December 01, 2014

Biopics Now Focus On Key Moments Rather Than A Whole Life



If I remember correctly the first film I ever saw Dame Helen Mirren in was "The Age of Consent" which was loosely based on the life of artist Norman Lindsay who wrote the novel. As we can see she has added more bio-pics to her CV. It was made in 1969. She also portrayed Queen Elizabeth 1 in a miniseries, and Ayn Rand in a telemovie -  even more biopics - here.


Of course there have been many miniseries that could be classified as biopics, possibly also focused on a portion of a biography. The miniseries, being so much longer, has a lot more time to deal with the person it is portraying. More about biopics here.

WHEN screenwriter Anthony McCarten and the others behind The Theory of Everything set out to tell the story of physically disabled scientist Stephen Hawking, they wanted to home in on one thing — his first marriage, as chronicled in his ex-wife Jane’s memoir. 
The Theory of Everything, which will be released in Australia in the new year, took plenty of ­liberties to dial up the drama. So when the writer finally sat down to screen the film for the real-life Hawking, he didn’t know how the physicist would react.

When the lights came up, the screenwriter recalls, Hawking, with tears on his cheeks, wrote on his wheelchair computer, which he controls with facial movements: “Broadly true.”

As year’s end brings the latest batch of Academy Award hopefuls, makers of the biographical movies known as biopics seem to have adopted “broadly true” as an operating principle. They’re sel­ecting the facts of real lives that suit dramatic storytelling. They’re turning real people into movie characters in films that, like dramatic fiction, are built to explore universal human themes as much as facts and figures.

Below - Eddie Redmayne who portrays Stephen Hawking.


They are steering away from the epic scale of biopics such as Richard Attenborough’s 1982 Oscar winner Gandhi, which spanned 55 years in three hours. The Pride of the Yankees, released in 1942, follows Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig from his youth to his retirement speech; J. Edgar, made more recently, was slow and reverential, some critics complained.

They are shunning cradle-to-grave biographies that can come off like “gorgeously shot Wikipedia articles”, says Graham Moore, who wrote the script for The Imitation Game about British mathematician Alan Turing. “I think those can be informative for an audience, and they can be quite beautiful,” he says. “But they can be a little bit dramatically inert.

“In the early days of biopics, it was simply: take a famous person whom we’re preprogrammed to be interested in, then you just follow the chronology. Now it’s more theme-based,” says James Marsh, director of The Theory of Everything

He and McCarten chose to explore the theme of time and its effects on people, echoing Hawking’s lifelong search for the literal beginning of time. The film frequently plays Hawking’s research into infinity against the limited prognosis for his lifespan because of his sickness with ALS.

Other new biopics include Mr Turner, in which Timothy Spall plays landscape artist JMW Turner in the final years of his life.

Soon to be released are films featuring Benicio Del Toro as drug lord Pablo Escobar and Tobey Maguire as chess master Bobby Fischer. Paul Dano and John Cusack play Beach Boy Brian Wilson respectively young and older in Love & Mercy.

In a sense, modern biopic filmmakers are elevating the “pic” above the “bio”. They are extracting the most compelling story from a famous or historical person’s experience, whether that lies in the entire arc of a life or just a snippet of time.

Such efforts may tilt the lopsided Oscar history of biopics: they have long been a showcase for actors and actresses, but not always for great movies. Biographical films that garnered Academy Award nominations for lead acting but not best picture have included Sweet Dreams, Gorillas in the Mist, Malcolm X, Chaplin, Ali, Walk the Line, The Last King of Scotland, Invictus, Julie & Julia, My Week With Marilyn and The Iron Lady.

Even more startling is the list of actors and actresses whose lone career Oscar came from a playing a real person: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Ben Kingsley, Reese Witherspoon, Forest Whitaker, George C. Scott, Sissy Spacek, Jamie Foxx, Anne Bancroft, Jeremy Irons, F. Murray Abraham and James Cagney.



Recent films are focusing more on distilling crucial biographical moments rather than regal performances. The Better Angels covers only Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood in Indiana, not his adult years. Writer and director AJ Edwards said he was seeking “more of a moral biography, a study of how his virtue was born”.

Jimi: All is By My Side, a film about guitar-god Jimi Hendrix, spans only a few months, a 1967 trip to London that transformed the musician’s career. The Hendrix and Lincoln films both leave out something any regular biographer would include: their shocking deaths.

“I think audiences have matured to the point where they’re less interested in a greatest-hits version of someone’s life,” says John Ridley, who wrote and directed the Hendrix film. (He also won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave.) “Over the last few years in particular, you can look at films like 42 about (baseball player) Jackie Robinson, which was just about his rookie season. You look at Lincoln, which was about the passage of the 13th amendment.”

