Actors playing Truman Capote and June Carter Cash won top honors this year at the Academy Awards. Next year, actors playing Queen Elizabeth II and Idi Amin could do the same. When biopics work, as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” director Michael Apted puts it, “they work like gang busters.”
Many times, though, “they tend to feel like the greatest hits of a famous person’s life,” says director Steven Shainberg, whose new movie “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” is a completely different take on the genre.
For the sake of argument, we’re talking about both traditional biopics, like “Frida” (about Frida Kahlo) and “Sylvia” (about Sylvia Plath), which encompass a giant swath of a real person’s life, and films with a more specific focus like “Capote” and “Infamous,” which both happened to capture the same pivotal point in the diminutive writer’s illustrious history: when he was working on his true-crime classic “In Cold Blood.”
Both approaches have proven themselves powerful come Oscar time. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon walked away winners for the 2005 movies “Capote” and “Walk the Line,” respectively. The latter film, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (and earned him an Oscar nomination), took a long look at the country legend’s life, and it famously required Phoenix and Witherspoon to sing and play their own instruments.
A year earlier, Jamie Foxx transformed himself into Ray Charles, playing the piano, lip-synching and sometimes singing his way to Oscar gold in “Ray.” At the same time, Kevin Spacey was roundly panned for his evocatively detailed portrayal of pop crooner Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea.”
“Probably the answer to (the question) why do actors in biopics win Oscars is because there’s something to compare the performance to,” says producer Christine Vachon, whose company, Killer Films, has made such movies about real people as this year’s “Infamous” and “The Notorious Bettie Page” and 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” which earned Hilary Swank her first Academy Award.
“You can say, ‘Wow, Jamie Foxx really looks like Ray Charles.’ The discussion of the performance often becomes how compellingly the actor re-creates the essence of the person they were playing.”
Other actors have provided dead-on impersonations — Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in “The Doors” and Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon” come to mind — but the films themselves seemed superficial. Then again, “Selena” made Jennifer Lopez a star and served as a showcase of what she does best: sing, dance and radiate charisma.
Shainberg took an inventive approach with “Fur,” which is about photographer Diane Arbus, known for her portraits of dwarfs, giants and others on the fringe. He and writer Erin Cressida Wilson concocted a story about a furry man (Robert Downey Jr.) living upstairs from Arbus (Nicole Kidman) and serving as her inspiration, while incorporating real details from her life.
(Downey and Kidman have both had success with more traditional portrayals of famous people; he received a best-actor Oscar nomination for “Chaplin,” and she won the Academy Award for “The Hours,” in which she donned a much-ballyhooed prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf.)
Shainberg wanted to focus just on the point when Arbus went from pampered housewife, mother and photographer’s assistant to becoming an artist of her own, and how that change occurred.
“That’s the problem with most of these films — they get the exterior right, but they don’t even address the interior,” Shainberg says. “This movie is entirely the opposite. I mean, I intentionally cast somebody who doesn’t look like Arbus so that you would be wrenched out of the literal into the land of dream, into the land of fantasy.”
Meanwhile, two of this year’s Oscar front-runners look and sound astonishingly like the people they’re playing, but they’re doing it in films that aren’t cradle-to-the-grave biographies.
Forest Whitaker is stunningly powerful as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” which views the 1970s Ugandan dictator through the fictional eyes of his doctor, who becomes his reluctant adviser. (Whitaker previously immersed himself in a real person’s life to play Charlie Parker in “Bird.”)
And Helen Mirren is both subtle and stinging as Queen Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” which depicts the week after Princess Diana’s death in a 1997 car crash and how the royal family handled it — or rather, how they tried to ignore it.
“You can’t imagine how intimidating and scary it is,” Mirren told The Associated Press in London before the film’s opening this fall. “I haven’t often played living people. I’ve avoided it, because I think you’re a bit in a no-win situation — you’ll never be half as good as the real person. All you can do really is fail.”
Considering the universal critical acclaim and the awards buzz she’s receiving, Mirren seems to have succeeded.