How could two filmmakers plummet from such glittering heights to such murky depths? “It’s nuts, isn’t it,” Robey tells BBC Culture. “I think the dividing line between quality and camp is perilously thin in the biopic. Something about the high seriousness of the genre seems to invite mockery. And then when the directors aren’t in charge of the mockery themselves, they can let things go truly haywire.”
This “high seriousness” is one of the main reasons why some biopics are loved – and why others are laughed at. “Biopics have always been seen as a prestige picture, not something run of the mill,” says Yannis Tzioumakis, the author of American Independent Cinema: An Introduction. “If you look back to the Hollywood studio era of the 1930s and 1940s, it’s full of them, because a biopic was thought of as being better than a western or a musical. It was inviting audiences to see history.”
Why Hollywood is obsessed
Unlike a western or a musical, says Robey, a biopic has “a kind of all-boxes-ticked appeal”: “You have a true story. You have historical context, a backdrop lending grandeur or importance. You have the arc of a life that’s great or significant in some way.” People who go to the cinema only once or twice a year may feel that such greatness and significance merits their valuable time more than the cheap thrills of a Gerard Butler action movie. But when a film is over-inflated by its own sense of grandeur and importance, it’s like a balloon which is all too liable to pop. One misjudgement, and the whole enterprise deflates.
In Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the FBI’s founder, J Edgar (2011), the pin that burst the balloon was the old-age make-up which turned Armie Hammer (playing J Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man Clyde Tolson) into a newly unearthed Egyptian mummy. In Pollock (2002), Ed Harris’s biopic of Jackson Pollock, it was the on-the-nose line delivered by Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner when the artist completed his first action painting: “You’ve done it, Pollock. You’ve cracked it wide open.” And in Darkest Hour (2017), it was the notorious scene in which Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is cheered up by an underground train carriage full of adoring, poetry-quoting Londoners. “That was when the film jumped the shark,” says Ellen Cheshire, the author of Bio-Pics: A Life In Pictures. “It was so heavy-handed that you watched it and thought, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing?”