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Dublin: 16 °C Thursday 30 October, 2014

Column: Do bio-epic movies portray real-life figures in their true light?

George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana are just some of the famous people to be immortalised on film, but is it ever possible to give a balanced portrayal of a person? Darren Mooney writes about the challenging world of the bioepic.

Darren Mooney

“THE LEGEND IS never the whole story,” teases the first minute-long trailer for Diana, the new bio-pic from director Oliver Hirschbiegel starring Naomi Watts as Lady Diana Spencer, “The People’s Princess.”

Bio-pics have always been a popular form of awards-bait, and cinemas are annually flooded with films featuring respected actors playing big screen icons. However, there’s a renewed interest in them over the past number of years.

Hollywood has always liked to follow the leader. It’s no coincidence that The Iron Lady, released a year after The King’s Speech, featured a short and completely irrelevent scene focusing on Margaret Thatcher’s elocution lessons.

A snapshot in time

The King’s Speech represented a bit of a shift in how Hollywood produces biographies. Films like this used to be large and expansive affairs, aiming to encapsulate an entire life in the space of a movie. Oliver Stone’s 1995 epic Nixon took us from Tricky Dicky’s harsh Quaker childhood to his weird encounter with hippies at the Lincoln monument and beyond. While Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biography Gandhi doesn’t delve into its protagonist’s childhood, it does cover a 55-year stretch of history. Danny DeVito’s Hoffa is similarly expansive.

However, recent trends have been towards tighter biographies of historical figures. Diana, for example, will focus on the last two years of the icon’s life. Hitchcock is centred entirely around the making of Psycho. Behind the Candelabra is about the last few years of Liberace’s life. The King’s Speech primarily focuses on Albert’s speech difficulties and his trials and tribulations in the lead-up to the Second World War.

Spielberg’s Lincoln takes place towards the end of the Civil War, more concerned with legislative tinkering and legal philosophy than its protagonist’s psychology.



(Via YouTube/just4fisherman)

The entirety of their life

In contrast, the recent biographic films opting for a more epic canvas have met a somewhat more muted response. Clint Eastwood’s sprawling J Edgar arrived in cinemas to a collective shrug, while The Iron Lady – charting Thatcher’s life from her childhood through to her infirm old age – could only earn an award for its lead actress, with the film itself locked out of the major categories.

To be fair, this model of bio-pic had been gaining traction over the last decade. The Queen could be seen as something of a clear prototype for The King’s Speech and Diana, with a story focusing on one high-profile incident for the British Royal family.

Indeed, The QueenThe King’s Speech and Diana are all prestigious biographical films focused on the British Royal family. It’s interesting how fixated Hollywood tends to be with the institution. The high-profile coverage of 2011’s royal wedding was a surreal moment for many, prompting commentators to wonder what America finds so fascinating about the constitutional monarchy, particularly given the country underwent a revolution to expel the influence of the crown.

Hollywood’s love of all things royal

“America has never quite purged its monarchical instincts,” BBC America’s Matt Frei suggested. “The First Family is treated like elected royalty. Michelle Obama’s wardrobe receives the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for a queen. From the plane to the fanfare to the motorcade, the procession of an American president is, let’s face it, a very regal affair,” she said.

Either way, Diana has a good deal going for it.

The Iron Lady was released while Margaret Thatcher was still alive, and generated no shortage of debate. Apparently (surprisingly), the film didquite well in Scotland and Ireland, while Xan Brooks found time to snidely describe it as “Thatcher without Thatcherism“.

The film became a lightening rod of political debate, with some arguing that it overlooked the victims of her social policies, while others wryly noting the outrage presented by trying to humanise a Tory. Even the House of Commons debated the merits of the film.



(Via YouTube/yorgoskou)

The balancing act

There is an interesting balance required in dealing with controversial subjects. Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, for example, struggled in how to portray Hoover’s alleged (but still unsubstantiated) crossdressing, ending with a somewhat forced compromise where he wears his mother’s dress once. Oliver Stone directed two biographies of controversial Republic Presidents - Nixon and W. – and the decidedly anti-establishment director resisted the urge to vilify them too readily. (His portrayal of George Bush Senior in the latter is practically an endorsement.)



(Via YouTube/Diane Warth)

Asked to offer his opinion on the subject of W, Stone was diplomatic. “I can’t give you that, because the filmmaker has to hide in the work,” Stone said, adding:

Here, I’m the referee, and I want a fair, true portrait of the man. How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world? It’s like Frank Capra territory on one hand, but I’ll also cover the demons in his private life, his bouts with his dad and his conversion to Christianity, which explains a lot of where he is coming from.

It includes his belief that God personally chose him to be president of the United States, and his coming into his own with the stunning, preemptive attack on Iraq. It will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors.

While W. is far from a perfect film (turning the supporting cast into cartoon characters), Stone deserves some measure of credit for daring to challenge his audience. Hollywood tends to skew politically liberal, and Stone more than most. Daring to construct a reasonably sympathetic narrative for two of the most hated conservative figures in recent American history is a bold move. It asks the audience to question their preconceptions, and does more than simply reinforcing the commonly-held view.

After all, it seems overly cynical to suggest that these biographies should exist to validate the majority opinion on the legacy of a historical figure.

Diana – the movie



(Via YouTube/MovieclipsCOMINGSOON)

Still, it’s unlikely that the Diana movie will be anything as bold or provocative. Diana Spenser is one of the few sacrosanct figures in popular culture.

Given the outpouring of support and goodwill that Diana invokes, even years after her death, it seems highly unlikely that Diana will offer anything more probing or controversial than the version of events already documented in the public consciousness. Diana Spencer was, after all, the People’s Princess.

It’s doubtful the movie, Diana, will challenge that opinion of the idol, a woman who worked hard for noble causes, lending her profile and publicity to various worthwhile schemes aimed at making the world a better place for everybody living on it.

Maybe Diana will be something bold. Maybe it has something new and interesting to say about the People’s Princess. Time will tell.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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