When biopics work, as "Coal Miner's Daughter" director Michael Apted put it, "they work like gangbusters."
Many times, though, "they tend to feel like the greatest hits of a famous person's life," said "Secretary" director Steven Shainberg, whose new movie "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" is a completely different take on the genre.
For the sake of argument, we're talking about both traditional biopics, like "Frida" (about Frida Kahlo) and "Sylvia" (about Sylvia Plath) which encompass a giant swath of a real person's life, and films with a more specific focus like "Capote" and "Infamous," which both happened to capture the same pivotal point in the diminutive writer's illustrious history: when he was working on his true-crime classic "In Cold Blood."
Both approaches have proven themselves powerful come Oscar time. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon walked away winners for the 2005 movies "Capote" and "Walk the Line," respectively. The latter film, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (and earned him an Oscar nomination), took a long look at the country legend's life, and it famously required Phoenix and Witherspoon to sing and play their own instruments.
A year earlier, Jamie Foxx transformed himself into Ray Charles, playing the piano, lip-synching and sometimes singing his way to Oscar gold in "Ray." At the same time, Kevin Spacey was roundly panned for his evocatively detailed portrayal of pop crooner Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea."
"You can say, 'Wow, Jamie Foxx really looks like Ray Charles.' The discussion of the performance often becomes how compellingly the actor recreates the essence of the person they were playing."
Other actors have provided dead-on impersonations — Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in "The Doors" and Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon" come to mind — but the films themselves seemed superficial. Then again, "Selena" made Jennifer Lopez a star and served as a showcase of what she does best: sing, dance and radiate charisma.
When biographies work, Vachon said, "they work for the reasons any movie works: They're great stories told well with terrific performances. I can't put a finger on what makes one true-life figure more compelling than another necessarily. What a great biopic can do is give you an entree to a time and a place and a zeitgeist, in a way. The great ones really do that. I love 'Amadeus.' I love one we made called 'I Shot Andy Warhol."'
"I had an excellent script and what the script did was that it gave us a strong emotional core in the relationship with Sissy and Tommy (Lee Jones)," he said. "I remember when we were cutting the film, when the film was getting more refined, when we went away from them, the story kind of sagged.
"The trouble with so many biopics is that they sprawl, they go all over the place and they become unengaging," added Apted, who also directed "Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey." "To get some emotional engagement you can't do it through a character, you have to do it through a relationship."
Emilio Estevez chose a different route in writing and directing "Bobby," about the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968. Rather than make a film about Kennedy's entire life, he created 22 fictional characters who might have been at the hotel during the shooting and interwove their stories with historical footage.
Shainberg took an even more inventive approach with "Fur," which is about photographer Diane Arbus, known for her portraits of dwarfs, giants and others on the fringe. He and writer Erin Cressida Wilson concocted a story about a furry man (Robert Downey Jr.) living upstairs from Arbus (Nicole Kidman) and serving as her inspiration, while incorporating real details from her life.
Shainberg wanted to focus just on the point when Arbus went from pampered housewife, mother and photographer's assistant to becoming an artist of her own, and how that internal change occurred.
"That's the problem with most of these films — they get the exterior right but they don't even address the interior," Shainberg said. "This movie is entirely the opposite. I mean, I intentionally cast somebody who doesn't look like Arbus so that you would be wrenched out of the literal into the land of dream, into the land of fantasy."
Meanwhile, two of this year's Oscar front-runners look and sound astonishingly like the people they're playing, but they're doing it in films that aren't cradle-to-the-grave biographies.
Forest Whitaker is stunningly powerful as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," which views the 1970s Ugandan dictator through the fictional eyes of his doctor, who becomes his reluctant adviser. (Whitaker previously immersed himself in a real person's life to play Charlie Parker in "Bird.")
And Helen Mirren is both subtle and stinging as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen," which depicts the week after Princess Diana's death in a 1997 car crash and how the royal family handled it — or rather, how they tried to ignore it.
"You can't imagine how intimidating and scary it is," Mirren told The Associated Press in London before the film's opening this fall. "I haven't often played living people. I've avoided it, because I think you're a bit in a no-win situation — you'll never be half as good as the real person. All you can do really is fail."
Considering the universal critical acclaim and the awards buzz she's receiving, Mirren seems to have succeeded.
By Christy LeMire