The Trouble With Befriending the Subject of Your Biopic

Close relationships between artists and real-life heroes bring credibility, but is it really worth the loss in creative control?

Universal Pictures

No time of year is more full of public displays of friendship in Hollywood than awards season. In the months leading up to the Oscars, the art of famous people complimenting other famous people is at its height. But for those who don’t care much for tracking which hungry agent slapped the back of which rising star, or how genuine one nominee's compliment came off to another, there are more meaningful connections to watch unfold: those that form between filmmakers and the real-life subjects of their biopics.

Moviegoers live in a golden age for authorized biopics, semi-true films stamped with the approval of their real-life subjects. This year there have been several such films, with endorsements in the form of subtler messages—the appearance of Alan Turing's and James Brown’s families at the premieres of The Imitation Game and Get On Up, for instance—to louder, press-targeted indications of a collaboration. Wild has occasioned interviews with the real Cheryl Strayed. The Theory of Everything filmed Stephen Hawking giving a Roger Ebert-style video review (he gives a thumbs-up).

Of all of these, the most touching is perhaps the director-subject relationship between Olympian runner and World War II survivor Louis Zamperini and Angelina Jolie, who directed the film based on his life, Unbroken. Theirs was seemingly a friendship borne of fate: In a special for The Today Show, Jolie revealed that for years she'd lived near his home in the Hollywood Hills without knowing it. She knocked on his door to pitch the film to him herself—he accepted. A close friendship developed, intimate enough that the two hold hands throughout The Today Show spot and are subject to Tom Brokaw's bad jokes about their relationship being like that of a romantic couple. In any case, the emotional bond was strong: Jolie brought him the rough cut when he was struggling in the hospital with pneumonia, the illness that would kill him at age 97. He approved.

This story—and the other endorsements this year—are poignant and effective for audiences disinterested in awards season jockeying. But how close is too close? Coverage this year has exposed a flip side, the conflict of interest posed by subjects and their loved ones in the creative process. Take Get On Up: Mick Jagger—hand-picked by James Brown’s estate manager to produce a different film—ended up greenlighting the biopic after the script fell to Brown’s estate in the aftermath of his death, which was nice. But then Jagger rearranged it and produced a separate film to make sure viewers were “pulling” for Brown." The positive edit on Brown’s life has been a sticking point for some critics, who say it may have sanitized the complexity of the real man. Consider The Theory of Everything, which doesn’t show sex between the Stephen Hawking character and his wife Jane Wilde because the real-life Jane (a consultant on the movie) put the kibosh on it. The absence of hanky-panky has been roundly dismissed for detracting from the film’s sensitive and progressive study of a troubled but productive marriage.

It’s always a fraught process when filmmakers choose to tell the story of a living subject, who can raise a ruckus when the portrait is unflattering. But it’s even more problematic when the portrait is too flattering. Biopics have a bad reputation for misrepresenting the truth, but they honor their own set of ethics: They strive to create art, and that art is compromised when filmmakers and subjects get close enough to render an image of the remembered, perhaps idealized, self.

According to scholar Dennis Bingham—whose book Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre is one of the few to discuss the matter—the biopic strives “to dramatize actuality and find in it the filmmaker’s own version of truth.” The genre, in other words, is less about history than the way Hollywood sees it. A bit of outsized egoism to this idea? You bet. But there's a nobler dimension to this, too: The integrity of the biopic lies in the outsider’s interpretation of an extraordinary life, which is the subtle distinction that separates art from PR.

The greatest biopics about living people have put real stories and artistic interpretation into tension. For 1980’s Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese employed the real Jake Lamotta as a consultant but ended up portraying him in ways both dark and light—as a graceful fighter in the ring, and an irascible, oafish, table-overturning malcontent at home. In 2003, American Splendor adapted comic book author Harvey Pekar’s autobiography by splicing documentary footage of the author with traditional dramatizations, wherein Paul Giamatti played him sullen and grumpy. Like the Pekar of American Splendor, these films create a pastiche of real life, the emphasis on artistry over selective memory.

These are still values held in Hollywood, even at a time when the authorized biopic is gaining ground. Though Wild memoirist Cheryl Strayed served as a consultant on Jean-Marc Vallée’s film, she was held at an arm’s length. “[Producers] Reese [Witherspoon] and Bruna [Papandrea] both felt that with a memoir the writer isn't the best person to make that adaptation because he or she is too close to the material and to that life,” she told Indiewire earlier this month when asked why she wasn’t involved in writing the screenplay. Distance was also the policy on 2010’s The Social Network, which did not consult Mark Zuckerberg, most likely because it was based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires (itself consulted by a plaintiff in Zuckerberg’s Facebook trial, Eduardo Saverin). Zuckerberg has taken issue with the film, particularly the way it portrayed the creation of Facebook as a way to simply “attract girls."

But what The Social Network’s creators understood is that you can’t make a great biopic without breaking a few relationships. The part Zuckerberg took most issue with—that his breakup with Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) motivated him to create a precursor to Facebook, Facemash—ended up inspiring one of the best scenes about technology and Zuckerberg’s plugged-in generation ever filmed. So the scene hurt Zuckerberg’s feelings—but it seized upon an opportunity to meditate on the broader condition illustrated by a real situation, and in doing so, resulted in zeitgeisty art. Hate or love David Fincher, the result is undeniably the work of him and his team—not Zuckerberg—and it’s compelling, daring stuff.

Fincher’s audacity to estrange famous people, and the artistic bravery of biopic filmmakers who have come before him, may be what’s missing from this year’s feel-good biopics. At the level of marketing, these friendships very effective: Endorsements from real people make potential viewers feel good about the integrity of the entertainment, as if the story had been sourced responsibly. But at the level of audience experience, it's a cheat: Biopics may not have the factual underpinnings of journalism, but they do have a responsibility to give viewers the artistic take. So when Angelina Jolie claims Zamperini’s stamp of approval on Unbroken is “the only review that matters,” I feel a sense of foreboding. Shouldn’t the audience give the reviews that matter the most?

They should, because the great irony of the biopic is that while it’s ostensibly about a single life, any one says more about our collective values. Biopics pick and choose cultural heroes from history based on their resonance to contemporary life—while it’s certainly easier to select from the roster of dead candidates, it can also be limiting in terms of audience numbers and scope of interest. The selection of biopic subjects from those still living is a heavy, emotionally charged process, filled with potential to rub someone famous the wrong way, to make powerful enemies, and challenge audience members with intense allegiances to true, larger-than-life stories. But that shouldn’t be a reason to play it safe—on the contrary, that sounds like art. Which is the type of thing the Oscars should be rewarding, anyway.