Pictures of People: Thoughts on Biopics

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Lou Gehrig spoke these words and was immortalized.

But Gary Cooper spoke them too. His wonderful monologue at the end of “The Pride of the Yankees” forever shaped and dramatized the image of Gehrig. In fact, the last thing Gehrig said at the end of his speech were not those infamous words but “I may have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

Had it been these words Gehrig wanted to be remembered, he might not consider himself quite as lucky.

The biopic is a peculiar genre in film with the power to influence historical perception more than reality itself. If a director’s goal is typically to entertain or make a statement through a work of art, then the biopic is not often viewed as a director intended but as a recreation of a true moment in time.

How will audiences going to see “J. Edgar” this weekend react? Perhaps several generations now have no memory of J. Edgar Hoover or what people thought of him as he was alive. Their imagination of the man will be limited to Leonardo DiCaprio and the story Clint Eastwood tells.

Wikipedia entries, historians and journalists may factually disprove allegations of his homosexuality and other inaccuracies, but what will it matter in comparison to a portrait as vivid as a movie?

Often, if a performance is strong enough, that actor will forever carry the mental image many people have of a historical figure.

Jamie Foxx may have dozens of memorable roles in his career, but he will be inseparable from his portrayal of Ray Charles. Helen Mirren played the Queen, the largest public figure in the world, and yet many Americans will likely first picture Mirren when thinking about Her Majesty.

For biopics in which the main character is not as widely known, the actor can supersede the person themselves. Consider the work of Charlize Theron, Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro in “Monster,” “My Left Foot” and “Raging Bull.” These people so became their parts in extreme method acting performances that suddenly the performances become more famous than the people themselves.

In fact, there’s a discrepancy between biopics and history. There’s a defense given for movies that don’t strictly follow the source material of a popular book, play or graphic novel: why does adaptation have to be faithful in the first place?

It is not uncommon for directors to willingly skew the accuracy of a person’s life to better illustrate a message. A great example is “The Social Network.” Perhaps it is not a biopic in the way “The King’s Speech” is, but simply telling the truth of the story is beyond the point of David Fincher’s look at the way we communicate in the 21st Century. And yet, Jesse Eisenberg made Mark Zuckerberg out to be such an asshole, regardless of whether he actually is, that it created a PR nightmare for the Facebook founder.

It’s a cliché to say the Oscars love awarding actors who have portrayed real people. In the past 11 years of the awards, both Best Actor and Best Actress have been about evenly split between real and fiction.

The reason the cliché exists is because biopics make it so simple to put a name to a face. It takes a certain level of acclaim and attention to make a fictional character iconic. But like it or not, biopics have the weight of history behind them.

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