise to focus its lens on a slightly more diverse collection of subjects.
This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.