Oscar: Biopictures Dominate the Road to Gold

As the 2004 Oscar season is heating up, one trend becomes clear: Biopictures will dominate this year’s contest in most categories, including Best Picture.

Indeed, we may see nominations for a historical hero (Alexander), a celeb millionaire-mogul who became a recluse (The Aviator), a legendary blind black musician (Ray), a Scottish playwright who wrote one of the most famous children’s plays (Finding Neverland), an ordinary British housewife who sidelined as abortionist (Vera Drake), a physically immobile Spanish writer who fought for decades to terminate his life with dignity (The Sea Inside), a controversial sex researcher who challenged sexual mores and hypocrisy (Kinsey), a mythic revolutionary whose poster decorated millions of dormitories (The Motorcycle Diaries), a gay composer who wrote some of the most beguiling songs (De-Lovely.

This year may see something that we have not seen in years.

The Best Actor category could consist of at least three, and possibly more, performances in a biopicture. How about this potential scenario for the male acting award: Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside), Colin Farrell (Alexander), Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Kevin Kline (De-Lovely), and Liam Neeson (Kinsey).

Biopicture Winners
Historically speaking, there is nothing new. The Academy has consistently displayed its bias in favor of biopictures, films based on actual events and real-life personalities. Twenty-four (31 percent) of the seventy-six Oscar-winners are based on or are inspired by real-life events and actual individuals. Diverse in subject and locale, these biopics have depicted showbiz personalities (The Great Ziegfeld), scientists (The Story of Louis Pasteur), writers (The Life of Emile Zola), historical figures (Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons), Nobel-prize mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind), and even a German industrialist who saved Jews (Schindler’s List).

In 2000, four of the Best Actor nominees not played a biographical role, and three of them a famous artist. Russell Crowe (who won) played the role of Maximus in the historical epic Gladiator. In Before Night Falls, Spanish actor Javier Bardem embodied the exiled Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, who smuggled his work and himself out of Cuba to avoid imprisonment by Castro, before dying of AIDS in 1990. Ed Harris received his first lead nomination for Pollock (which he also directed), in which he delved into the world of the New York painter, who died in 1956 at the age of 44. In this first feature about the abstract expressionist, Harris revealed the creative process behind Pollack’s work in the context of a life plagued by alcoholism and turbulent marriage. In Quills, Geoffrey Rush portrayed the impious eighteenth century French novelist Marquis de Sade, his prurient madness and maverick writings, including the many years he spent in prisons and asylums for sexual offenses and for publishing pornographic novels.

We live in a time when biopictures carry a great burden in preserving a popular grasp of history, observed critic David Thomson. These days, audiences expect more realistic and more personal accounts of their heroes and anti-heroes. In the past, the public was willing to accept on faith Charles A. Lindbergh’s courage as he crossed the Atlantic (chronicled in The Spirit of St. Louis), composer Glenn Miller’s patriotism and good family values (The Glenn Miller Story), Louis Pasteur’s selfless sacrifice to science. However, once audiences get past the inspirational–but uninspired–treatments, they saw through the artifice, the blatant messages, the neat and hermetic way in which the narrative was sealed.

The accuracy of biopictures in terms of their factual source materials is also variable, as was demonstrated by the heated debate over A Beautiful Mind, the dramatic tale of genius mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., whose brilliance was undermined by a lifelong battle with schizophrenia. Inspired by events in the life of Nash, as described in Sylvia Nasar’s book, the script details the tragedy of a scientist who makes an astonishing discovery early in life, which almost catapulted him to international acclaim. Unfortunately, Nash’s climb into the intellectual stratosphere takes a drastic turn when his intuitive acumen is hampered by paranoia and schizophrenia.

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who won the Oscar, decided not to render a literal telling of Nash’s life but to delineate the “architecture of his existence.” Beautiful Mind was billed as a semi-fictional story, with Goldsman receiving a “written by,” rather than “screenplay by,” credit from the Writers Guild. But some of the tale’s omissions were glaring, specifically Nash’s homosexual experiences and anti-Semitic remarks. The film made no references to Nash’s extra-marital sexual activities or to his racial attitudes, which the real-life Nash later claimed to have made while delirious.

A year earlier witnessed fervent discussion about the distortions of The Hurricane, based on the black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly accused of murder. Some people believe that the nasty campaign against the film had cost star Denzel Washington the Oscar. In the same year, the indie Boys Don’t Cry, which re-created the life of Brandon Teena, a girl who passed as a boy, also generated controversy, though not as hot as Beautiful Mind or The Hurricane.

Biopictures have featured most prominently in the last two decades. Five of the ten winners in the 1980s were inspired by real-life figures. In 1981, Chariots of Fire, the inspirational tale of two British runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in the 1924 Paris Olympics, won Best Picture. Gandhi, an earnest and noble biopicture about the venerable Indian politician, was the 1982 Oscar winner. In 1984, Amadeus revolved around the musical genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in eighteenth-century Vienna. Based on the life of Karen Blixen, the Danish writer who published under the name of Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa won the 1985 Best Picture. Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, an expansive epic about Pu Yi, China’s last Manchu emperor, was the 1987 winner.

In the 1990s, too, Schindler’s List, an epic about Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), the Catholic war profiteer who initially flourished by collaborating with the Nazis but eventually saved many Jews, won the 1993 Best Picture. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, an epic tale of the thirteenth century Scottish rebel warrior William Wallace (played by Gibson), won the 1995 prize. James Cameron’s bombastic Titanic, a fictionalized, anachronistic account of the 1912 disaster, won the 1997 award. Beautiful Mind swept major awards, including Best Picture, in 2001, and The Pianist was nominated, but didn’t win, the top prize, in 2002.

