When Netflix biopic, Blonde opens, you are filled with a deep sense of overwhelming sadness within minutes; a man so important his name cannot be muttered and his framed image cannot be touched by his own child. When the child asks “But where is he,” it kicks off your further descent, slipping into scene after scene of suffering.
That’s Marilyn Monroe’s life… or is it? Most critics agree that the abuse was over the top and could have been handled better, and that’s without addressing the CGI fetus in the room, while others praise Ana de Armas’ ability to embody her role wholeheartedly.
Yet the question remains, what makes a good biopic? Is the actor playing the real-world persona, or the actor’s ability to get right into the skin of a character that you embody almost to the point of losing yourself? And how can they be made in a way that feels true to the life they portray?
Character Work in Biopics
Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, and executive producer behind Netflix’s How To Fix A Drug Scandal and How To Change Your Mind believes the answer is keying into the character’s essence. For him, it is not about the numerous things you capture with a character as much as it is about a singularity of purpose – the capturing of an essence. A critic said of “Blonde” – “Without real depth, the mature content ends up feeling exploitative… the numerous scenes of assault make Blonde uncomfortable to watch.”
Gibney believes this to be a recipe for failure “I think the ones that are less successful are the ones who dutifully try to do everything, and in trying to do everything, end up with nothing.” If we believe Gibney’s argument, then the success of a biopic has more to do with the director and the script than it has to do with the actors tasked with portraying these larger-than-life characters.
But what does a more focused biopic do? It gives the actor a more focused character set to emulate, doing too much often means you’re going to get a few right but doing less improves the overall chances of success.
When director Steven Spielberg put out a biopic on Abraham Lincoln, it grossed $275m at the box office, and it became both a commercial success and a critical one. Spielberg’s recipe was similar to Gibney’s, he didn’t try to do too much. He simply chronicled a short period of Lincoln’s life with his focus solely on the abolition of slavery.
Light is more powerful when it is focused. This approach helps the film achieve coherence and allows the actors to get a strong grip on their characters. The secret then is not in the actor or the director but on all of them. When one goes wrong, the other inadvertently fails to perform at a high level and the biopic fails.
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