Todd VanDerWerff is at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the movies that will dominate our upcoming conversations and the awards season are playing. He will be filing daily dispatches on the ones he sees. For more information on TIFF and the film festival circuit, read our explainer.
One of the easiest paths to winning an Oscar — and let’s not kid ourselves; a lot of films are at TIFF to build Oscar buzz — is to make a film about or portray a real person. This particular formula for winning an Academy Award is so prevalent that simply the words “Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln” or “Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes” can create an Oscar frontrunner sight unseen (so far as the director and screenplay are sufficiently impressive).
But at the same time, the movie about a real person — usually dubbed a biopic, though that’s sometimes misleading for reasons I will get into — is often among the most boring types of film Hollywood offers.
It tends to provide the highlights of a great life, rather than digging deep, and it tends to offer an actor a chance to do a hammy impression, rather than something with more depth and feeling.
Yet both of the movies cited above are good examples of Hollywood biopics that don’t stink. Lincoln focuses almost entirely on the 16th president’s attempts to push through a constitutional amendment banning slavery, and features some of the best scenes of political wheeling and dealing in recent memory. And The Aviator doesn’t portray the entirety of Hughes’s life, just the years he was living it up in old Hollywood and setting flight records. It doesn’t delve into his later mental health issues — it only suggests them.
The best movies about real people, then, don’t just provide an overview of a famous or important life; they find a new, artistically adventurous way to approach that life.
Jackie turns Jackie Kennedy into a mirror for her country
Take, for instance, Jackie, director Pablo Larrain’s intimate epic of former first lady Jackie Kennedy’s attempts to secure her husband’s legacy by plotting out his funeral, all while dealing with (or not dealing with, as the case may be) her own grief.
Kennedy is portrayed by Oscar winner Natalie Portman, and on paper, “Natalie Portman plays Jackie Kennedy” feels like the kind of easy Oscar bait that might make you roll your eyes. But Jackie is far more interested in providing what almost amounts to a remix of the first lady’s life, as she struggles to hold everything together.
Jackie doesn’t just want to present a famous life. It wants to answer a question: namely, “If John F. Kennedy didn’t accomplish all that much while he was president, then why do we remember him as such an outsized figure today?” In its depiction of its title character, the film suggests a woman at once suspicious of the media and incredibly comfortable in front of its gaze — and thus the perfect person to make sure her husband is not forgotten, because she can play the media perfectly.
A lesser film would have delved into, say, how Jackie Kennedy felt about her husband’s affairs or would have framed the story around the two’s relationship. Instead, JFK remains a ghostly presence on the edges of the film (even in a handful of flashbacks), and the film is much more interested in why Jackie feels the need to make sure John is remembered for all time — because it’s clear her love for him is only a small part of it.
Thus, instead of presenting a straightforward narrative, Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim turn this time in her life into a kaleidoscope, with little bits and pieces of her personality and backstory poking through here and there, then being subsumed by the overall pattern again.
Larrain films Portman in close-ups that seem to almost invade her privacy, to reflect the way Jackie Kennedy felt pinned down by media cameras in the wake of the assassination, and Portman delivers. This is a woman with no room for error.
In its own way, Jackie underlines the problems with the idea of a “biopic.” For the most part, the best movies about real people capture only small segments of their lives (think of Lincoln, again, or how Capote only covers Truman Capote’s research for In Cold Blood), and these can never function as fully representative biographies in the way that a door-stopping written tome might.
Jackie is less an attempt to explain or depict Jackie Kennedy than it is an attempt to reflect many different versions of her back to the audience. It’s a series of refractions, not a series of observations.
This kaleidoscopic approach also reflects the ways that we consume our public figures as entertainment personalities. We never get an entire picture, but rather bits and pieces of fragments of who they might be. We leave Jackie knowing her better than we did before, but she remains as mysterious to us as any human being we know a little bit better than a stranger. As it should be.
Meanwhile, Loving is sneakier in its radicalism
Loving, Jeff Nichols’ cinematic depiction of Richard and Mildred Loving — the couple at the center of Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage throughout the US — is not as formally daring or ambitious a film as Jackie. But in its own way, it might be more radical.
On its surface, Loving appears to be a standard-issue Oscar bait biopic. It has the sweeping moments of historical importance, the swelling score, the sun-dappled outdoor landscapes meant to suggest some better version of the past. And it has at its center a tremendously important, but little understood, court case. These are all things that could make for a smashing traditional courtroom drama.
But Nichols isn’t interested in the case. He’s barely even interested in the lawyers who argued it, or the Supreme Court that found in the Lovings’ favor. No, he’s interested in the couple in the title, two people whose marriage stopped being a private one and became a public one, simply because it existed. He’s interested in how the focus of the magnifying glass changes both them and their marriage. And he’s interested in how they endured all those years as their case wended its way through court.
As such, the film almost never enters the courtroom, save for a few very brief moments. The Lovings will hear from their lawyers about the progress of their case, nod their approval, then get back to the business of living their lives and raising their children. As Mildred, Ruth Negga depicts a woman who naturally flourishes in the spotlight. As Richard, Joel Edgerton seems increasingly as if he’s trying to hide from it.
But the film’s quiet radicalism exists in how it eschews all of the things you’d expect from a movie about Loving v. Virginia, for better or worse. It’s better because this kind of focus on a marriage over time makes for a more interesting subject than the sort of courtroom-drama beats we know backward and forward by now. But it’s also worse because, fundamentally, Mildred and Richard love each other, and that means there’s not a lot of evolution or change in their marriage. And stories without change can make for a struggle.
And yet the end of Loving proves why Nichols’s approach is ultimately the right one. After all of that work for its central couple to be recognized as man and wife by the state in which they live, Loving relishes in the simple pleasure of building a life with someone you love, bit by bit, without anyone telling you you can’t love them. Because the Lovings’ marriage is so strong, it makes their final victory sweeter.
What Loving shares with Jackie is the understanding that a real person’s life doesn’t need to be fodder for something with epic sweep. It doesn’t even need to be particularly accurate, if it gets the spirit of the person right. A real person’s life can make for just as artistic and creative a story as that of any fictional person. It all depends on the story being told, and who’s doing the telling.
Loving opens in limited release November 4. Jackie opens in limited release December 9.