The world of biopics seems to be in grave trouble recently after accusations of inaccuracies in two of them screening at Cannes. And while an accusation of a biopic being inaccurate might be considered to be the further employment of Captain Obvious, there might be a bit of gender inequality at play here. Consider that the two biopics in question at Cannes (one on Princess Grace, the other on Nina Simone) are about two very pivotal women from the 20th century.
You can see how painful the snubs are when you hear about upcoming biopics on iconic males soon out that are going to be getting much higher profile. Everything from “Jersey Boys” to “Get On Up” (about James Brown) look as if they’ll escape criticism based on their previews. So why have biopics about women suddenly hit a brick wall? It’s certainly not by design, or so we can assume. What can be done to assure there’s more great biopics about women that aren’t shoved into an indie corner with no distribution?
Was There a Female Biopic Renaissance Underway?
Some of the greatest biopics ever made have been about iconic women, both very famous and just marginally famous. While the earliest female biopics were focused more on female world leaders like Catherine the Great or those who made a pivotal difference (Joan of Arc), the 1940s and ’50s finally started making slow inroads into covering great women who were still alive. There really weren’t enough of them, though, and female biopics became fairly scant up until “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in 1980 seemed to kick off a new golden age for them.
At that point, covering the life of great female entertainers who were still very much alive was more in vogue than having actresses portraying centuries-old movers and shakers. In some cases, they were biopics about women with potential, died young, and still left a mark on pop culture. Other films caught a new trend of combining a romance an iconic woman had with a fellow iconic male. “Out of Africa” and “Shadowlands” are some of the classiest examples that still get referenced today.
Regardless, there were still so many tales of women yet to be told by the 1990s. In the 2000s and within the last decade, we finally started seeing a real renaissance in the female biopic. Hollywood started taking on more obscure famous women, including minorities who hadn’t been represented yet in film. Everyone from Dorothy Dandridge to Frida Kahlo were taken on with excellent and believable performances. Some of the very best ones were made away from movie houses and for network TV or cable.
The only one that might be considered a distraction was Nicole Kidman’s “The Hours” where she played Virginia Woolf with a prosthetic nose that’s been the bane of those who pay close attention to details. And, yes, Nicole Kidman seemed destined for being the new queen of female biopics until the recent “Grace of Monaco” debacle.
After movies like “My Week with Marilyn”, “The Iron Lady”, and numerous other award-winners within the last five years, it’s clear the female biopic was in the midst of a huge resurgence. Not that there won’t be others expected down the line to help repair the “Grace of Monaco” and Nina Simone problems. Biopics on Whitney Houston and a new biopic on Josephine Baker are rumored to be on the horizon.
It was a little movie this year, though, that shows there’s still important women tales to be told nobody knows about. The movie “Belle” was a small indie that told about an 18th century African-American woman named Dido Belle who was adopted by a British aristocrat. This film was a standout amid the temporary female biopic trip-ups, plus making a star of lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
With so many male biopics arriving soon, however, stories of famous men will probably have their own share of misfortunes later. That may happen as biopics in general get a more critical look at how they’re approached in their sense of realism.