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The Success Of Biopics Explained

Uracha Chaiyapinunt |
March 30, 2015 | 1:12 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor at the 2015 Oscars for his role in "Theory of Everything." (Focus Features)
Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor at the 2015 Oscars for his role in "Theory of Everything." (Focus Features)

True events can be much more fascinating than any fictional story. Take the best picture nominees at this year's Oscars for example. "American Sniper," "Theory of Everything," "The Imitation Game," "Selma" and "Foxcatcher" were all based on real people and events. The dominance of biopics in the past two Academy Awards have some people wondering whether or not this is a trend Hollywood is now pushing. Why are the majority of the nominated films depictions of real characters? 

Biography is not a new genre in film, though. The life stories of great people have inspired filmmakers since the birth of the medium. The reason it has garnered more attention of late is due its dominance in the awards landscape. The ascendance of biographical films at the Oscars is a result of the critics’ recognition of the more demanding nature of the roles and a surge of ambitious actors who are willing to take on these challenges. 

READ MORE: Oscars 2015: Complete List Of Winners

Eddie Redmayne’s role in "The Theory of Everything" won him the Best Actor award at the 2015 Oscars. Redmayne played English physicist Stephen Hawking and walked the audience through Hawking’s life, starting with his time at Cambridge University to his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the pinnacle of his career and the fall of his marriage.

Because ALS played a significant role in Hawking’s personal and professional life, much of the movie was dedicated to the telling of the gradual decline of his health. This was no small feat. Redmayne acted out the first symptoms of the disease: difficulty with hands. As the disease took over Hawking’s life, Redmayne limped and tripped his way to the climatic scene where he falls and hits his face on the pavement. 

The 33-year-old actor was applauded for expertly demonstrating the effects of a deadly neurological disease on a victim and those around them. Redmayne captured the subtle and dramatic aspects of Hawking’s illness.

Playing Hawking, or any other real person, is difficult because there is the pressure of accuracy. By having a real person or scenario to compare the film to, the audience will judge harsher. 

READ MORE: 'The Theory Of Everything' Explained At Sloan Film Summit 2014

"Selma," another nominated film, showed the struggles of revolutionist Martin Luther King, Jr. Director Ava DuVernay had the difficult task of bringing the civil rights activist to life.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game." (Twitter/@thereelfilmshow)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game." (Twitter/@thereelfilmshow)
Meanwhile, "The Imitation Game," which received seven Academy Awards nominations, captured Alan Turing’s personal struggle with his sexual identity, which eventually led to his conviction of gross indecency, chemical castration treatment and suicide. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance of Turing’s health during chemical castration — a treatment that consisted of taking hormone pills that caused Turing to grow breasts and rendered him impotent — earned him a Best Actor nomination.

Stephen Hawking, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alan Turing. These are figures who have been or will be remembered for their works, achievements and movements. And so, the pressure the cast and crew feel does not just end with audience expectation and comparison to reality. Taking on the role of a real person is also demanding because actors want to do justice to the person they are portraying.

READ MORE: Cracking The Code Of Scripter Winner Graham Moore's Success

The obstacles of retelling a true story are recognized by viewers and critics. Eight of the last 11 winners for Best Actors won by playing real people. It is this acknowledgement of arduous research, audience expectation and stellar performances that faithfully represent true characters, that biopics are receiving the credits they’ve earned during this year’s award season. 

The achievements biopics have garnered in the awards landscape, in turn, motivate studios to keep pushing movies of this genre out. The film industry follows a cycle that depends deeply on success, just like all other businesses. In cinema, the results are measured by viewers' response, awards and box office performance. Once a movie is able to achieve these, studios see it as a formula that can be used over and over to attain the same positive feedback. Just look at the number of new Hollywood blockbusters about a future utopian/distopian universe:"The Hunger Games" "Divergent," "The Maze Runner." Though different in plot, all of these movies share similarities in that they are based on young adult novels about a corrupted society, and feature one fearless protagonist who stands up against the oppressive government.

READ MORE: Film Review: 'Insurgent'

"True Story" (Twitter/@ThePlaylist)
"True Story" (Twitter/@ThePlaylist)

This mindset of finding success and repeating the process — in this case, genre — applies to biopics. Filmmakers are increasingly on the look out for real human stories. The popularity is in part because of the captivating tales, but equally important is the promising outcome. Michael Bay is doing a movie about the 2012 Benghazi American Embassy attack; Jonah Hill and James Franco are starring in "True Story" about disgraced journalist Michael Finkel; Mr. and Mrs. Obama are getting a romantic drama that focuses more on the family's personal love life than the president's rise through politics; and Steve Jobs will be played by Michael Fassbender in his 2015 biopic. With so many biopics in the making, there is a good chance the genre will continue to dominate film festivals and award ceremonies for a while.

Reach Staff Reporter Uracha Chaiyapinunt here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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