By Ross Stewart
In a popularity contest it is fair to say that Margaret Thatcher would not rate very highly. In fact feelings about her are so strong in some parts of Britain that cancer would be more popular. However the same can’t be said for Meryl Streep the actress who portrayed her in ‘The Iron Lady’. She recently won a Golden Globe for her eerily accurate Thatcher performance. I’m pretty sure Streep didn’t win this award because Thatcher was an audience favourite from the start.
No, she won it because she managed to make Maggie, if not likeable, then at the very least tolerable and maybe ever so slightly sympathetic. I’m sure things like characterisation; nuance and other acting techniques helped her win too. She is after all a bloody good actress. Just watch the scene in ‘Mamma Mia’ where she has to listen to Pierce Brosnan sing without shoving her fists into her brain to make the noise stop. She doesn’t even flinch.
The question remains why anyone would think a film like ‘The Iron Lady’ could possibly be successful. You only have to take one look at the posters with the image of Meryl in her Thatcher curls and pearls to realise that it’s going to be a hard sell. Her big pale face leering off the side of buses is enough to scare minors and…eh…miners.
However, with a relatively low budget and an award winning actress in the lead it is doing surprisingly well at the box office. So who is to blame for a biopic about one of the most divisive figures in recent history? Well, let’s blame the Queen, her stuttering father and that Facebook guy.
Let’s start with the Queen or more accurately ‘The Queen’ (2006). Despite looking like a TV movie and de-glamorising Helen Mirren ‘The Queen’ was a modest hit and managed to help us empathise with HRH by suggesting that she does indeed have emotions despite acting like a mindless automaton every time she has to mingle with the lower classes (i.e. everyone).
‘The Queen’ while not strictly being an extensive biopic (it takes place over the week of Diana’s funeral) re-ignited an interest in the biopic film. Especially as in this case filmmakers didn’t have to look at the subject over their lifetime, instead they could focus on one particular chapter in their life. This is especially true of the next film to focus on the Royals, the multi award winning ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010). The film chose to focus on King George’s ascendancy to the throne and the stammer he had to overcome on the way. The reason this film was successful is because it follows a strict Hollywood template. George starts off unsure, gains confidence, loses it for a bit then overcomes the odds for a triumphant ending. It’s effectively ‘Rocky’ for stutterers.
The other biopic around this time was David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ which focused on the creation of Facebook by Mark Zuckerburg and his subsequent success and failure. This took the familiar Rocky structure but twisted it to show that while Zuckerburg achieved financial success he managed to alienate those around him and end up a lonely figure.
Biopics that focus on a specific timeframe usually use the ‘rags to riches, overcoming adversity’ on the one hand and the ‘had everything but threw it away’ on the other. ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘The Social Network’ are both variations on these classic themes and thus have been successful.
The other type of biopic (and one that ‘The Iron Lady’ follows) is telling the story of someone’s life over a much larger period of time. This allows filmmakers to provide a greatest hits of the subjects’ life; a recent example of this would be ‘The Aviator’ which follows the highs and very lows of the pioneering Howard Hughes over a 20 year period. DiCapro’s next film is another biopic, this time of the less loveable but no less pioneering J.Edgar Hoover in ‘J.Edgar’. Presumably calling it Hoover would mean it would suggest that it sucks.
Biopics are by and large very successful because they follow strict film conventions, but also because thay are part of a true life story which somehow makes it feel worthier. Why else do you think biopics are normally nominated for awards even if the films themselves are merely average? Prime examples would be A Beautiful Mind, Ray, Ali and the very overrated Braveheart.
Braveheart for all its historical inaccuracies and bloated running time does at least have something that most biopics would kill for. The death of the protagonist. There is no finer way to end a story about someone’s life than with their death. In this case a horrifically violent death is treated as something victorious and heartwarming as William Wallace cries out ‘FREEDOM’ with his last breath. I’m sure many people wish ‘The Iron Lady’ had a similar ending except without the triumph and heartwarming bits. Keep the torture and beheading though.
5 Biopics we need to see
A harrowing trip through the life of Noel as he moves through the decades without changing his appearance, personality or dress sense. Features scenes of Mr. Blobby orgies and ferocious beard trimming. Played by Michael Sheen.
A North Korean production in which the life of their dearly departed leader is told honestly and realistically. A triumphant scene where Kim Jong-Il saves the world by head butting an asteroid back into space is apparently slightly exaggerated. Slightly. Played by a kidnapped and clearly terrified Michael Sheen.
The heartwarming tale of an emotionless robot who grew up to become a semi successful radio presenter. In the process she develops actual human emotions. It doesn’t show. Played by a glum Michael Sheen.
Two hours of ear splitting horror which is subsequently used as a form of torture on suspected terrorists. Terrorism ends. Played by
A very Meta film about the life of Michael Sheen who has lost his personality amid those of Tony Blair, Kenneth Williams, David Frost and Brian Clough. Weirdly Sheen is played by Steve Coogan…and Michael Sheen.