The Problem With Biopics Is They Have One Scene Too Many
When he won the Oscar this year for portraying Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis was pretty much anointed the best movie actor of all time.
After all, he is the only actor to win three Oscars in the leading actor category, putting him ahead of Jack Nicholson (two leading Oscars, one supporting Oscar) and Marlon Brando (two Oscars in the leading category).
But I didn’t have to wait until 2013 to give Day-Lewis the crown. As far as I’m concerned, he has been the best actor in the business since 1989.
That year, I interviewed Day-Lewis for the first time. I wasn’t familiar with his work until the night before the interview, when I saw him in the biographical film My Left Foot. The actor portrayed Christy Brown, the Irish writer and artist who suffered from cerebral palsy.
When I entered the room, Day-Lewis stood up to greet me. As he walked across the room and extended his hand, my eyes instinctually looked down at his left leg to see if he was limping as he had been in the movie. He didn’t limp, of course, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person fooled by his brilliant acting.
Biographical films, or biopics as they’re called in the movie business, are great showcases for the right actor. The list of actors and actresses who have won Oscars for biopics is long, and includes: Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Robert De Niro (Raging Bull), George C. Scott (Patton), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Geoffrey Rush (Shine) and Charlize Theron (Monster). Even Julia Roberts won an Oscar for Erin Brockovich.
While they are terrific vehicles for individual performances, biopics are rarely considered great movies in their own right. In fact, of the American Film Institute’s 100 best movies of all time, only a handful are categorized as biographical films — Raging Bull, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, GoodFellas and Bonnie and Clyde.
I have a problem with biographical films. It is the moment of self-reflection that all directors of biopics insist on putting in their films.
It is the moment when the subject of the film, whether it is the King of England or the King of Swat, is alone with his thoughts. He either talks to himself aloud (how convenient), or we hear him thinking real loud.
It drives me crazy. “How do we know that Richard Nixon said that? There was nobody else in the room.”
I fully understand that biographical films are not documentaries. That is the standard defense by makers of biographical films.
But I don’t buy the excuse. A biographical film should be as honest as humanly possible, or it’s being dishonest to the people watching the movie.
The newest kid on the biopic block is 42, the movie about Dodger legend Jackie Robinson.
The film was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, and is set in 1946 and 1947, when Dodger executive Branch Rickey selected Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier.
It is an important film, and one that should be seen by every child, regardless of color.
Helgeland based his screenplay on a variety of sources. As he explained to me, almost everyone involved in Robinson’s brush with history has written a book about it. Even the villains (the Philadelphia Phillies manager comes off looking pretty bad in the movie) wrote books about it. Besides, the director had the ballplayer’s widow Rachel Robinson as a resource. He showed her various drafts of the script, and she made suggestions, particularly on language (she had Helgeland change the name she used for her grandmother).
One of the scenes Rachel Robinson objected to proves to be one of the emotional highlights of the film, which is why Helgeland kept it in the movie.
It takes place in the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the dugout. After a particularly vile incident on the field, Robinson, who is alone, finally breaks emotionally and smashes his bat against the wall.
Rachel Robinson says it never happened. Ralph Branca, the Dodger pitcher who was in the dugout that day, says it never happened. Even Helgeland admits that it never happened.
But the writer-director, who won an Oscar for writing L.A. Confidential, justified the scene this way — he said he felt that there was no way Robinson could have withstood all that abuse without cracking at least once, even if it was in private.
Frankly, I think Robinson’s real story is so dramatic on its own that it didn’t need enhancement.
And I think that the fact that he didn’t break under all the pressure makes him even more heroic than he was, and that’s saying something.