You have to wonder: Is the schmaltz just built in? Is the tedium inevitable? Technically, the “biopic” couldn’t be more doctrinaire. You know the drill: flash back to the essential Freudian puzzle piece; now here’s the light bulb going off, cue music; zip through the amalgamating montage; now here’s the rock-bottom moment, cue music; so, who’s ready for redemption? Too often it’s limiting, fawning and shamelessly Oscar-baiting. Even the titles routinely portend a certain lack of imagination. Ray? Kinsey? Um, okay then.
Yes, the form is so shopworn that most reviews (this one, for example) can’t get far without bemoaning its deadness and restrictive conventionality. Yet the biopic has become a weird kind of status symbol. Who needs to write the great American novel or make the great American movie? Nowadays the ticket is just to become famous in whatever way is most conducive to having your life adapted for a film. For twenty-first-century Americans, movie rights are inalienable.
And why not? If your movie life were released right now, you’d be enjoying the immediate company of Che Guevara, Alexander the Great, J. M. Barrie, Howard Hughes and Bobby Darin, not to mention Kinsey and Charles. That’s some party. And if the picture’s any good, you might even be asked to sit at the table with Malcolm X, Charlie Chaplin, Gandhi, Mozart, Patton, Ed Wood, Jake LaMotta, T. E. Lawrence, Loretta Lynn, Ty Cobb and others.
In American movies today, it’s hard to know the difference between a genre and a widespread bad habit. When do fashions, however banal or self-limiting, codify into schools of creative thought? Time will tell, we say. And that’s just what the biopic, long in fashion and now perhaps the fastest-growing ghetto of Hollywood storytelling, pretends to do.
Of course it never works. However much the genre (if it is one) prefers forward thinkers for protagonists, it is innately nostalgic. Hence even the lives of dynamos like Ray Charles and Alfred Kinsey seem fated to yield rather plodding, workmanlike movies. If the tendency is useful for anything, it’s for summing up how America perceives itself. By calmly upholding a national tradition of bashful self-veneration, Ray and Kinsey obey the American biopic playbook. Both movies provide swift synopses of how crude, cruel, repressive and utterly backward the country was in the last century, counterpointed with fact-based hero myths of lone crusaders transmuting self-interest into enormous social capital—and, as it happens, making some progress for civilization at large.
The self-proclaimed genius who in spite of blindness and blackness fuses gospel, country and R&B music into something both beautiful and universally popular and the researcher who first fully surveys the habits of human sexuality are both, at first, widely censured (presumably for corrupting America’s youth). Both, as their movies show, are profoundly egocentric and separate themselves from society in order to achieve distinction (each prompts and observes infighting among the people who support him with chilling dispassion). And both, ultimately, are enablers of diversification. While Kinsey is blamed and thanked for the sexual revolution and its aftermath, Charles is—well, come on, he’s Ray Charles.
Too bad the movies just aren’t so great. They’re competently directed, of course. Bill Condon, who brought us Gods and Monsters, clearly has the kinky smarts for Kinsey; and Taylor Hackford, who brought us The Devil’s Advocate, knows he owes us.
And they’re competently performed, too. Liam Neeson’s natural unnaturalness is put to good use in his portrayal of the stiff, clinical Kinsey. How true it seems when, in reply to his marriage proposal, the ever dependable Laura Linney says, “Frankly, I find you a little churchy.” As Kinsey progresses from his famed Indiana University sex-ed course to the methodical data collection for his landmark Sexual Behavior studies, he has the insight to denude sex of its moral and emotional baggage in order to study it properly. And he has a hell of a time making that happen. “When it comes to love,” he’s forced to conclude, “we’re all in the dark.” Of course, having so titillated the nation, he also loses his financial support, just when he needs it most.
As for Charles, surely you’ve heard how Jamie Foxx (surrounded by a hardworking ensemble cast that’s as tight as the real Ray’s on-stage orchestra) practically channels the man. Ray doesn’t take any guff from anybody. The closest he comes to artistic compromise is agreeing that the name Ray Robinson has already been claimed by the boxer and he should use his middle name, Charles. “I don’t care what ya call me, man,” he chirps, “just as long as my name is on the record!” Even when he’s messed up on heroin, his producers, half afraid that the junk might actually be good for his sound, give him only a sheepish talking-to. Only his already lost wife’s suggestion that the habit might cost him his creative sovereignty finally scares Ray straight, reminding him of his mother’s admonition not to let anyone or anything turn him into a cripple.
Americans cherish the idea that things don’t stay wrong for very long in their country. It partly explains the impatience with which the Blue Staters are now squinting through their television and computer screens at the Red Staters and asking, “Who are these people?” (Ray and Kinsey both empathize with that impatience, but they also make subtle attempts to answer the question.) This idea is also naturally suited to the telescopic narrative structure of the biopic, in which years’ worth of dues are paid in minutes, and the protracted, often brutalizing experience of self-awareness in societal terms is fully realized within a couple of hours.
Poverty, disability, addiction, the vicissitudes of the music business—Ray Charles beat it all. How could he not be tapped for a biopic? And Kinsey’s crusade, against what the movie calls “morality disguised as fact,” is deeply personal too—seared into him by his hyper-puritan father (John Lithgow, perhaps cast from remembrance of his similar turn in Footloose) and reprised by a deeply threatened university administration.
By equating self-empowerment with the breaking of social and cultural barriers, Hackford and Condon both have tapped the biopic formula for all it’s worth.
Ray Charles and Alfred Kinsey left us legacies of joyful noises—in the recording studio and in the bedroom. Ray and Kinsey will keep bringing in big money for a while, and likely nab a few golden statues next spring, but they hardly do for cinema what Charles did for music and Kinsey for sex. They needn’t, really; nowadays the profane ritual of the American biopic need only be the crudest commemoration, a way of glancing backward and forward at once, and congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come. Time will tell.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.