An era may have ended. Variety, the entertainment-industry newspaper, has proclaimed 1992 the "twilight of the biopic." Last year saw the release of a half dozen biographical motion pictures, the largest number in decades; it seemed to mark the renaissance of a dying movie genre. But none of the films did well at the box office. Their returns ranged from merely disappointing (Malcolm X) to downright pathetic (both of the Christopher Columbus movies).
It wasn't always this way. During the peak years of the studio system (roughly 1927 to 1960), Hollywood averaged about 10 biographies a year. The old-time studios even had filmmakers who specialized in the biopic. William Dieterle directed, among others, Pasteur, Juarez, and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. And George Arliss starred as Disraeli, Voltaire, Alexander Hamilton, and Cardinal Richelieu. These were prestige films that nonetheless usually earned a tidy profit for their distributors.
But over the last 30 years biographies have not fared well at the box office. The conventional wisdom is that the biopic is one of those genres, like the western, that have been destroyed by overexposure on television. In the 1960s, Universal pioneered the made-for-television motion picture. And producers quickly discovered that biographies, particularly those of contemporary figures, were the perfect fodder for cheap, quickly made telefilms. Since then, cable channels and the networks have offered viewers movies about Anwar Sadat, Marilyn Monroe, Nelson Mandela, and Frank Sinatra, as well as numerous portraits of Elvis Presley and of various Kennedys.
TV, the conventional wisdom holds, has so saturated the market that theatrically released biopics can't earn any money. The failure of this latest group of films, say some, only proves this point.
Certainly, the proliferation of biographies on TV means that theatrical films must work harder to attract an audience, but it isn't impossible for biopics to succeed at the box office. In the last 10 years, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, and the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia have all made quite a bit of money. What separates these films from those that have failed?
For a film biography to work, its producers must first start with an interesting subject, someone we're willing to pay $7.00 (in L.A., anyway) to identify with for two or three hours. The protagonist must do important things: Gandhi won independence for India; Lawrence organized Arab tribes traditionally hostile to each other to defeat the Turks. Or lead a glamorous life: Isak Dinesen lived on a huge plantation in Africa, wrote great books, and romanced a big-game hunter.
Second, the producers must cast the right actor in the lead. This is more difficult than it sounds. It doesn't necessarily mean a big-name star: Peter O'Toole, Ben Kingsley, and Tom Hulce weren't exactly household names when they were signed to play Lawrence, Gandhi, and Mozart. Nor does it necessarily mean casting the "best" actor. Those who loved Peter O'Toole as Lawrence have learned from his other films that he basically gives one performance. But when matched with the right role, that performance can be riveting. And that is the key to casting: The actor ideally should have charisma, panache. Again, he should be someone we wouldn't mind being (for a couple of hours, anyway).
Third, the filmmakers must throw in exotic locations: the Arabian desert, the African jungle, the palaces of Europe. Take the audience someplace special.
In fact, these are good rules for any moviemaker to follow. Modern Americans go to movies for the same reason that Romans used to go to the circus: to escape from the dullness of their daily lives. To vicariously experience glamour, excitement, and romance. Or to be led safely through a world of danger and fear. In short, they want to be entertained on a larger-than-life scale.
The current crop of biopics just didn't do that. Take the two Columbus films: Christopher Columbus—The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. An interesting lead character? These films couldn't make up their mind whether Columbus was a heroic navigator, a fool who stumbled onto a New World, or the Satan of the Americas. A riveting performance by the lead actor? In 1492, Gerard Depardieu, a talented French actor, was obviously speaking his lines phonetically. And I'd have to consult my notes to tell you who played Columbus in the other film, and frankly, it isn't worth it.
Or consider The Babe. Hollywood first dealt with the life of George Herman Ruth in 1948. The Babe Ruth Story was hokey, cliché-filled, and silly. In other words, it was a lot of fun. If all you knew about Ruth was what was in this movie, you wouldn't know much that was true. But you would know what was important: Babe Ruth revolutionized the way baseball was played by popularizing the homerun; he was the gate attraction that turned baseball into the national pastime; and he was the cornerstone of a New York Yankees dynasty that lasted decades.
Last year's account of Ruth's life was a bit different. As far as I could tell from this movie, Babe Ruth was just a fat drunk who got laid a lot.
This focus on the tabloid elements of a person's life also ruined Chaplin. Director Richard Attenborough demonstrated in Gandhi that he knows how to make a biographical film, but this time out he got overwhelmed by the incidentals of Charlie Chaplin's life. Charlie Chaplin was the most famous man of his day; he pioneered elements of movie comedy that are still copied. But Attenborough seems more interested in Chaplin's taste for teenage girls and in the comedian's alleged persecution by J. Edgar Hoover.
