Hollywood can appear self-satisfied and insular at the best of times, but it's been a rough few months even by Tinseltown standards. Judging by the slew of trailers that have dropped in recent weeks, this season in cinema land will centre on only one thing: biopics. From Madonna and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis (and even Hillary Rodham Clinton) it’s time for a barrage of films in which big stars play bigger stars – in return for your adoration.
Hollywood’s fixation on global fame might not be entirely new – Ben Kingsley’s turn in Gandhi is about to reach its 40th birthday, incidentally – but there’s no getting away from the fact that it has stepped up a gear in recent years. Rather than tell stories about noble historic figures, today’s biopics prefer to play out like glorified jukebox musicals – at least if recent efforts like Rocketman and Elvis are anything to go by.
Why is Hollywood so toto for films about celebrity? Is it a sign of status anxiety now that TV is hot on its heels (and luring in its biggest stars)? The answer may be a lot more banal: these films make money. Take Bohemian Rhapsody. Made on a modest budget of $55m, the film went on to generate north of $900m in revenue. That’s a whopping 1500 per cent return – far higher (in percentage terms) than your average CGI-heavy superhero film. Even Rupert Goold’s Judy (a biopic about Judy Garland) took four times its budget.
These returns won’t have surprised Hollywood executives, who have long worked out that – when it comes to making profitable films – there is nothing riskier than new ideas. Look at the biggest grossing films of the last few years and you’ll struggle to find any that are what film geeks called 'original IP' – that is, films that aren’t part of an existing franchise or previous hits. After all, why take the risk of marketing something untested when you could make another Jurassic Park?
With decades of star power behind them, the likes of Elvis and Madonna are among the few things on earth that can go toe-to-toe with Star Wars when it comes to brand recognition. Even better if they also have traction in international markets too, with the all-important Asian market now representing more than half of global box office take.
But biopics don’t just make business sense for producers. They're also a rather obvious way of showing off talent. What better way for an actor to bag an Academy award than to play an icon with whom the audience is already familiar, deploying all the Cumberbatch-style method acting they can muster in the process? It's not hard to see the appeal of taking on characters with whom the audience have an existing connection. Ana de Armas, who plays Marilyn Monroe in the forthcoming Blonde, said that acting in the film was 'the most intense experience' of her career while Austin Butler claimed taking on the part of Elvis was like 'an out of body experience'; rather than underline the humanity behind the cultural icon, these films often serve to mythologise them even more. In an age where cinema plays second fiddle to TikTok upstarts and influencers, it's little wonder that Hollywood seems to want to cling to the aloofness of old school celebrity glamour.
For when it comes to talking about themselves, A-listers have plenty of time. Just look at the reports that Madonna herself has been on set supervising the casting for her upcoming biopic (personally approving the choice of Inventing Anna’s Julia Garner for the lead role). I suspect that won’t be the last such story we hear.
So what’s the big problem with the biopic craze? For a start, they don’t make terribly memorable cinema. Think about it: what was the last truly brilliant one you saw? Most start out intriguing enough – at least if the trailer is anything to go by – but end up bogged down by the need to pay lip service to the star and the pressure to reinvent a life that is already so well known.
I still remember (with some embarrassment in retrospect) my excitement at going to see The Iron Lady: the 2011 biopic of Margaret Thatcher. For all the manufactured controversy around the film (with pre-emptive attacks from both Thatcher fans and haters), the end result was distinctly underwhelming – with the emphasis on telling a heartwarming story about Mrs Thatcher's triumph over the Tory old guard giving the film an oddly patronising quality. Not that the Academy took any heed: Meryl Streep scooped Best Actress for her part as Mrs Thatchter, as predicted.
While true stories often make for compelling drama, the best ones rarely map neatly onto someone’s biography. Compare The Iron Lady, for example, with Peter Morgan’s The Queen or even James Graham’s Ink (his play about Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun) – while the latter two have a strong biographical quality, their narratives are driven by actual stories. As a result, they make for much better drama.
Of course, all that assumes that what cinema audiences want is good stories. In reality, most of us are content with the tried-and-tested biopic formula – the intrigue of watching a recognisable actor ‘transformed’ into their subject matter (accent and all), a decent spread of hit songs (if applicable), and a slightly saccahire ending to boot. And Hollywood is all too happy to provide.