A BETTER BIOPIC

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The secret of a great film about a real person is to focus on a short slice of life, says Nicholas Barber ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

It's that time of year again—the time when the Oscars and the Baftas are within sniffing distance, and every major studio releases the prestige pictures which may just snag a few awards. Inevitably, several of those films are biopics. Oscar voters love them because the “based on a true story” tag gives them a veneer of seriousness, and because it’s easy to judge whether or not the central impersonation is any good. That’s why “J Edgar” (reviewed by The Economist here), “The Iron Lady” and “My Week With Marilyn” are at a cinema near you, or will be shortly. Strictly speaking, though, “My Week With Marilyn” isn’t a biopic. The heading is usually reserved for films which, like print biographies, span the majority of their subjects’ lives, whereas, as you might have gathered from its title, “My Week ...” covers a rather shorter period. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so enjoyable.

The trouble with conventional biopics is that they invariably fall short in both the “bio” and the “pic” departments. That is, they don’t have enough narrative momentum to engage as dramas, but they have too much fudging and falsifying to qualify as biographies. If you already know about the person being profiled, you’re annoyed by how much is distorted and omitted. If you aren’t an expert going into the cinema, you’re never sure how much of what you see on screen actually happened in real life. From “Pollock” to “Sylvia” to “Gainsbourg” to “Ray”, biopics always try to box their subjects’ unruly lives into a rigid rise/fall/rise structure. They always prioritise drink-and-drugs-hells over artistic achievements. And they always try to cram in too much material, hence they keep jumping from one supposedly significant event to another. Quite a few of us grit our teeth at the prospect of two-and-a-half formulaic hours of ageing make-up and pop psychology punctuated by a sequence in which someone composes their best-known hit in a flash of inspiration.

Fortunately, there’s another way of doing things: the “My Week With Marilyn” way. This new film approaches the life of Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) over the span of a week she spent in the company of a lowly production assistant during the production of the 1957 romantic comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl". It’s become clear that the best dramas about famous people are the ones that concentrate on one specific incident in their lives, rather than the whole shebang. It’s a method which allows for strong stories, instead of strings of barely related anecdotes. And these partial biopics tend to offer greater insight into their subjects than films that chronicle everything from birth to death.

Another tale of a neophyte basking briefly in the reflected glory of a superstar, “Me And Orson Welles” (2009) revolves around a fictionalised encounter, but its portrait of Welles is at least as authentic as any you might see in a full biopic. “The Cradle Will Rock” (1999) gave us another peek at the young Orson, just as the Beatles have so far merited not one but two big films about the years before they released their first record, “Nowhere Boy” (2009) and “Backbeat” (1994). Any attempt to squeeze everything Welles or the Fab Four achieved into a two-hour film would be disastrous.

The King’s Speech” (2010) is the most lauded modern example of the partial-biopic sub-genre. “Coco Before Chanel” (2009) is one of the most lucrative. The most powerful is “Monster” (2003), Patty Jenkins’s film about Aileen Wuornos, which opens when Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is already a traumatised adult. Michael Sheen and Peter Morgan have made the semi-biopic their own with “Frost / Nixon” (2008), “The Queen” (2006) and other collaborations. When, on the other hand, Sheen attempted to dash through the entirety of Kenneth Williams’s career in BBC Four’s “Fantabulosa!” (2006), the resulting film was bitty and superficial. BBC Four must have learnt its lesson, because this year it broadcast two films about comedians which concentrated on discrete episodes: “Holy Flying Circus” dwelt on the controversy surrounding Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, while “Hattie” homed in on the ménage à trois shared by Hattie Jacques, John Le Mesurier and Jacques’s car-dealer boyfriend.

It’s notable, too, that conventional, grand-scale biopics often contain a shorter section which would have worked as a film on its own. There’s the sequence in “The Aviator” (2004) which shows Howard Hughes shooting “Hell's Angels”, and the segment in “Walk The Line” which has Johnny Cash on tour with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Maybe these films’ directors recognised that a movie with narrower parameters would have been a better one—and it’s about time Hollywood’s studios recognised it, too. Besides, the sub-genre offers another incentive to the studios. If a partial-biopic does turn out to be a box-office smash, there’s always the possibility of making a sequel.  

Nicholas Barber is a film critic who writes reviews for the Independent on Sunday and previews for Intelligent Life. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan".