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Into the biosphere

Stewart Oksenhorn

“Kinsey,” which opens in valley theaters this week, gives local moviegoers the chance to look inside the complex, driven, haunted sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

Just as moviegoers have been presented a view of Howard Hughes, the complex, driven, haunted airline innovator and movie mogul in “The Aviator.” And an examination of the complex, driven, haunted music genius Ray Charles in “Ray.” And a take on the complex, driven, haunted hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda.”

And let us not forget the current films that offer portraits of such real-life characters as singer Bobby Darin (“Beyond the Sea”), “Peter Pan” writer J.M. Barrie (“Finding Neverland”), Spanish right-to-die advocate Ramon Sampedro (“The Sea Inside”) and would-be presidential killer Sam Bicke (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”). Or the adapted-for-screen lives of two more historical figures, Jesus and Alexander, that played earlier last year.

Clearly, in the 2004-05 prestige-film season, the biopic reigns. The political documentaries of 2004’s earlier months have been swept aside. (Anybody remember when “Fahrenheit 9/11” was considered a legitimate contender for the best picture Academy Award?)

The obvious question is: why? ” why this enormous slate of biopics all at once? It’s not as if the biopic form has had a perfectly glorious past, especially if you discount “Citizen Kane,” whose depiction of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane was a largely imagined version of the life of nonfiction newspaper mogul WilliamRandolph Hearst, making it only a pseudo-biopic. True biopics, which are drawn from mostly fact and seek an essentially accurate account their subjects, have been stiff and boring as often as they have been scintillating and enlightening. Historically, they’ve had only moderate success in the awards department.

But films and characters drawn from true life have gained Academy Award steam in recent years. Over the last five years, the best actress Oscar has been awarded four times to actresses portraying real people, even if the films were not exactly biopics. (Charlize Theron in “Monster,” Nicole Kidman as Virginia Wolff in “The Hours,” Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,” and Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry.”) The awarding of the 2001 best picture honors to a film, “A Beautiful Mind,” about a real person was a relative rarity.

So, in an industry that will try to duplicate success over and over till the original is a distant memory, the recent upswing has much do with the surfeit of biopics. But more important is that we tend to take far more interest in the world as it is these days. For one, we have to, as the events of the day have ever greater impacts on our lives.

For another, information is addictive. We are surrounded by, practically assaulted by information, and few of us seem to be running away from the onslaught. We embrace it, demonstrating our need to know more and more about the actual world around us by making habits of surfing the Internet and scanning 24-hour news channels.

Biopics ” like documentaries, which have also been on a dramatic commercial rise ” satisfy our modern need to know more about the world while also feeding our craving for entertainment. It seems an unbeatable combination.

Fortunately, at the same time biopics are becoming increasingly common, they are also getting better. “The Aviator” won the Golden Globe for best drama; the best actor awards was a sweep, with Leonardo DiCaprio winning in the best drama field, and Jamie Foxx earning honors in the best musical or comedy category for “Ray.” (Never mind that “Ray” was neither a musical nor a comedy.) An eye-popping eight of the total best actor nominees were for portrayals of real people. It will be little surprise if “Kinsey,” “Ray,” “The Aviator,” etc., dominate the Academy Awards nominations ” due out Tuesday, Jan. 25, with the awards to be presented Feb. 27 ” sweeping aside such works of pure fiction as “Bad Education,” “Before Sunset,” “The Incredibles” and “Closer.”

Often in the past, biopics would emphasize spot-on performance while giving the story a straightforward, by-the-books telling. A good example is “Man on the Moon,” which, despite an exceptional performance by Jim Carrey as comedian Andy Kaufman, never got inside the subject. The recent spate of films uniformly aims to probe at the character’s motivation and history in arriving at a fully developed portrait.

One problem is that many of the biopic makers seem to have hit upon the same ideas at the same time. Look at the recent biopics as a group, and there is no need to dig deep to find a formula emerging.

The most prominent thread that runs throughout the films is the idea that the characters have been shaped by a single incident in childhood, often a relationship with a parent. The films routinely return, either in flashback or in a contemporaneous revisitation, to the crucial influence.

Most direct in this is “The Aviator.” Martin Scorsese’s film opens with Hughes (DiCaprio) being told in forceful terms by his mother how to spell “quarantine,” while adding that “the world is not safe.” As Hughes grows to prominence in business and Hollywood, those words don’t merely haunt him, but take over his life. A good part of the film is about the debilitation he suffers from a fear of germs and physical contact.

In Bill Condon’s “Kinsey,” set in the middle of the 20th century, Alfred Kinsey’s (Liam Neeson) embrace of the then-radical field of sex research is depicted as a rebellion against his intensely puritanical father. The formula works particularly well here, as the elder Kinsey (John Lithgow) comes to represent the sexual and social hypocrisies of the larger populace. And one of the finer moments of the excellent film is when Dr. Kinsey gives his own father an in-depth interview about his sexual habits.

Director Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” flashes back repeatedly to two episodes in the young Ray Charles’ life: watching his little brother drown, which is made out to be a cause of Ray’s later heroin addiction, and the stern admonishment by his mother not to let his blindness make Ray a cripple. In Niels Mueller’s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” Sam Bicke’s (Sean Penn) deceit of his pious older brother is the source of his mental ungluing. Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) in “Beyond the Sea” takes to the stage as a way of making life bearable after a childhood bout with rheumatic fever that almost killed him.

Expect plenty more where this came from. The success of the Class of 2004 biopics ensures that screens will be filled with more stories drawing on nonfiction subjects. And expect a backlash, too, as the biopics continue to become formulaic and lookalike.

But let’s hope that honest-to-goodness fiction, along the lines of “Sideways,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Incredibles,” doesn’t get lost along the way.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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