One Life to Lens: of Milk, Men, and Biopics

Turning the story of real person in a cinematic biography is not as easy as it looks. Scott Macaulay plumbs the genre's pitfalls and looks at films, like Gus Van Sant's Milk, that get it right.

With “truer than fiction” storylines, rich, Oscar-ready starring roles, and natural marketing hooks, biographical films––or, as they are known in the industry, “biopics” – have been a Hollywood staple since Clement Maurice made Cyrano de Bergerac, considered the first motion picture to employ both color and sound, in 1900. And while many biopics are both critical and audience hits, more than a few others have failed, disappointing not only moviegoers but admirers of the film’s real-life subjects.

Why is this? One obvious answer lies in the nature of biographical storytelling. Because the audience usually knows how the story ends, sometimes that one critical weapon in the storyteller’s arsenal––suspense––cannot be effectively employed. Smart directors, however, can surmount this obstacle, paradoxically using the audience’s existing knowledge of real-life stories to generate dramatic foreboding. Maybe, then, failed biopics get tripped up over issues of fidelity. Moviegoers love biographies––so much so that when biographies don’t ring true, their goodwill quickly evaporates. Indeed, while a screenwriter’s dramatic license can artfully compress events and characters, clumsy biographical adaptation can make a riveting real-life story feel like a dull fictional one. This happens most, I find, when screenwriters try to shrink their subjects and fit them into tidy psychological boxes. The remarkable life stories of great artists, military leaders, inventors and politicians can become hackneyed Oedipal dramas or repetitive studies of flawed heroes, and the achievements of these men and women become not wonderful confluences of personal ambition, historical circumstance and creative mystery but simplistically depicted points on a screenwriter’s character arc.

Conversely, a biopic can fail by being too faithful to a character’s story. Like any good film, a biopic needs to see its story shaped for the screen through the vision of a strong director and screenwriter. Often, this vision looks away from the simple dates and places of a biographical story to find more resonant truths in broader themes and emotions.

Directors and screenwriters can compress the stories of their protagonists to just a few years, sidestepping the problem of psychological portraiture by letting their films become the story of specific past events that resonate in the present. In other instances biopics are as much about the mythologies famous subjects leave in their wake as the subjects themselves. And in a few cases a biopic can be less a biographical story than a meditation on the limitations of the biography genre.

In the category of biographical tales I genuinely love is Gus Van Sant’s upcoming Focus release, Milk. To tell the tale of slain activist and San Francisco City Councilman Harvey Milk, Van Sant, screenwriter Lance Black and actor Sean Penn have embraced something of a birth-to-death structure, except that Milk’s “birth” is not his literal delivery in Long Island in 1930 but rather his mid-life disavowal of mainstream life as a Wall Street researcher and rebirth in San Francisco’s Castro community of the mid-’70s. “Forty years old and I haven’t done a thing,” Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, says in New York near the beginning of the movie, and, indeed, part of the film’s power is its implicit statement that it is never too late for any of us to become politically engaged. And while Milk shows us some of its subject’s personal life––we follow relationships with boyfriends played by James Franco and Diego Luna––it is more focused on the strategies and initiatives that made his cause a movement, have inspired so many, and are sharply relevant in today’s political environment.

Here is a list of ten other films that succeed by sidestepping the pitfalls of the biopic genre. The films here, which range from the traditional to the experimental, all find fresh approaches, performances and concepts that allow their audiences to meet their subjects anew onscreen.

Click here for the first five films >>

1. 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. The difficulty of knitting a person’s life into a single linear story is acknowledged by the title of Francois Girard’s filmic meditation on the great Canadian pianist. Perhaps best known for his celebrated recordings of the series of brief compositions that comprise Bach’s Goldberg Variations (which he would record twice, decades apart, in performances of remarkably different emotional temperature), Gould was an idiosyncratic genius whose oddities and conundrums find their perfect match in Girard’s bold approach. The filmmaker isolates 32 moments (a reference to the number of Goldberg variations) from Gould’s life and makes mini-movies out of each, forcing the viewer to find––and construct––the connections between them.

2. Our Hitler. “The most extraordinary film I have seen” Susan Sontag famously proclaimed about Hans Jurgen-Syberberg’s 1978 seven-and-a-half-hour historical fantasia, Our Hitler, as it was titled by Francis Ford Coppola for its U.S. release. (Its German title was Hitler: A Film from Germany.) Shot on soundstages, overlaid with opera and full of theatrical artifice, Our Hitler cares little about docudrama. Instead, it contemplates the link between the 20th century’s great monster and the mythologies, historical and otherwise, that have been produced in his wake. “I… don’t think Hitler––A Film from Germany is––or should be––about one thing,” Sontag wrote. “For instance, it is as much about film as it is about Hitler. And has every right to be.”

