A raft of recent biopics has triumphed at the box office but there have also been some spectacular flops. Tom Brook finds out why some succeed and others fail.

When they work, biopics make an indelible impact. A whole generation grew up with a view of Mahatma Gandhi based almost entirely on Sir Ben Kingsley’s spellbinding 1982 portrayal of the Indian nationalist leader. For many young Americans it’s not old photographic images of Abraham Lincoln that come to mind when they think of the 16th US president – but Daniel Day-Lewis’ version in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic.

Through the decades, from Lawrence of Arabia to Raging Bull to The Social Network, biographical pictures have collected armfuls of prizes. But for every one that enthralls there are countless others that stumble. And when they do, critics have a field day. “A film so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk,” is how Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw described Grace of Monaco, the Grace Kelly biopic starring Nicole Kidman, which opened the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to a parade of dismal reviews. It failed for several reasons – its screenplay was seen as one of its main weaknesses.

Other recent big biopic flops include The Fifth Estate, in which Benedict Cumberbatch played WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which many found muddled and incoherent.

But despite setbacks the production of biopics remains unstoppable with several big pictures always on the horizon. One of the latest projects in the works is an Elton John portrait starring Tom Hardy which is said to be a “birth to rehab” history of the singer’s life.

Who dares wins

Trying to find out what makes a biopic triumph is like searching for the Holy Grail. But practitioners within the movie business aren’t short on advice. The Oscar winning documentary maker Alex Gibney, who’s profiled a range of figures from Hunter S Thompson to the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti, argues feature filmmakers doing biopics need to have a specific approach.

“It’s finding an essence. It’s finding an attack,” he says.

He believes it’s important for a biographical film to have a strong angle. With Lincoln it was whether or not the president could bring about the end of slavery. With The King’s Speech it was the story of how a British monarch prevailed despite his stammer.

Biopics move onto perilous ground when they laboriously follow a chronological cradle to the grave trajectory – and try to pack too much in.

“I think the ones that are less successful are the ones that dutifully try to do everything, and in trying to do everything, end up with nothing,” says Gibney.

A daring director who plays with the conventions of the biopic can be rewarded, if fortunate, with a creative triumph.

“The ones that I most enjoy are the ones that do something different, something unexpected, films that take the idea of how to tell a story about a life and invert it,” says Tom Brown co-editor of The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture.

An oft-cited case in point is filmmaker Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, which drew strong praise from many critics and film scholars. In the film Haynes deployed several actors, including Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, to each play a character representing a different version of Dylan.

The picture broke new ground for the biopic. New York Times film critic AO Scott wrote that “Haynes’s film hurls a Molotov cocktail through the facade of the Hollywood biopic factory.”

Scholars think the biographical film is evolving – moving away from standard formats. One unconventional tactic has been to use animation to tell a biographical story as was the case with the award-winning 2008 Israeli film Waltz with Bashir. Ari Folman, the director, used animation to illustrate his memories of his time as an infantry soldier in Israel. The film put him on the map internationally – and now he’s reportedly going to create an animated biopic of the life of Anne Frank.

Songs of praise

Biographical features can easily be undermined not just when directors try to pack too much in – but also if they’re overly reverential. This can present a challenge for pictures chronicling the lives of individuals, such as musicians, who have big fan followings. Two such films are out this month: Get on Up in the US on the life of James Brown, and a Jimi Hendrix biography, Jimi: All Is by My Side, which is being released in the UK.

The verdict isn’t fully in on these pictures, but biopics of pop culture heroes often put directors in the difficult position of pleasing their subject’s fan base while giving a rounded view of their character.  Hagiography puts audiences off.

“One of the pitfalls I think is striking the balance between celebrating the life of that person, but at the same time we’re alert to whitewashing, a too good portrayal of that person,” says Tom Brown.

In fact for many filmmakers an unvarnished warts and all approach is what makes for a more successful and stronger biopic. In his forthcoming film Mr Turner, a portrait of the British landscape painter JMW Turner, veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh shows the dual nature of his subject’s character.

“He’s flawed, he is absolutely likable and unlikeable, and that’s how you can only view him,” says Leigh. “My job is to give it to you but not to resolve it. It’s up to you, the audience, to decide what you feel about this guy.”

Perversely, for a fact-based form of cinema, the directors of some of the most successful biopics throw caution to the wind and forget about the facts. They take full creative licence to create drama. The imperative is to tell a good story – not be slave to the truth.

Jean-Marc Vallee, who directed Dallas Buyers Club, which told the story of Aids activist Ron Woodroof, rooted his film in fact but, for him, creating a compelling narrative was the priority. “We’re serving a piece of entertainment. The film is not trying to depict Ron’s life meticulously,” he says.

But meddling with the facts – or just being charged with the act of doing so – can hamper a biopic. The Oscars prospects of A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe, the 2001 biographical film of John Nash, a Nobel laureate in economics, almost had its Oscars campaign derailed by allegations that it had whitewashed significant aspects of Nash’s life. It was alleged the film had glossed over reports that Nash was anti-Semitic – and gay – although Nash himself maintained neither was true.

Secret recipe

Even when they triumph artistically biopics may not always do well at the box office. Despite some fulsome praise I’m Not There – even with its star-laden lineup – only managed to bring in a paltry $11.6m around the world. Cineastes may prefer a more sophisticated approach but perhaps not the general moviegoing public.

But more broad commercial as well as critical success is possible. Spielberg’s Lincoln won strong reviews and it grossed a handsome $275m internationally.

So what did Spielberg do right? Well he chronicled just a short period in Lincoln’s life, he set his focus on a specific issue – the abolition of slavery – and he didn’t hold back in depicting the complexities of his subject.

Spielberg was also helped by his cast – specifically by the talents of Daniel Day-Lewis. Biopics need highly skilled actors in the leading role to succeed. It’s perhaps one reason why the biographical film, despite its spotty track record, will never wither because actors, and directors are strongly drawn to them. They know a biopic represents a golden opportunity to make a career defining film that tests them professionally, engages an audience, and if they’re lucky brings them an Oscar trophy too.

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