A biographical film, or biopic, dramatizes a real person or people in an event that supposedly happened. Think Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List or Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. In a nutshell, the execution of these films can go one of either of two ways. The first being a picture strictly adhering to non-fiction, examining historical events glazed by scientific, cultural and political revolution. Conversely, biopics can also say “fuck that” and present a film which only vaguely resembles their protagonists for whom they are based on.
For example, Todd Hynes experimental film I’m Not There used seven different actors to portray various aspects of Bob Dylan’s life, not even referring to the character as Bob Dylan in each of the chapters. What generally binds these two methods, especially the first, is that they are clear Oscar bait contenders. Funded and marketed for the exclusive purpose of winning awards to increase the penis size of the studio. Without Oscar grabby commitments, biopics stand very little chance of being commercially viable in the Marvel age. Compare the revenues of the heavily Oscar marketed The King’s Speech ($ 424 million) against the modestly marketed Mr. Turner ($22 million). This is a very blanketed statement with too many holes and crevices to count but I’ll stick with it for now. Yet, within the last decade, a major Kiwi screenwriter has been at the forefront of the biopic, gaining both financial and Oscar attention for his past four films. Taranaki-born Anthony McCarten has mastered the art of the commercial biopic.
McCarten started his career in Wellington as a successful novelist before fucking off to Hollywood in search of bigger dreams and deeper pockets. Unlike Taika Waititi and Peter Jackson, his films show no depictions of the landscapes nor peoples of the fatherland. In 2014, his first major studio film The Theory of Everything was released to enormous critical and commercial gain (five Oscar nods, including best actor win for Eddie Redmayne, and $123 million in box office receipts). The film details the early life of the late Stephen Hawking and his struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). McCarten is not interested in the mechanics of black holes. Rather, he shines a light on how Jane Hawking devoted herself to husband Stephen, and how this commitment may have kept him alive until his 70’s. Yet, the film grossed twice as much as John Wick. Does this suggest audiences do not care about science, opting to engage see in stories grounded in human relationships with characters they sympathise for? Potentially. But films devoted to scientific explanation, such as Interstellar, Contact and The Martian, garnered hundreds of millions in profit. If the answer to McCarten’s success exists, an examination of his more recent efforts will be necessary.
Following the success of Theory, McCarten was hired to write the screenplay for 2017’s Darkest Hour. The film is an account of Winston Churchill’s early days as PM during WWII, the backdrop of his classic “we shall fight on the beaches” speech which your dad thinks he can recite but actually can’t. Similar in tone and setting to 2010’s The King’s Speech, Hour is a smartly mounted, yet somewhat pretentious war film from Director Joe Wright where words and vocal cords are the weapons of choice. McCarten’s script is fine-tuned, paced adequately and featuring more arguments than a divorce hearing. However, Wright’s direction, along with Gary Oldman’s performance, feels slightly forced. Regardless, the public and Academy interest could not be undone, garnering $150 million at the box office with six Oscar nods, including Best Actor for Oldman. A pattern has emerged. Is the acting of great, complex characters the reason which has garnered McCartens films so much acclaim? A fair statement, one which is certainly justified in his next biopic, 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
After the success of Hour and Everything, McCarten was starting to make a name for himself, making him the ideal choice to pen the screenplay of Rhapsody. I have a few problems with Rhapsody, summed up nicely by Brian May’s defensive statement “We don’t follow formulas” during an elusive record deal signing. The irony of this statement is cringeworthy. Rami Malek’s outstanding performance aside, the handling of Mercury’s off-stage life is the fault of this film. It gently surgically dissects Mercury’s relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin, and the implications of his homosexuality. Yet, Mercury arrives on the screen fully baked and lacking any sense of anxiety for his future. Absent are the Wolf of Wall Street type parties, drag queens and cocaine snorts which a bolder film may have depicted. Yet, the M rating may have restricted such Scorsese-esque nuances from being explored. Despite the definite tumble from McCarten’s last efforts, Rhapsody scored five Oscar nods (a win for Malek) and $903 million globally. Why? Well the performance is certainly a factor. But most likely because McCarten capitalized on one of the most popular bands in history, led by one of the most eccentric and charismatic singers of all time. I saw the film for this very reason. McCarten may have delivered a safe picture, demonstrating the power of the performer Freddie Mercury, but not the person.
Finally, we arrive at McCarten’s latest, and arguably his best, biopic The Two Popes. This film follows Pope Benedict XVI trying to convince Cardinal Bergoglio to reconsider his decision to resign as an archbishop. While the film deals with figures who are still monumental, they are not as well not as known as Hawking or Mercury, granting McCarten a larger brush to exercise his artistic license. The story mirrors the political landscape of today. Pope Benedict XVI carries a conservative stance on the church’s duties, whereas Bergoglio envisions a progressive church destined to commit to gender equality and climate change. This truly reflects the battles of the left and right agendas, with a middle ground stretch thin by the adjacent personalities. Although not a commercial success (released on Netflix to avoid any loss of revenue), the film showcased McCarten’s maturity as a screenwriter, earning a best adapted screenplay nomination for his efforts.
Anthony McCartens films are grounded in strong performances against a backdrop of history defining events. In a screen writers’ career, one is lucky to pen a film worthy of box-office hype and Oscar buzz. Yet McCarten has managed to achieve such a goal four times within five years. Why his films have achieved such unprecedented success is an open question. Is it the quality of the writing? Not necessarily. While most of his films are compassion pieces, Rhapsody resembles more of a compilation of greatest hits than a genuine album. The popularity of the characters? Quite possibly, but combined with the public curiosity of how a well-known actor will integrate the skin of a superstar. McCarten may simply be fortunate to be hired to compose screenplays pop-culture icons. Combined with clever marketing and tolerable direction, McCarten has emerged as one of the most successful biopic screenwriters of the 21st century. His films are profitable and deserve to be studied to a scholarly degree.