Alex Bailey/Twentieth Century Fox
Battle of the Biopics
February 22, 2019
The role of a biopic is to tell a living person’s story, whether it be a specific moment in time of a life or the entire arc of a life. Biopics risk the ability to be elevated to truly great films because they can be so limited by what came before. They can be constrained by actual history as much as the tropes of the genre. Three biopics were released in the 2018 awards season that have been recognized and nominated for the awards season: Vice, Stan and Ollie, and Bohemian Rhapsody. The three are each great films in their own respect, but they are all very different films in their approach to the biopic genre. Furthermore, with this review I’m going to look at how each of these films works to tell these peoples stories.
Vice follows Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), as he goes from a lowly intern to America’s most powerful Vice President. It shows his personal struggle as he is torn between his corrupt political life and his family. It’s a stunning tale of one man’s career that is told in a fresh and interesting way. It provides dark and terrifying humor that you don’t want to laugh at but do anyway. If Vice is the dark and gritty biopic of the three, then Stan and Ollie is the polar opposite. The film tells the story of vaudeville comedians Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) as they go out on stage for one last tour. Complications quickly arise though as the two realize that they have little time left together and must come clean about the lies they’ve told. It’s a truly charming and funny story that will provide laughs for all ages. Bohemian Rhapsody takes a look into the complicated life of the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek). It shows the bands rise to fame and the clashes they have as they feel more and more distanced from Mercury. It shows his growth as a musician and as a person when he realizes that the people in his life are more important than his career.
Arcs as Art
Arguably the most important factor of a biopic is the character arcs, or the way they progress through the film. No life is static; our emotions are roller coasters in perpetual motion and the historical figures on film must reflect that. All of the main characters in these films have complex and broad arcs that change throughout the film. At first in Vice we see that Dick Cheney keeps his private life separate from his political life, and his moral compass is his family driven directly by his wife. At the end of the film we see that Cheney has changed and lost his heart when he burns bridges with his friends and family, finally accepting that he can only allow room for his ambitions. In Stan and Ollie, we see the evolution of the relationship between two old friends as they realize how much fun they’ve had in their career and rescue their friendship. When Bohemian Rhapsody starts, Freddie Mercury is a naive and confused young man who values popularity more than his relationships. Mercury slowly realizes that he must reevaluate his priorities when he finds himself alone and diagnosed with AIDS. The arcs in all these films illustrate complex characters that grow and evolve over their runtimes.
It’s essential with all of the characters in these films to show them as people, and show the contexts they lived in. Each of these films decided to use different stylistic elements. Bohemian Rhapsody uses spectacle to convey the larger-than-life quality Freddie’s celebrity had. Stan and Ollie illustrates their late life lives to show that their comedy came from their relationship. In my opinion Vice is the most stylized of the three. It uses imagery and dark humor with stylized editing that creates a growing sense of unease. The reasons for this choice, as the filmmakers explain at the beginning of the film, was because of how secretive Cheney was. The plot requires these dramatic elements to fill in for the pieces of his life that still haven’t been explained. Each of these elements work to create films that set themselves apart from the biopic genre and they are interesting and fresh films that don’t feel pressured into falling into preconceived tropes.
In order to make a great biopic you need the actors playing your leads to deliver great performances. Every one of the actors playing the leads in these films are believable. One performance that stands out is Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Malek has figured out how Mercury moves and sings. Christian Bale also delivered a masterful performance as America’s most diabolical Vice President. His portrayal of Cheney is creepy in a contained manner as we see him dismantle the very country that voted him into office. Even Steve Coogan was great as Stan Laurel. He shows a man needing to change with the times who is losing his best friend, his career, and realizing there is no Laurel without Hardy.
The Role of The Biopic
Most people only know these people by their depictions in popular culture. A biopic is not a documentary where the runtime is purely made up of facts. Biopics are probably the most influential medium when it comes to how people view popular figures in culture because they fill in details that history books may not provide. As a culture, we are the end users who remember these people. That’s the ultimate power of the cinema; it’s a great machine that is universal across languages, gender, race and orientation so everyone can understand the real people they are viewing on screen. The legacies of Dick Cheney, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Freddie Mercury are in our hands and we must choose how generations view them.
So you’re probably saying to yourself, “Sam, which is the best?” Well my ranking would consist of: Vice in first, Stan and Ollie in second and Bohemian Rhapsody in third. This is not an easy thing to rank because all the films are so different and good for different reasons. It’s like comparing oranges and apples. That’s not to say that Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t as good as the other two films, but Vice is just so innovative and Stan and Ollie features seasoned actors giving their all while operating on a shoestring budget. These are all great films, and you should definitely go out and see them, but Vice truly was an original take on a constantly evolving genre that will be discussed in popular culture and film classes for years to come.