The world of biopics in the movies seems to get more complicated lately, and part of it seems to stem from Leonardo DiCaprio’s obsession on wanting to continuously play American figures. After playing everyone from Howard Hughes to Jordan Belfort in the span of a decade, almost all of those films might have seemed close to miscasting considering DiCaprio didn’t look like any of those people. Out of all, the depiction of J. Edgar Hoover in “J. Edgar” might have been the most distracting considering the lack of resemblance and the overly garish makeup used.
While at least DiCaprio was able to hold most of those movies with his acting ability, those distracting lack of resemblances led me to write once about whether he should keep on playing American icons. But it’s clear now that he’s already latched onto the idea of playing as many American figures as possible, no matter if he looks like them or not. For a while, it seemed that he was going to move on to Russian history and portray Rasputin under the safer guise of long hair and a beard.
The popularity of playing Jordan Belfort in “Wolf of Wall Street” must have given DiCaprio another boost in thinking audiences would accept him as yet another very iconic American. With reports he may be playing Steve Jobs next in the long-awaited official biopic on the Apple founder, there must have been more than a few gasps uttered by the public and acting community.
It seems that the more American icons DiCaprio plays, the more he takes on ones that don’t look anything like him. And while actors may say the whole point of acting is to take on the challenges of playing someone you don’t necessarily look like, is that really helping the biopic genre or hindering it?
Bringing Believability to the Biopic
There could be some danger in playing someone you don’t resemble, especially when someone is so familiar to millions of people in the way they looked and sounded. Considering some people might be viewing biopics long down the road as their first introduction to an historical figure, you have to wonder what the real purpose of a biopic is when casting gets more creative. In the earlier days of film, there was always an attempt to pick actors who at least had the same features as the people they were portraying. Some even looked alarmingly like the original person, with an example being Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life.”
By the 1980s, biopics started going the other way in casting A-list stars that didn’t look anything like the people they portrayed. The first movie where the dissimilarity was extreme was “Nixon” in 1995 with Sir Anthony Hopkins playing the beleaguered President. Despite Hopkins’s very brilliant acting, the complete lack of physical resemblance took away some of the suspension of disbelief.
This seemed to kick off a new era of actors saying they wanted to capture the essence of an historical figure rather than look exactly like them. No doubt DiCaprio (who was taking on “Titanic” about this time) was watching intently and perhaps forming his own acting philosophy on doing the same.
Now we’ve reached a point where physical resemblance can be a complete polar opposite. Actors are assuming that audiences are ok with this and that their star power and acting ability will help sustain the film enough to make it work.
At the outset, this may look more like cashing in to something in the moment rather than thinking how people will view the biopic in the future. The biopic has always been risky as a tool for people to learn about someone, because the view and persona set in a movie is never going to be reliable in giving the complete truth. No matter that the DiCaprio take on Jobs is taken as the official story, DiCaprio’s own persona is going to be at the helm.
What makes this all easier is that there’s plenty of real documentaries about Steve Jobs available that will help future generations piece together a sense of reality. Regardless, the biopic genre is always going to be on shaky ground as being something that can hold up as depicting real life correctly.
It may be a warning now to the iconic Americans living today to perhaps film as much of their own life as possible to allow for an official future documentary. Even if alongside a more fictional biopic someday, future generations would be able to get a better picture of the biopic as only art and not as reliable historical artifact.