Resisting the Total Explanation: Four Biopics

by Joshua H. Liberatore

No other genre in film seems more familiar to American audiences in recent years than the biopic. The years 2005 and 2006 featured the release of such big-budget successes as Cinderella Man and Ray, both of which got Oscar attention and a modicum of critical acclaim. Most recently, Walk the Line, featuring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon’s virtuoso performances as Johnny and June Carter Cash, has captured audiences with its dazzling soundtrack and heart-rending narrative. Less prominently (and understandably so), Kinsey and Capote explored two intellectual innovators of the past century, revealing personalities no less complex or conflict-rich than the likes of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. The sheer number and tight spacing of these releases speaks to a telling, and perhaps culturally significant, theme in American movie tastes and narrative fancies.

    The past few years have also witnessed the twin trends of a waning preference for the reality show and a rising disgust toward a failing war abroad and political malfeasance at home. As we continue to lose interest in the dreary and unsavory narratives of our various “realities” – both the commercially contrived and the inescapably palpable – we find ourselves turning more and more to the complex lives and personalities of a wide array of American heroes as fitting subjects for fictional retelling in the form of a highly wrought and engaging movie experience. Not all of these films succeed, however, in capturing our lasting affection and admiration, and because we have seen so many of them, we are invited to compare them, not only on the basis of the characters they present, but also on their artistic merits as films.

    First, let’s consider Ray, the most broadly profitable of these films by seemingly wide agreement. Jamie Foxx took the 2005 Academy award for best actor, and no doubt he deserved it. His brilliant channeling of Ray Charles, down to subtle voice patterns and idiosyncratic mannerisms, was an immaculate achievement in impersonation. Thanks to his obvious gifts as a musician, Foxx makes the rendering of Charles as pianist and singer both authentic and convincing. Where storytelling suffers and founders on cliché, Foxx brings life into the scenes and so overwhelms his audience with down-home charm and silky charisma that the clear structural flaws of the film are almost concealed under the spell of his captivating performance. It’s too bad that Foxx’s director Taylor Hackford relies so heavily on flashbacks and filmic effects (triumphant headlines bouncing across the screen, creepy hallucinatory sequences) to condense an entire life and artistic career as intricate and varied as Ray Charles’s into a 2 ½-hour movie. Rather than letting the telling details of the story speak for themselves, the film handles its audience at every turn toward a neatly fabricated interpretation: that Ray Charles’s decisions and personal idiosyncrasies can be adequately explained as the result of the self-hatred and guilt stemming from his supposed complicity in his younger brother’s untimely death. Reckless womanizing, drug abuse, erratic behavior and paranoia toward his friends and most loyal supporters, and most of all, his incurable megalomania – all find a tidy logic in his terrible suffering and inner torment, the residue of a painful childhood. The film tries desperately to bring meaning to this familiar pattern through memory sequences and flashbacks, at the expense of a more detailed emphasis on the music that should perforce anchor the story of an innovator like Charles.

    Had it not been for Foxx’s impressive performance, which holds the movie together at its most threadbare moments, Ray could not have been the commercial success it was. The acting of the supporting cast falls flat in comparison, and major achievements and milestones in Charles’s career (for instance, his famous, albeit off-the-cuff, refusal to play a segregated venue in Georgia) are mentioned, but glossed over at tremendous expense to the movie’s thoroughness and rhetorical impact. Thus failing in its ambition to provide a total explanation (which appears to have been its main goal), Ray‘s virtue as a film, and as a biographical retelling, comes down to a single actor’s superb skill.

    Bill Condon’s Kinsey falls into many of the same traps that reduce Ray to such a muddled combination of heavy-handed direction and amateur psychoanalysis. In this case, however, Liam Neeson’s disappointingly weak performance as Alfred Kinsey is not enough to salvage what turns out to be another ambitious, but ultimately banal, biopic in 2004. Kinsey too is shown confronting a troubling past, explored per formula through memory sequences and flashbacks, tritely assembled to provide an explanation of his career decisions and character failings. Here it is not the death of a brother but a puritanical and domineering father who caused the trauma, providing a tempting narrative trope with which to buttress the film’s attempt to deliver the total explanation. Kinsey’s obsession with sexual behavior and his dogged pursuit to document and categorize the myriad sexual habits of Americans of all persuasions, though ostensibly grounded in the interest of good science, stem – we are taught in the film – from his inability to please his father. Add to this Kinsey’s personal quest to escape sexual inhibition and latent shame at a childhood spent in sequestered fits of masturbation and unsanctioned desire. We see Kinsey’s principle struggle as a lifelong quest to escape his father’s disapproving stance toward his choice to become a biologist rather than a minister, even as the father remains distant emotionally (but omnipresent psychologically) throughout the film.

    Instead of abusing drugs and courting self-destruction on the model of the over-indulgent, misunderstood celebrity, Kinsey works himself to the bone, and pursues his professional objectives so fanatically that even his wife (Laura Linney) is left to wonder whether sex is something he can enjoy anymore, so scientific and theoretical becomes his interest. Under Condon’s direction, Kinsey becomes almost a tragic figure, who must suffer because of his own raw ambition, sealing his demise. Unfortunately, the film’s tepid conclusion leaves us feeling not pity but only disgust toward Kinsey’s choices. We observe no genuine pathos, and hence, get rewarded with no satisfying catharsis, except perhaps the feeling of relief to have been born in a more sexually comfortable era.

