Biopics: Four from 2004

From a cinema trivia perspective, 2004 was memorable for numerous reasons.  It was a year in which politics (Fahrenheit 9/11) and religion (The Passion of the Christ) showed that they can be as competitive at the box office as that old Hollywood mainstay, sex.  It was year in which Jude Law appeared in 6 major films, starring in 5 of them!  It was also a big year for biopics—at least it seemed that way for the last few weeks of 2004.  From Oliver Stone’s Alexander to Bill Condon’s Kinsey, theaters were full of films that tried to expose some fascinating aspect of their subject beyond the well-known public persona.  Some of those efforts worked, while others failed, but with so many playing, and more sure to come in 2005, it’s a good time to examine what constitutes a successful biographical picture. 

All celebrity biopics suffer from a fundamental problem.  The more time they spend covering the famous words and deeds of their subject, generally the less interesting they become.  That ís partly because what is known about a person isn’t usually as thrilling as what ís unknown.  On the other hand, there’s a risk of being overly concerned with the salacious and secret details, and winding up with a Dateline expose.  There’s a thin line between conveying the unique character of an actual person and delving into tabloid tactics.  On top of that the character has to be sketched with sufficient detail within the relatively brief running time of a feature film—a problem written biographies don’t have.   To solve the latter problem biopics tend to focus on a particular period in their subjects’ lives.  Solving the former problem, humanizing the character, falls largely on the shoulders of the actor in the starring role.  Here’s a sampling of some of the biopics that were in theaters over the past two months.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Walter Salles’ lyrical portrait of the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara takes the most extreme form of condensing the life of its hero, concentrating on the 7-month journey that Che and partner Alberto Granado took in 1952 through Latin America.  Che’s life was so extraordinary that it would be difficult to encapsulate the scope of it in any medium.  Just covering the Cuban revolution would take more than an average feature length film.  The Motorcycle Diaries eschews the events for which Che is most famous—his militant role in Cuba and Bolivia—and focuses instead on the journey that transformed him from a middle class Argentine medical student into a guerilla revolutionary.  Gael Garcia Bernal plays Che with great sensitivity, yet never falls into blind idolatry for the Marxist martyr.  We see Che as a doctor who embraces ostracized lepers in Peru, but we also see him attempt to seduce another man’s wife in Chile.  Bernal’s performance is perfect in this film, because we see in the actor exactly what we see in the character: the potential for greatness. 

Beyond the Sea

Kevin Spacey not only wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this tribute to Bobby Darin, he also sings Darin’s songs.  The film spans two decades of Darin’s rise to fame in a kind of musical fantasy complete with large dance numbers and Vegas stage shows.  Throughout, Spacey’s admiration for Darin appears genuine, and his skill as an actor shines through particularly in the later years of Darin’s career, when the erstwhile pop star dropped out of the night club scene, became political, and took up folk singing.  Spacey also proves that he can sing, at least as well, if not better than Darin. The problem is that Spacey overwhelms Darin.   At no point do we really forget that we are watching and listening to the remarkable Kevin Spacey.  As a performance it’s dazzling, but as a biopic it doesn’t quite fly. 


Taylor Hackford’s portrait of the legendary Ray Charles begins with a brief tableau showing the singer’s difficult childhood, which included the loss of his eyesight and his brother’s accidental death by drowning.  Shortly after that the film focuses on Charles’ musical career, but uses his heroin addiction as the motif for cementing the story together.  The highlight of the movie is Jamie Foxx’s performance; he becomes Ray Charles.  He captures Charles’ likeness and mannerisms in such a thoroughly convincing way that it is shocking when he opens his eyes at the climax of the movie and becomes Jamie Foxx once again during a hallucination where Ray faces his guilt and grief over his brother’s death.  Foxx is so utterly convincing as Charles that we believe him, as many did Charles, when he says that heroin is not a problem for him.  He never loses his ability to create music while on the drug.  So it seems a bit forced when he gives up heroin, endures a nightmarish withdrawal, reconciles with his dead mother and lives happily ever after.  Ray Charles must have had so many devils and angels battling for his soul that it seems just a bit cliché to make heroin the main antagonist.  Still Foxx’s performance more than redeems the weak ending of Ray.    

The Aviator

A weak ending is certainly not a problem in Martin Scorsese’s 2 hour and 49 minute portrait of Howard Hughes.  The film gets stronger and stronger as it progresses toward the final note of tension between genius and madness that drive both the main character and the narrative in The Aviator.  Some of Scorsese’s best films—Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)—have been biopics, and with Leonardo DiCapprio in the starring role of his latest effort, Scorsese takes The Aviator about as high as a biopic can get.   DiCaprio at first seems miscast.  Hughes was a raging eccentric, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, paranoia and numerous other neuroses, and DiCapprio initially seems to lack the complexity to pull it off.  Under Scorsese’s direction, however, DiCapprio excels, doing particularly well in the scenes where he is alone.  Whether standing at the sink in numerous public men’s rooms, furiously washing his hands with a private soap he always carries, or isolated, naked and unshaven in his infamous private movie room, DiCapprio infuses every onscreen moment with the character’s struggle to keep the ambitious, confident, competitor from becoming a ridiculous, raving lunatic. 

Scorsese doesn’t so much advance his plot as drop us further into Hughes neurosis by giving us point of view shots that let us know Hughes has to fight harder and harder to keep madness at bay.  He also surrounds DiCapprio with an impressive cast.  Tops amongst this group is Cate Blanchet’s Katharine Hepburn.  Playing golf with Hughes she dominates the conversation, the game, and the screen with her voice and mannerisms more than her looks.  There is a nice balance of banter and tenderness in her portrayal.  Likewise, Kate Beckinsale’s portrayal of Ava Gardner is fiery and independent, yet maternal enough to pull Hughes back from an early onset of neurotic isolation.  It’s also fascinating to see what a great director can do with potentially cliché material like an airplane explosion.  Scorsese makes Hughes’ crash landing of the experimental XF-11 in a Beverly Hills neighborhood both horrifying drama and stunning spectacle.  

Biopics are heavily dependent on the strength of their lead actor.  Yet, as Kevin Spacey’s performance in Beyond the Sea shows, an overwhelming performance can dominate to the character’s detriment.  Even with a masterful performance, such as Jamie Foxx’s flawless imitation of Ray Charles, a subtle mistake in direction, like Taylor Hackford’s decision to make heroin withdrawal the climax of his film, can keep a very good biopic from being great.  The Motorcycle Diaries shows great promise in both Water Salles’ direction and Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance, but The Aviator tops the list by replicating the struggle that made Howard Hughes the twentieth century’s most celebrated recluse.  Last year Charlize Theron won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in the biopic, Monster.  Look for DiCapprio to receive at least a nomination for best actor this year, and perhaps Martin Scorsese will finally win the Oscar for best director that has so long eluded him. 


This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, January 2005. Joseph Christopher Schaub