Want an Oscar? Make a biopic

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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 Michael Apted, director of the renowned Loretta Lynn biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter,? 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.

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.

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.’’

‘‘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.’’

In writing and directing the current film ‘‘Bobby,’’ about the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968, Emilio Estevez chose a different approach. 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.

‘‘In doing a biopic, we would have had to cast an actor in the role of Bobby Kennedy,’’ Estevez said. ‘‘My feeling is, the spirit of Kennedy would live in every scene, would live through the people, rather than through his presence.’’

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 on the point when Arbus went from pampered housewife, mother and photographer’s assistant to becoming an artist, 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.’’

Two of this year’s Oscar frontrunners 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.

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.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on November 22, 2006 12:15 PM.

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