October 8, 2014

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | The Biopic

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By MARINA CAITLIN WATTS

Biopics are phenomenal works of art. Dramatizing the life of an interesting person and making efforts to hit every important part of their life within two or three hours is easier said than done.

There are aspects to consider when exploring this type of film.

Why them?  How many people knew who Aron Ralston was before 127 Hours? What about Don Woodroof before Dallas Buyers Club? The lesser known someone is, the easier it is to make a biopic of them. This is because the (comparative) lack of source material about them that exists, the more flexibility there can is with the film. There is also room for error. Well-known figures like presidents or big-named movie stars are hard to make movies about because of the seemingly infinite source material you can get about them. However, a couple of written biographies about someone give directors and screenwriters more fresh opportunity to explore the minutia in someone’s life.

Everything is hit within the length of the movie. Or, so you would like to think. It can be difficult to include every single detail into a film. Films like Wolf of Wall Street have a run time of about three hours; that one in particular hit every important part of Jordan Belfort’s rise and fall. On the other end, if the person had a fruitful life, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it can be difficult to include every single aspect about his life, from his first symphony to his Requiem (we have the play Amadeus to thank for this film).

Based on a book?  This can be a major tool for a director and screenwriters, especially if the film’s subject is no longer living. Source materials are easy to work with for biopics, considering they are memoirs or biographies. When making My Week with Marilyn, the personal diary of Colin Clark, a worker on the set of the film The Prince and the Showgirl was able to present a different perspective than one that focused mainly on Sir Laurence Olivier or Marilyn Monroe. It was a fair observation of the challenges of filmmaking, especially with the motley crew put together for this production.

Finding the proper celebrity doppelganger. They can be incredibly uncanny, or completely inaccurate.  Much of it is dependent on the physical features of an actor and whom they are portraying.  Another important aspect to consider is the dedication an actor has to the role. Cate Blanchet was very thorough in her preparation for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. She learned to play tennis and golf, and even took cold showers like the leading lady. Blanchet even won an Academy award for her role.

Daniel Day-Lewis took the method actor approach for Lincoln. He didn’t leave character on set, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. You could put that man’s Lincoln persona on a five-dollar bill and I wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was him or the actual 16th president.

Well … what gets left out?  If someone like a president has an incredibly significant term and it would be impossible to make a film that hits everything within that time, filmgoers can be critical. “Why wasn’t this included?” “This was more important than that!” Unfortunately, it is impossible to include everything and satisfy the masses, unless you make a series of films or shows about someone. The HBO miniseries John Adams was able to include a substantial amount of his life, as well as document America’s first years.

Who did it best?  Another reason why things can get left out is because there is always something else a film can be made about; that’s why there are so many biopics about major figures. Their accomplishments and lives can be pulled apart for the sake of cinematography. It is like there is a competition to see who represents whom best.

Despite the difficulty that goes along with tackling a biographical film, they are a most fascinating type of film to appreciate. Provided they are done right, you can learn a lot about someone.

Marina Caitlin Watts is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She may be reached at mcw236@cornell.edu. Watch Me If You Can appears Thursdays this semester.

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