Now if I were Michael Medved, I might explain this focus on the tawdry aspects of famous people's lives as some sort of Hollywood conspiracy to undermine our heroes. But I'm not, so I won't. More likely, filmmakers are just trying to give the audience what they think it wants. If so, the filmmakers are wrong—as the box-office receipts show.
But in this case the mistake is understandable. In focusing on the seamy, Chaplin and The Babe followed a model successfully established by the television biopic. Whether dealing with Elvis or Marilyn or JFK, TV invariably focuses on illicit affairs or drug abuse or financial misdealings. And that seems to be what the public wants: Witness the success this past January of three different made-for-TV movies about teen prostitute and would-be killer Amy Fisher. Each film drew between a quarter and a third of the viewing audience. That's astounding, especially when you consider that two of the films played opposite one another. Ultimately, 4 out of 10 Americans watched at least one of the Amy Fisher films.
Some have explained the success of tabloid TV by arguing that characters inevitably have to be "shrunk" to fit onto the TV screen. Others say that people feel uncomfortable bringing larger-than-life figures into their homes. (I offer, without any comment that could possibly get me into trouble, the observation that the biggest audience for both tabloid TV shows such as Hard Copy and for most TV biographies is women. The typical movie audience is mostly male.)
Whatever the reason, it's obvious that what works on the small screen won't work on the big screen. People won't pay to see a TV biopic projected in a theater. They want something different when they go to the movies: characters that fill up a 30-foot screen, interesting locations, a reason to care. And if producers won't give that to them, they'll just stay home. After all, the USA Network is rerunning one of those Amy Fisher films.
This brings us to Malcolm X. On the face of it, Malcolm X had all of the ingredients for success. Malcolm led an interesting life, progressing from street hood to leader to martyr; Denzel Washington gave the performance of his career; and the film moved from America's inner cities to Mecca.
The film certainly isn't a failure: At year's end, it had tallied over $44 million in gross receipts. But typically a studio keeps only about half of a movie's gross, so at a production cost of more than $35 million, Malcolm X will barely make money after foreign and video sales. (For comparison, Warner Bros. released the action film Passenger 57 one week before Malcolm X with much less fanfare. By year's end, Passenger 57 had grossed just over $41 million, but it cost much less than Malcolm X.)
What went wrong? In two words: Spike Lee. Through his continual and outrageous slams at white people and at blacks whom he dislikes, Lee has ensured that he is better known as a perpetually angry young Negro than as a gifted director. That's a shame, since his films aren't generally as anti-white as his public pronouncements. And that is true of Malcolm X. Except for a few scenes, the film doesn't have a "hate whitey" thrust.
But you wouldn't know that unless you saw the film. Judging from Lee's interviews—where he always railed against someone or some institution for oppressing him, looking very much like a petulant cricket—one could be forgiven for thinking that the film was three and a half hours of Caucasian baiting. Malcolm X failed to attract enough white viewers to turn it into a hit.
Of course, today's audiences find it hard to sit still for three hours for anything. In this respect, Lee was overly impressed by the subject's (or his own) importance. Loudly, he told anyone who would listen that Warner Bros. gave Oliver Stone three hours for JFK. Malcolm X was no less important. But Lee confused epic length with epic quality. Even critics who put his movie in their year-end top 10 lists conceded that some scenes were unimportant and many others dragged on too long.
I would go even further: An hour could have been cut from Malcolm X. This would have made it a better film. (Whatever other faults JFK may have had, it never felt like a three-hour film. Malcolm X does.) And it would have been a more commercially viable movie as well.
Despite 1992's failures, one shouldn't be too quick to pronounce the death of the biographical film. Alive earned $18 million in its first two weeks, and Lorenzo's Oil is doing well in limited release.
These two films depict the struggles of real-life people to overcome horrible adversity. In Lorenzo's Oil, August and Michaela Odone battle time, nature, and the medical establishment to find a cure for the disease that is killing their son Lorenzo. And in Alive, a soccer team fights to survive the frigid wastes of the Andean mountains after a plane crash.
Hollywood filmmakers aren't stupid, and they aren't deliberately malevolent. If Alive and Lorenzo's Oil are as successful as it appears they will be, the movie industry will figure out that audiences are more interested in real-life individuals who overcome impossible odds than in those who simply stagger around drunk or bed down with teenagers.
Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies: That’s Life".