The case against Oscar-bait biographies

6 minute read
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."

Oscar season is upon us, and the Best Picture category is half-filled with biopics: American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory of Everything. I’m a movie buff with wide-ranging tastes, but I hate biopics the way some people hate Westerns or war movies.

My beef with biopics goes way back to when I was 11 and Gandhi beat E.T. for Best Picture. As an adult, I acknowledge the merits of Gandhi, but my personal inclination still bends toward the fanciful over the factual. Yet the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t agree with me: Three out of four of the last Best Picture winners have been biopics. Of the 86 Best Picture winners, 16 have been biographical, and since Lawrence of Arabia won in 1962, over a quarter of Best Pictures have been biopics. That’s a huge bias.

AMPAS apparently no longer rewards movies that aren’t weighty dramas featuring heroes who suffered adversity. (The last comedy to win Best Picture? Annie Hall, 1977). Consequently, actors in biopics are highly likely to get their own nominations. This year, half the Best Picture nominations are for biopics, but four out of five of the Best Actor nominations are for playing real people. In the last ten years, seven out of ten of the last Best Actor winners, and five of ten of the Best Actress winners, played characters based on real people.

Whitewashing PTSD

Unfortunately, biopics get to have it both ways. They have all the heft of historical realism and relevance, but they inevitably take liberty with that history. The most openly fraught of the Best Picture nominees is American Sniper. Political issues aside, my problem with the movie is the contrast between the film’s stated theme and its depiction of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history. Bradley Cooper has said that criticism of the Iraq War has distracted from the movie’s “message about vets.” I agree that politics has interfered with accurate criticism of the film; however, the movie itself fails to do justice to the plight of soldiers who return home with PTSD.

The majority of the film depicts Kyle in Iraq, racking up his many kills. Evidence of his PTSD is relegated to staring, his wife telling us and him that he’s distant, and an instance of mild animal abuse. His death at the hands of a fellow soldier suffering with PTSD was edited out. Much of the controversy about Kyle (the person, not the character) stems from the lying and bragging he did after the war, which I believe were symptoms of PTSD. None of that was depicted in the movie.

Kyle’s father threatened to “unleash Hell” on Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood if their film “disrespected” his son, so it’s no wonder that all of Kyle’s personality defects and errors in judgment are shaved off. But that also means that the movie is not really about the plight of a vet with PTSD — it’s a war movie that alludes to PTSD. This makes it a missed opportunity: America is ready for, and needs, a movie on PTSD, though a biopic may not be the best vehicle for telling such a story.

Intellectuals in love

The physical transformation of Eddie Redmayne (the favorite for Best Actor) in The Theory of Everything is amazing. Don’t expect a film about Stephen Hawking’s many contributions to the field of theoretical cosmology, though. The movie is a romance, the tale of Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde — understandable, since the screenplay was adapted from Wilde’s memoirs. So if you’re interested in the ins and outs of Jane and Stephen’s relationship (but nothing about his second marriage, to his controlling and possibly abusive former nurse, Elaine Mason), then this is the film for you. Like Kyle, Hawking’s less likable personality quirks are glossed over, probably because Hawking is still alive.

The Imitation Game was adapted from a biography about Alan Turing, the cryptanalyst who cracked the Nazis' Enigma code. Much time is spent in barrooms and on Turing’s friendship with fellow Bletchley Park denizen Joan Clarke. In 1952, Turing was arrested for indecency for the crime of being gay. Despite his service to England, he was given the choice: prison or chemical castration. He chose castration, and died two years later under questionable circumstances.

Turing’s arrest and castration warrant only a single line in the film. It’s hard to imagine the Turing of this movie having any lovers. His only romance in the movie is a platonic childhood crush. My impression of Turing after watching this film was that he was mildly autistic. He’s portrayed as robotic, socially awkward, and unaware. He’s also so closeted that he is blackmailed into protecting a Soviet spy, a total fiction. The real Turing did not hide his homosexuality during the police investigation of a burglary at his house — that’s why he was arrested. This alteration of Turing’s entire character is borderline offensive, and while not as grave an injustice as the one Turing suffered at the hands of his own government, it does add insult to injury.

Most realistic, least nominated

Selma has been criticized by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, among others, for its negative depiction of President Lyndon Johnson’s attitude toward civil rights. Ava DuVernay has said that her choice to show Johnson wavering on voters’ rights legislation and asking King to delay his Selma march is historically supported. That controversy aside, Selma avoids a lot of the pitfalls that turn me off from biopics. It focuses on a specific historical event instead of trying to cover MLK’s whole life in one film. It also shows King’s imperfections, including his infidelities and indecision. Surprisingly, it received no acting nominations: Surely David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo were as deserving as any of those who were nominated. This probably had more to do with the timing of the film’s release than their actorly merit, though.

Biopics aren’t documentaries, nor are they meant to be. But because they depict real people, and most viewers don’t go out after a movie and do research, much of what such films portray is wrongly taken to be truth. Personally, I’d rather watch a documentary about a person who interests me rather than a biopic. I hope any of the four fictional films nominated this year win Best Picture (go Birdman!).

For A.J. Sabatini’s thoughts on American Sniper and Mr. Turner, click here.

For Mark Wolverton’s review of The Imitation Game, click here.

For Judy Weightman’s review of Birdman, click here.

Above, top to bottom: Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper (photo by Keith Bernstein - © 2014 - Warner Bros. Entertainment); Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game; Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and David Oyelowo as MLK in Selma (photo by Atsushi Nishijima - © 2014 Paramount Pictures).

What, When, Where

American Sniper. Clint Eastwood directed. Written by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle. Philadelphia area showtimes.

The Imitation Game. Morten Tyldum directed. Screenplay by Graham Moore, based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Philadelphia area showtimes.

Selma. Ava DuVernay directed. Screenplay by Paul Webb. Philadelphia area showtimes.

The Theory of Everything. James Marsh directed. Written by Anthony McCarten, based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking. Philadelphia area showtimes.

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