Indeed, while Lincoln was well-received and won an Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis, some viewers groused that the movie should have concluded when that legislative episode did. An ending about his assassination seemed “tacked on”.

Tightly themed biopics aren’t new but they are becoming the norm. To adapt Walter Isaacson’s 650-page biography of Apple’s Steve Jobs, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is creating a movie consisting of just three scenes from Jobs’s career. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus told the story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) through his political finesse involving the sport of rugby — and told it better, most critics felt, than the more literal Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, according to review-tracking website Metacritic. (Actor Idris Elba won raves, however.)

“Once you settle on a theme, that’s your master,” Marsh says. “It’s still about a real person, so it will always be called a biopic. But it’s really a biopic in the way that Hamlet is a biopic, or King Lear.”

For The Imitation Game, scriptwriter Moore chose the theme of imitation, things made to look or act like something else. Turing, played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch, helped the Allies win World War II by cracking coded German messages.
Below: Alan Turing, and Benedict Cumberbatch with the cast.



He wrote about “the imitation game” (later known as the Turing test), a way to see if a computer could impersonate human intelligence. Meanwhile, he was homosexual at a time when it was illegal in Britain, closeted to the point that he proposed marriage to female colleague Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley).

“He had to keep up appear­ances, and he had to keep secrets for the government. He knew a lot about imitating,” Moore says.

Filmmakers do want to present events and personalities honestly. Writers and directors may spend years collecting facts, interviewing people and reviewing archival ­material.

Actors, costume designers and makeup artists typically do weeks or months of their own research. It’s not only from a sense of responsibility: people who know the truth will be watching. Rumours circulated that The Imitation Game was going to overlook Turing’s homosexuality in elevating his relationship with the Joan Clarke character.

“It led to irrational concerns on the internet that we were ‘straightwashing’ Alan Turing,” says Teddy Schwarzman, a producer of the film. “I needed to spend months on social media, and in press releases, letting them understand that the last thing we would do was shy away from that and create a fictitious romance.” Yet the film does manufacture a plot-advancing scene in which Turing helps Clarke get hired.

Real-life characters offer actors a lot to chew on — and plenty of research material. To portray painter Turner, Spall spent 2½ years learning to paint, to the point where he could create a passable full-size copy of Turner’s Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.

In the end, though, even actors need to portray a real-life character as dramatically as they’d play a made-up one.

“Even if you know all the facts, you’re still making choices as an actor,” says Chadwick Boseman, who was James Brown this year in Get on Up and Jackie Robinson last year in 42. “The hard part is just letting yourself go through that normal process. You don’t feel like you have the right to. But you have to.”

What makes biopics attractive to actors can make them less ­appealing to studios. Virtually all of this year’s biopics, including Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, were produced independently before being acquired for distribution. “Studios are spending more time with the tent poles taking up their slots,” says Schwarzman, who financed The Imitation Game. “For the mid-price, character-driven story that can appear in the fall season, more of those stories have to be told by (independent) companies.”

As a result, today’s biopics often are passion projects moved forward by the will of slightly obsessed individuals. “I always wanted to write about Turing,” Moore says. “Probably about once a year I would go to my agents and say ‘Hey, I would really love to write a movie about this guy, Alan Turing. He was a gay, English mathematician who committed suicide in 1954.’ And they would say ‘That’s the worst idea for a movie we’ve ever heard. Please don’t write that. No one will ever make that movie.’ ”

McCarten’s decade-long journey to create The Theory of Everything was spent in part persuading Jane Hawking to grant him rights to her story. (Producers say obtaining rights to a subject’s life isn’t always legally necessary but is a way to procure ongoing input and goodwill from subjects.) “People weren’t interested in this project, I’ll tell you,” McCarten says. “They probably thought: ‘Wheelchairs, physics … I can’t see a great movie here.’ ”

He felt the film really got approval from Stephen Hawking when the physicist offered something that would make the imagined version of his life feel truly authentic to the audience: permission to use his well-known computer-synthesised voice.

“We’d spent a lot of time and money trying to manufacture something close, but it wasn’t the same,” McCarten says. “What more ringing an endorsement can you hope to have than my invented dialogue typed into his computer and then spoken by him? It’s almost like having the subject of your film appear in the film himself.”

by Don Steinberg

Pictures and story with thanks to The Australian

I think it's fair to say that the late Charlton Heston did his fair share of bio-pics.
Consider "The Ten Commandments", El Cid, and "The Agony and The Ecstasy" for starters.Lots of History there too. As a result of all his work the USA issued a stamp of him recently.

Full list here.

Picture credit for Princess Grace and Nicole Kidman: Glamorama
Picture credit for Edith Piaf and Marion Cotillard:Lomography

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