The Biopic Syndrome


Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

Since the beginning of cinema, the relationship between movies and truth has been a complicated but essential one. One of the earliest impulses the inventors of the medium had was to document reality for the sake of documentation–the Lumiere Brothers’ actualités are prime examples: Workers Leaving a Factory, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, etc. These films were novel because they captured something on film for an audience who wasn’t actually present at the time these minor events took place.

Jump forward several years and Hollywood’s love of movies that are “based on a true story” or that center on a beloved real-life celebrity or an infamous dictator, etc., is well known. One of the latest to emerge from this style is Jean-Marc Valée’s Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, a real-life Texas man who contracted HIV in 1985 and turned his misfortune into a crusade, opening a “buyers club” for others with HIV who were eager to try experimental treatments not yet approved by the FDA. A profile of Woodroof was written in 1992 for Dallas Life Magazine, if you want the facts of this incredible story, but the film adds additional components and removes others in order to make a more specific point about the AIDS epidemic and the homophobia that existed at that time, as well as examining the widely held idea that the FDA’s caution at the time was for nefarious reasons having to do with drug company profits as opposed to concern for Americans suffering from AIDS.

One of the film’s most successful embellishments is the addition of the transgender character Rayon, played by Jared Leto. A major point of the film is that Woodroof is not gay and is in fact homophobic himself until he meets Rayon and other HIV-postiive gay and transgender people. This part of the film’s overall strategy, demonstrating Woodroof’s machismo and homophobia, feels a little overdone, but it is mitigated by Leto’s incredible performance. I only wish the filmmakers had spent more time with Rayon. In fact, one of the most moving scenes in the film is when Rayon goes to visit her father. The interaction is painful, tense, and says more about the insidious homophobia that infects people–so much that they disown their children– than anything else in the movie. At the same time, the scene is also an example of where Dallas Buyers Club and many true-to-life films fail…in the editing.

In that scene, there is no time to feel for Rayon and her father and the loss they each experience because it immediately cuts back to the main action. This is something that I have often noticed about films that are “based on a true story”; there is an insipid need to cram all of the important details in, making the editing choices more about efficient use of time and less about crafting the temporal space of the movie. Many biopics use this same editing strategy: Ray, W., Milk, and Frost/Nixon are all good examples. The problem arises when the script calls for too much reality to be compressed into a reasonable length of time for a movie. You simply cannot tell a life story in its entirety in 120 minutes or less, and even trying to tell a large part of a particularly active life in that time frame is an impossibility. Let me revise that – you can tell such stories in that time frame, but you shouldn’t.

Life is not a narrative arc. It happens over a series of moments that are only interrelated in a complex web constructed over the years, these connections rarely apparent until seen in hindsight. The connections are not singular either. No one’s life has just one meaning and the meaning of one’s life is neither simple nor compact enough to be summarized. It’s a better strategy to look at a moment in a life or one thread than to aim for comprehensiveness.

Perhaps with the recent  spate of excellence on the small screen, we may start to see biopic serials; just as we respond to fictional life stories with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, we might just be ready for real life stories (dramatically embellished of course), told episodically, the way life is actually structured.

Oscar Thoughts: Dallas Buyers Club is nominated for four Academy Awards. It’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor, Jared Leto.