Political Biopics: Watching the lives of others

With J. Edgar soon to be released and The Iron Lady having opened in recent weeks, political biopics are the talk of tinseltown. But amongst these is a far more surprising production, namely The Lady. The tale of Aung San Suu Kyi has been well documented, and it’s no great shock to see a film made of her life. What is odd, however, is that it should be directed by Luc Besson. Besson is essentially an action filmmaker. If you know his work it’s likely through watching The Fifth Element or Leon, films about aliens and a hitman respectively. The Lady has been critically panned, branded worthy but dull, quite a contrast to Besson’s most successful films. The Fifth Element, for those who haven’t seen it, is utterly mental, totally ridiculous and never likely to be accused of excessive worthiness.

Understanding why The Lady was made is key to explaining the prevalence of political biopics. Besson has made a shedload of money, but has never attracted much critical acclaim. A film about a politician is automatically branded a ‘serious’ film. Thus, if a director, producer, writer or actor wants to gain critical recognition, a political biopic is a good bet. There’s a scene in the TV show Extras where Kate Winslet, playing herself, remarks that the reason she took on a role as a nun in the holocaust is that  ‘if you do a film about the holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar’. Ironically, Winslet did finally won her Oscar for The Reader, playing a Nazi, and a similar, if less crude principle applies to political biopics.

It’s a fact that biopics win a disproportionate number of awards, and a good performance in the leading role is a near guarantee of success. Since 2002, all bar three of the best leading male Oscars have gone to actors playing real people, with portrayals of Harvey Milk and Idi Amin bringing nods for Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker respectively.

And, just as importantly, biopics make money. Films about controversial figures have a ready-made audience. It’s generally accepted that The Iron Lady failed to address some of the key disputes about Thatcher’s reign, the critical reception has been lukewarm and it only went on wide release on January 13th, yet it’s already made back its budget. The presence of a recognisable name on a poster attracts attention and draws viewers automatically. The biopic seems to be growing ever more prevalent, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.