Biopictures have employed the narrative conventions of different genres: musicals (Yankee Doodle Dandy), war films (Patton, Saving Private Ryan), Westerns (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), historical epics (Mutiny on the Bounty, Ben-Hur, Schindler’s List, Braveheart), psycho-political exposes (Born on the Fourth of July, JFK) action-adventures (The French Connection, The Right Stuff) and even disaster movies (Titanic).

Biopicture Nominees by Decade
In the 1930s, the studio most associated with biopictures was Warner. A cycle of Great Men began with Disraeli (1929), starring George Arliss as the wily British statesman, and it became more prominent later in the decade with the release of two movies starring Paul Muni. In 1936, The Story of Louis Pasteur recounted the life of the French chemist who discovered the anthrax vaccine. The 1937 Oscar winner, The Life of Emil Zola, exposed anti-Semitism in the French government. These biopics were social in outlook, semi-realistic in interpretation, and imbued with strong messages about democratic values. In their condemnation of Fascism and Nazism in Europe, they drew parallels between the past and the present.

The percentage of biopictures in the 1940s (23 percent of all nominees) was much higher than that in the 1950s (7 percent). The Second World War had a strong impact on Hollywood, which produced many war films inspired by actual military figures. Of these, perhaps the best-known was Sergeant York (1941), which celebrated the courage of the World War I hero. By contrast, the few 1950 films drawing on actual events centered on biblical (The Ten Commandments) and Christian heroes (Quo Vadis The Robe). Unlike the 1940s biopictures, the next decade’s historical epics didn’t even attempt to be realistic or truthful to their source.

In the 1960s, the nominated biopictures either concerned showbiz personae (Funny Girl), or royalty intrigues (Cleopatra, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Anne of the Thousand Days, Nicholas and Alexandra). However, from the 1970s on, the range of nominated biopictures became wider, including the perennial world of entertainment, such as Lenny and All That Jazz, both directed by Bob Fosse, with the latter film drawing on Fosse’s own life.

But there were also movies about working-class protagonists, which in the past were neglected by mainstream Hollywood. Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon depicted the life of marginal people like Sonny (Al Pacino), the doomed bisexual whose motive for the bank robbery was providing money for his lover’s sex-change operation. Norma Rae’s protagonist would have been an unlikely heroine for a Hollywood film of yesteryear, but Martin Ritt made an uplifting movie, inspired by the life of a Southern hillbilly (Sally Field) who undergoes transformation after gaining political consciousness.

Biopictures reached an apogee in the 1980 Oscar contest, in which three of the Best Picture nominees were based to varying degrees of authenticity on real-life figures. Coal Miner’s Daughter re-created the life of country and Western singer Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), from her backwoods childhood to her national success. Scorsese’s Raging Bull offered an uncompromisingly tough look at the disintegrating life of the brutish middleweight champion Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro). The Elephant Man probed the life of John Merrick (John Hurt), the deformed victim of neurofibromatosis, in the context of nineteenth century Victorian society. It was also the first year in which both lead acting awards, to De Niro and Spacek, celebrated contemporary personalities, with Jake La Motta and Loretta Lynn present in the ceremonies.

In 1989, My Left Foot, a low-budget British import about the paraplegic artist-writer Christy Brown, became a dark horse after winning the New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis. In 1990, Jeremy Irons won a well-deserved Oscar for playing millionaire Claus von Bulow, accused of trying to kill his wife, in Reversal of Fortune. The glamorous gangster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel (Warren Beatty) in Bugsy, and the mythic John F. Kennedy in JFK, dominated the 1991 Picture and acting nominations, though neither won the top prize; the winner was The Silence of the Lambs.

Year after year, biopictures have been nominated for the top award. In 1994, Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s intelligent and engrossing story of the late-1950s’ TV quiz show scandal, was a top contender. In 1995, Ron Howard’ Apollo 13 provided an exhilarating chronicle of the ill-fated mission to the moon, and how the heroic work of astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew, combined with the dogged persistence of the NASA team, averted tragedy. The 1996 Australian arthouse hit, Shine, recounted how piano prodigy, David Helfgott (Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush) was pushed to the breaking point by his domineering father.

Of the five nominated pictures in 1998, two featured the British monarchy (Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love), and three dealt with different aspects of World War II. Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line re-created actual combats, whereas Life Is Beautiful was a fable set in a concentration camp.

One of the 2000 nominees was Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich. Though based on a true story, the film felt familiar from previous corporate-malfeasance thrillers (Norma Rae, A Civil Action), with the expected benevolent messages about corporate malfeasance, self-esteem, and women’s place in society. A lone-justice crowd-pleasers, like Norma Rae and Silkwood, Erin Brockovich paid tribute to a working class woman, who dares to fight the system because she’s too stubborn or naive to know otherwise. Both Adrien Brody (The Pianist) and Charlize Theron (Monster) were outsiders who came out of the cold to win Oscars for playing a Holocaust survivor and an executed serial killer, respectively.

The last two Oscar winners were unusual in terms of their genre: a Broadway musical, Chicago, in 2002, and an epic fantasy with literary cachet, The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the Lind, in 2003. But cycles are familiar phenomena in Hollywood, and I will not be surprised if this year’s Oscar competition is dominated by biopictures.

(The second part of this article, discussing the frontrunners in the acting categories, will be posted in two weeks).