3. I’m Not There. Along with his nasal vocals one constant in the career of Bob Dylan has been the singer’s penchant for reinvention. From Greenwich Village folkie to electric rabble-rouser, from Hollywood hipster to born again Christian, Dylan was continually the same but different. To capture something of Dylan’s mysteries on film, director Todd Haynes received the singer’s blessing to fracture his life into a series of imaginative strands with a different actor playing him in each.

4. American Splendor.  As described by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Robert Crumb, the underground comic telling of Pekar’s days as a lowly file clerk in a Cleveland veteran’s hospital compresses a lifetime’s worth of beauty and sadness into a series of acerbic, finally penned observations. To make a movie about Pekar, filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini realized that the artistic transformation of Pekar’s ordinary life into lumpen comic-book poetry was as central to his biography as one of his dust-ups at the hospital or fights with his girlfriend. So alongside their dramatized story starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis they incorporated both Pekar himself and graphic illustration, making their movie not just a story of the writer’s life but the ultimate fan’s testament.

5. Black Sun. Black Sun is one of two films on this list that takes an experimental approach to the first-person documentary. It tells the story of Hughes de Montalembert, who is blinded in a New York robbery attempt and then goes on to become a world traveling painter and writer. Filmmaker Gary Tarn reconstructs Montalembert’s journeys, marrying the artist’s hypnotic voiceover to his own collage of random street photography footage.  Defying our expectations of what such a documentary portrait should be, Black Sun never shows us its subject and instead forces us to undergo our own journey by seeing the world ourselves anew through pure cinema.

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6. The Windmill Movie. Filmmaker Richard Rogers died before he could complete the autobiographical feature he had been shooting for almost all his adult life. When his widow, the photographer Susan Meisalas, invited one of his students, Alexander Olch, to sift through his archive of footage, Olch decided to take over the project and finish the film. Over the course of five years, he edited and re-edited Rogers’ footage, overlaying voiceover from a series of audio diaries he discovered and later, when the diaries ran out, writing and recording additional entries in his own voice. The finished film is both a beautiful personal essay and an elegant pondering of personality’s components. Suffused with melancholy and self-doubt, Olch’s portrait of Rogers is far away from the filmmaker’s more familiar public image as a witty life of the party, and it calls into question whether any film can truly capture the essence of an individual.

7. Caravaggio. The experimental British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s take on the 17th century Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio is told in a series of deathbed recollections that are less dramatic than they are sensual and imagistic. The power of Jarman’s film comes from its sumptuous visual evocation of the painter’s own chiaroscuro technique and from the obvious relish with which Jarman identifies with Caravaggio’s own rebellious ways.

8. A Beautiful Mind. Ron Howard’s drama sidesteps the mustiness of most biopics by playing fast and loose with their usual journalistic moorings. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith turned Sylvia Nasar’s non-fiction tale of Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician John Nash and his battle with schizophrenia into both a moving, old-fashioned romance and an engrossing drama, the latter aided and abetted by the film’s treatment of Nash’s mental illness as one big MacGuffin. On its release, the film was criticized by some for its unrealistic depiction of Nash’s schizophrenia, by others for editing out the more complicated parts of Nash’s life and career, and by a few for its “pure Hollywood” aesthetic. Mathematicians, however, largely approved as did Academy voters, who awarded the film Best Picture.

9. Impromptu. In Impromptu, the theater director James Lapine’s film debut, the historical biography is rendered small-scale, intimate and funny. His film focuses less on a single biography than a single relationship––the love affair between the French writer George Sand and the Polish composer Frederic Chopin. In an interview with The New York Times, Lapine stated that he wanted to bring a rock and roll energy to this 1830s period romance, and that he didn’t read too much about the real Sand and Chopin. Such research “gets in the way,” he said, and he cast Judy Davis as Sand and Hugh Grant as Chopin; both brought a real insouciance to their portrayals.

10. Born on the Fourth of July. Oliver Stone has made several biographically-themed movies: JFK, Nixon, Alexander, and, most recently W, to name a few. But his tale of Viet Nam veteran turned activist Ron Kovic is perhaps the best. Starring Tom Cruise as Kovic, Stone turns Kovic’s tale into a devastating treatise on the construction––and political manipulation––of American masculine identities.  The merger of matinee idol Cruise with Kovic’s true tale of losing the use of his legs in Viet Nam and becoming an anti-war activist created Stone’s most trenchant and affecting critique of American foreign policy.