Are Biopics History?

Article excerpt

Byline: Ramin Setoodeh

Charles Darwin has finally succumbed to the survival of the fittest. Creation, a movie about the creation of On the Origin of Species, was practically extinct on its arrival in late January--it's made only $140,241 as of last week. Nobody expects Darwin to outperform Avatar (or Alvin and the Chipmunks), but a documentary about monkeys at the zoo would make more money. "Darwin is a hard sell, even in my country," said the film's star, the British actor Paul Bettany, in a recent interview, "and that's where Darwin came from." Don't blame Chuck. Darwin is one of many historical figures who couldn't cut it in Hollywood. Last year directors churned out movies about Amelia Earhart (Amelia), Queen Victoria (The Young Victoria), John Keats (Bright Star), Nelson Mandela (Invictus), and Orson Welles (the fictionalized Me & Orson Welles), and not a single one was a hit. The Last Station, which gives us Tolstoy's last years, has made only $723,657 in limited release. The studio says it's still early in the film's run, though it opened two months ago.

Like popcorn and Milk Duds, the biopic has long been a Hollywood staple, and often a big moneymaker. You took a celebrity (George C. Scott, Peter O'Toole, Sissy Spacek) playing an even bigger celebrity (Patton, T. E. Lawrence, Loretta Lynn), the story wrote itself, and the Oscars swallowed the bait. But in the last five years, the biopic has begun to feel as dusty and outdated as the set of Encylopedia Britannicas in your parents' attic. There has been a handful of hits, usually involving musicians--Ray, Walk the Line--but that's probably because the music can rescue a mediocre script, and audiences will pay to see a non-singing actor warble. For the most part, though, Hollywood has had trouble keeping the genre relevant in our YouTube-obsessed, attention-pressed times: even a best-picture nominee such as Frost/Nixon sank at the box office.

It doesn't help that the Hollywood machine is allergic to history. …