- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Oscar season brings with it another spate of performances where actors embody real-life people to critical acclaim. Does this love for biopics represent a slightly darker side of Hollywood?
The Oscar nominations are set to light the Internet aflame once more on Tuesday 8th February. As ever, there’s going to be relentless debate over virtually everything that the Academy has deemed to be the best that the film world has to offer. Are you ready for the Belfast vs. The Power of the Dog match-up? Don’t Look Up discourse round 2? The “fun” will be endless. But there’s one set of categories that often causes more debate than the rest combined, and those are the four reserved for acting.
There are dozens of names in the mixer this year for the acting categories, and there’s little way of predicting with confidence exactly who’s going to get in. Yet one aspect is already clear – a huge portion of the frontrunners for the acting prizes are actors who are depicting real people. From Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana in Spencer to Will Smith’s Richard Williams in King Richard to Lady Gaga’s Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci to Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza, the standard is already being set – awards voters really, really love it when actors take on the role of a cultural or historical figure.
It’s easy to notice the trend because there’s such a clear precedent. At last year’s Oscars, eight out of the twenty acting nominees were for real people, with nine nominated the year before. Commonly, clear-cut biopics are a shoo-in for acting nominations, even when the film itself is received indifferently. Few might remember Judy or The United States v. Billie Holiday, but the big and showy embodiments of famous stars by well-known actors is evidently catnip for voters, who gave those films the only nominations they’d receive for their lead performances. The appeal is obvious, and probably not worth belabouring. Voters are nostalgic types, and they love the physical transformations required for actors to embody real people. Being the Ricardos hasn’t set the Internet alight, but the one thing most people know about it is that Nicole Kidman had to go through a significant amount of make-up to play Lucille Ball.
There’s more tension inherent in a real-life performance than you’d expect. Often, these films will have had to go through the approval of the estates of the person they’re depicting – or through the person themselves if they’re still around. They’ll be checked for anything that might mess with how the real figure or their surviving family wishes for them to be perceived ahead of time. That’s why biopics, even if they probe the darker sides of their subjects, typically err towards praising their subjects and underscoring their lasting successes. There are legitimate constraints on any real life performance.
Yet this awards season has provided an intriguing glimpse into what happens when that process… doesn’t occur. House of Gucci is chock full of performances best described as notable, from Jared Leto’s Mario-styled version of Paolo Gucci to whatever Selma Hayek was up to, but the one that’s ultimately gained the most attention is that of Lady Gaga as Gucci heiress and convicted murder-conspirator Patrizia Reggiani. Conversely to most biopics, neither Gaga nor the film’s director Ridley Scott consulted with Reggiani on her depiction, reflecting a wider strategy to make the film without Gucci family involvement. It makes sense, given the film makes the Gucci family look like a quasi-gangster outfit which curdles into murderous jealousy – a hard narrative to pass by the approval process. It has, however, opened several cans of worms.
Gaga herself has been pretty active with the can opener. Her unusual and impassioned comments about her performance have become a highlight of this awards season, with every interview seemingly bringing a new story. She’s discussed the possibility of Reggiani sending “swarms of flies” to attack her on the House of Gucci set, a reflection of the fact that Reggiani is very much not happy with her portrayal in the film, and talked up the eye-raising possibility that her character and Selma Hayek’s, who become conspirators to murder, had a sexual relationship in scenes that have been cut from the film. Gaga seems to have poured her heart and soul into this portrayal, but also seems cognizant of the strangeness of it all, in her own way. Of course, Reggiani is a convicted criminal, so it’s an open question as to whether her opinion matters.
On television, the issue of unwanted depictions has become a live one with the release of the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, which depicts the marriage between Pamela Anderson and drummer Tommy Lee, as played by Lily James and Sebastian Stan. The series’ approach to its real life subjects seems to be best described as… broad – it’s been confirmed that Jason Mantzoukas will voice an anthropomorphised version of Lee’s penis, which is a pretty good indicator. More pertinently, though, the series hasn’t been taken well by its very-much-alive subjects. It’s been reported that Anderson finds the sensational series “very painful”, with friend of Anderson Courtney Love slamming the series as “fucking outrageous”.
Those reactions raise the question of ethics, which has been hanging over the biopic genre for a little while now. A flashpoint for controversy was the depiction of Freddie Mercury by Rami Malek in the film Bohemian Rhapsody. Mercury is the only member of Queen to have passed away, and therefore the only member of the band who didn’t get a say in the film’s depiction of Queen’s story. Plenty of critics questioned the way in which Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality was treated as somewhat immoral and dangerous in comparison to his well-behaved heterosexual band members. The choice to shuffle around real life events, moreover, to move Mercury’s diagnosis of AIDS to much earlier in the timeline so the film could have a dramatic confession at its climax, was also a fairly suspect one.
Malek won an Oscar for his performance and Bohemian Rhapsody became the highest-grossing biopic of all time, so clearly it worked for plenty of people. Yet the questions it raised, as to whether it is morally responsible for an actor to take on a real figure who may not be able to consent to their depiction, are still live, as the Pam & Tommy example shows. Even with endorsed performances, the result can often be sanitised and unsatisfying for audiences, with so much focus on pleasing the people who have given the film permission that the usual work of character building and dramatic tension gets lost in the shuffle. And on the most basic level, it’s easy to argue that there’s just less work in embodying a real person – that so much of the process of character building is skipped when there’s an actual person to impersonate.
None of this is to say that real-life performances are inherently worth less. Kristen Stewart’s performance as Diana in Spencer definitely carries with it the moral fuzziness of the posthumous Diana revival that has taken the real women and turned her into something of a meme – think of it as the yassification of Diana – but there’s real depth to her performance too. Freed from the obligation to satisfy any endorsements, Stewart digs into Diana to create a fully embodied character who’s flawed and often difficult to understand, yet retains the essential sympathy that made Diana such a beloved figure in the first place.
Funnily enough, if awards precursors are anything to go by, Stewart’s performance has fallen out of favour with voters. Maybe the film’s willingness to take its figure as seriously as any fictional character might have been a bit too much for them. Still, if we’re consigned to live in the biopic age, it’s a far better template than most.