The Death of the Biopic

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 But in the last five years, the biopic has begun to feel as dusty and outdated as the set of Encylopedia Britannicas in your parents' attic.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/Nixonsank at the box office.

It doesn't help that the Hollywood machine is allergic to history. Even when there's compelling subject matter, it's often lost under layers of costumes, corsets, and accents. Amelia was an exhibit of red wigs. Invictus had Morgan Freeman as Mandela, but it forgot to explain the rules of rugby. A-list actors, who flock to these "prestige" films, can't compete. On paper, Gwyneth Paltrow seemed to make the perfect Sylvia Plath, and Daniel Craig should have smoldered as Ted Hughes. But Sylviaseemed to be about two bored professors, not fire and ice. The same could be said of Ben Whishaw as Keats in Bright Star.

Oddly, not all biopics are suffering—just the ones about people you have heard of. This is the Erin Brockovichphenomenon, in which a big star appears in a little-known story to great success. The Blind Side, about a Southern mom who adopts a black son, has become a $240 million cultural milestone, the rare tale that has played to packed crowds in red and blue states. Will Smith's The Pursuit of Happynesswas another feel-good blockbuster. By comparison, there was nothing buzzworthy about Sandra Bullock's understated performance as Harper Lee in Infamousor Will Smith's scenery-chewing in Ali, his least successful movie since 2001.

If Hollywood wants to save the biopic, it's time that somebody had a little (heaven forbid) fun with history. TV's The Tudorsillustrates that depicting the past can be adventurous and sexy. The movie version—The Other Boleyn Girl—was a BBC drama cast by MTV. Of all the biopics last year, the only one that had its cake and ate it too was Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep landed an Oscar nomination for playing Julia Child, but Amy Adams, as annoying as her performance was, may have saved the film at the box office. She played a narcissistic blogger with a neglected husband, and she was the reason the picture could be marketed as a romantic comedy. Julie might be self-absorbed, but, then again, so are we. She kept Julia Child fresh past her expiration date.