    By the time I came to see James Mangold’s Walk the Line, I was hoping to find something that either complicated or dismantled the formulaic treatment that had in my opinion ruined Ray and Kinsey as potentially interesting character portraits. I was refreshed and encouraged by what I saw. This film’s fine acting and meticulous composition hold it together nicely, even when its story arc treads a fine line between predictability and generalization (precisely where Ray and Kinsey droop) and exquisitely structured narrative. Many of this film’s most successful moments and attributes only underscore the failings of others in its league: its acting performances are superb across the board; its gestures toward explanation and general analysis remain modest and pleasantly trusting of the audience’s intelligence; and best of all, its chosen terms of inquiry are more compelling and endearing, because more focused.

    In Walk the Line, we are grateful not to be regaled with flashback storytelling that has become de rigueur for the big-budget biopic. There is a simple, almost classic, linearity to the plot structure that speaks to Mangold’s faith in the authenticity of his characters and his audience’s ability to make connections and remember critical story points at the right moments. For example, as the film opens to a shot of Cash gently thumbing the blade of a table saw in the Fulsom prison woodshop, the crowd of expectant inmates thumping and pulsing out of view, we can sense the psychological significance of the scene without being told to do so. Later, when we confront Cash’s older brother’s death (table saw accident) and see how the guilt his father made him feel for leaving his brother that day affects him even as an adult, we realize that we have been prepared to recognize the significance of this burden from the opening shot of the film. Rather than resorting to flashbacks and filmic effects to raise the emotional registers and to remind us of the enduring turmoil of Cash’s guilt, Walk the Line shows Cash confronting his troubling memories in a way that most of us can relate to: through conversation with the one person he trusts and can confide in, the love of his life, June Carter. When his career sees a major turn-around, marked by the 1968 Fulsom Prison concert, which seems to coincide with his recovery from addiction to pills, the audience is likewise prepared for it through a simple sequence showing Cash reading letters from devoted fans, many of whom are incarcerated and encourage him to consummate his hard-fought image as a penitentiary icon. His authentic overture to them, beginning with his proud march to the executives at Columbia records to pitch the idea, constitutes a redemptive act, both convincing and rich with meaning on its own terms, without any cinematic flash, just good storytelling.

    By the time we return to the scene with which the film opened and confront the image of Cash backstage in the prison workshop contemplating his next move, we are not dependent on a flashback to the childhood scene in Arkansas, but the understated meaning is clear: Cash has forgiven himself and has put the past behind him, allowing his artistic success to take new and bounding leaps forward. This success in turn generates the confidence he needs to convince Carter to marry him after their long and troubled courtship spanning many years and the film’s entire space. Although Walk the Line teeters on the same precarious ledge that cripple Ray and Kinsey in their hubristic attempts at total explanation, it escapes the clichés of its predecessors and leaves the audience gratified, but without the thick gravy of sentimentalism that mutes the subtle flavors beneath.

    As a delightful counterpoint to the reigning formula in the biopic genre, Bennett Miller’s Capote stands alone with the courage to focus with utter clarity and precision rather than generalize. Instead of offering a total explanation for the life and career of Truman Capote, the film allows us to concentrate our gaze on one formative moment that defined a great author’s legacy and fame: the writing of In Cold Blood in 1955. Because Capote avoids the temptation to present a comprehensive portrait of a complicated personage, it can explore with much more detail and coherence its principle subject, thus revealing the distinct advantages of nuanced study over panoramic generalization. We aren’t burdened (or coddled) with childhood trauma, trite flashbacks, or psychoanalytical suggestions, but are simply allowed to enter a character fully and thoroughly through a structured composition and first-rate acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman is spectacular as Capote, having mastered his flamboyance, his vast intelligence, and his peculiar sense of humor (not to mention the tinny, nasal timbre of Capote’s unparalleled voice). But the film is not totally dependent on a single performance; it is full of excellent performances (Chris Cooper as the beleaguered Kansas sheriff is a standout). And like June Carter in Walk the Line, Capote’s companion, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) balances her friend’s eccentricities and character shortcomings to form an impressive team, complementing the idea that great geniuses do not always work alone, but as in the case of Cash and Capote, often owe much to a devoted and self-effacing counterpart.

    The psychological depth and narrative grip of Capote’s portrayal are rare treats indeed, providing audiences with a viable alternative to the conventional biopic. We see Capote not as larger-than-life (a status toward which Charles and Kinsey seem to strive at their directors’ behest) but convincingly present in the depth and detail of his work, which becomes the centerpiece of the film’s drama and energy. We are left with the option of feeling moral indignation at what appears to be Capote’s deliberate and selfish interference in a murderer’s legal case or admiration for an indefatigable artist who stops at nothing to accomplish his goal to understand something to his satisfaction: in this case, to get inside the mind of a brutal killer and try to make sense of his mind through dramatic reconstruction in literature. In other words, we leave from the movie not feeling that we have been instructed to feel certain things; we are left to decide for ourselves based on what we have seen. As far as biopics go, a film like Capote is almost guaranteed not to make as much money as its more commercially palatable counterparts, but when considered in sequence with so many others, seems more plausible and useful as a work of art.

    Perhaps we find ourselves in a time of such moral and political ambivalence that we are moved to seek entertainment in genres that instruct us about how (and how not!) to process traumatic events and personal disasters. Capote never published another book after In Cold Blood (interestingly, neither did Harper Lee), inviting the suspicion that the experience of writing it was so powerful and exhaustive that Capote was left with nothing else he could say, or that it so depleted him morally and psychologically, that it effectively ended his career as a writer. As the story is being told, there are no easy or clear reductions to be made, and so the audience is left thinking about Capote, and perhaps, even moved to learn more about the film’s subject, will revisit or read for the first time the book that forms its narrative core. (In Cold Blood rediscovered itself on the New York Times Bestseller List for nearly 50 weeks after the movie’s release!) In short, the movie serves as an invitation into the complexity of its subject, and in its resistance toward total explanations and narrative arcs, asks us to seek other sources of information and learn more. For my $9.50, I’ll take more biopics on that model.

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