Looking At How Oscar Proves Bullish for Biopics

This year’s Oscar race is in a bio rhythm, with a huge percentage of films based upon real people and events.

Merriam-Webster defines “biopic” as simply a biographical movie. That’s true, but there’s a wide range under that umbrella term, as this year’s contenders remind us.

They include films that span several years, including: “A Journal for Jordan” and “King Richard”; some cover multiple decades, such as “House of Gucci,” the Aretha Franklin pic “Respect” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

Other films, including “Being the Ricardos,” focus on a moment in time, which becomes a prism for exploring the era and the lives of various individuals.

Narrative films are not documentaries, so every pic takes liberty with the facts. Some take this to the extreme, such as “Spencer” (in which the life of Princess Diana borders on a horror film and begins with the disclaimer “a fable from a true tragedy”).

Other fact-based movies, such as “Benedetta” and “The Last Duel,” may be authentic or not, but since they center on little-known people who lived several centuries ago, most audiences won’t nitpick.

Many of the above-mentioned titles deal with well-known individuals. Others focus on people who had notable lives, even though they’re known to a small percentage of the population, such as “The Duke” (about a British pensioner with the irresistible name of Kempton Bunton), and the title character in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.” There is also “Swan Song” (one of two films this year with that title), which stars a terrific Udo Kier as a hairdresser-performer inspired by a real-life character from the Ohio childhood of writer-director Todd Stephens.

There are also autobiographical works from filmmakers — “Belfast” and “The Hand of God” — and movies based on autobiographical source material, such as “The Tender Bar.”
And let’s not forget two bio-musicals, based on real people and events: “Tick, Tick … Boom” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.”

Of course, not all these films will get a best picture nomination. But the odds are good that many of them will, keeping up a recent tradition. In 2018, six of the eight best picture contenders were fact-based: “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” “Roma” and “Vice.” Last year was more typical, with three of the eight: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

The flood of biopics isn’t surprising. The explosion of reality-TV in the 21st century, and the growing interest in documentaries indicates the viewing public has a huge appetite for facts in their entertainment. (However, current politics prove that many people frankly don’t care about facts; they’ll believe whatever lies they’re told. But that’s a different conversation.)

It is also true that Hollywood talent is smitten with bios. Like it or not, stars are the key ingredient in getting funding for a project, and biopics seem to offer the golden ticket to getting a film made. And as an important bonus: Voters also tend to embrace factual films.

This isn’t a new trend. At the second Academy Awards, the 1928 “The Patriot” (about Russian Emperor Paul) got five Oscar nominations, winning for writing; in 1933, “The Private Life of Henry VIII” was Oscar-nominated for best picture and Charles Laughton won for actor.

So there’s a long tradition, but things really perked up in 1980, when three of the four Oscar-winning actors were portraying real characters: Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull”), Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) and Mary Steenburgen (“Melvin and Howard”). The lone exception was Timothy Hutton for “Ordinary People.”

For the next 40 years it varied, but there were usually between three and five of the 20 nominees.

In 2018, three of the four winners again were playing real people: Mahershala Ali, Olivia Colman and Rami Malik. For 2019, the list of acting nominees included a whopping nine out of 20. (It was the year of “Bombshell,” “Harriet,” “The Irishman,” “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Judy,” “Richard Jewell” and “The Two Popes.”)

Last year, “only” eight of the 20 were playing real people, thanks to “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “One Night in Miami” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7”; notably, four of the five supporting actor contenders were playing real people, including winner Daniel Kaluuya.

“Mank” contained a line spoken by the title character: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

He’s right and most bio filmmakers will quickly remind you that it’s a narrative film, not a history book, not a documentary.
But there are always complaints. This year, the Gucci family said they were “disconcerted” by the depiction of the family, which they felt, was “far from accurate.”

A few years ago, relatives of pianist Don Shirley (who were not included in his will) blasted “Green Book” as “a symphony of lies” and many Oscar pundits, for whatever reason, accepted this as fact. However, those claims were discredited when an audio recording of Shirley verified the “Green Book” events, and friends of his also supported the accuracy.

There are always rivals eager to badmouth a film; luckily, with “Green Book,” the Oscar voters ignored the family’s claims and other negative talk stirred up by the movie’s awards rivals.
The complaints are one of the downsides, but hardly the biggest headache.

That would be the legal clearances, which any filmmaker will tell you involves a maze of negotiations.

Yes, there are definitely bio hazards. But there are also upsides; actors, voters and audiences can attest that the facts-factor will continue for a long time.