The Oscar-Winning Allure Of The Biopic

Forrest Whitaker portrays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King Of Scotland," a film based on events that took place during the tyrannical dictator's regime in the 1970's.
20th Century Fox/AP
Actors playing Truman Capote and June Carter Cash won top honors this year at the Academy Awards. Next year, actors playing Queen Elizabeth II and Idi Amin could do the same.

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."

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"Probably the answer to (the question) why do actors in biopics win Oscars is because there's something to compare the performance to," said producer Christine Vachon, whose company, Killer Films, has made such movies about real people as this year's "Infamous" and "The Notorious Bettie Page" and "Boys Don't Cry," which earned Hilary Swank her first Academy Award.

"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."'