More Than Ever, Feel-Good Biopics Have an Edge

"The King's Speech" is favored in the original screenplay category.

Through the years, the Academy has favored one-legged ballplayers, Opera-singing polio victims and riled-up do-gooders. Are today’s nominees on target?

If, as many awards gurus predict, Aaron Sorkin and David Seidler win Oscars for writing The Social Network and The King’s Speech, respectively, it will be the first time in history that biographical screenplays will have won in both writing categories, adapted and original.

Although the odds seem tougher, the same would be true if Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy’s adaptation of 127 Hours and the original by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson for The Fighter prevailed. Either way, the “reality” factor has recently become more popular with Academy voters than ever before, accounting for four of the 10 writing nominations this year. Biographically derived motion pictures released between 2000 and 2009 received 14 screenplay nominations, the most in any decade since the Academy began bestowing awards. During the 1990s there were 13.

Since the dawn of talkies, 21 films that were predominantly biographical have won writing Oscars of one kind or another, out of 86 nominations. While the nature of Hollywood biographies has changed and broadened over the years, The King’s Speech has one thing in common with a majority of its predecessors that The Social Network, at least in primary intent, does not: It is inspirational in nature.

The first two biographical films to win writing Oscars, in 1937 and 1938, were Warner Bros.’ seriously venerating studies of two major 19th century French figures: The Story of Louis Pasteur, about the pioneering chemist, written by Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney, and The Life of Emile Zola, concerning the writer and social crusader, scripted by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine. Both films starred Paul Muni. The following year, MGM’s schmaltzy Boys Town, in which Spencer Tracy portrayed the altruistic Father Flanagan, founder of a school for juvenile delinquents, won a statuette for Dore Schary’s original story.

None of these, nor any of the five other biographies nominated in the 1930s — Rasputin and the Empress, Viva Villa!, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld and Young Mr. Lincoln — seems especially germane to the time they were made in the way such films would in later decades. The only biographical film during the 1940s to win for best screenplay — the stately and wooden hagiography of the nation’s World War I president, Wilson — was expressly written by Lamar Trotti for producer Darryl F. Zanuck to bolster support for World War II. The same impulse lay behind two patriotic war films that received nominations, Sergeant York and The Sullivans, as well as the musical biography Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The other nominees included two more in the genius-scientist subgenre, Edison, the Man and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, plus the musical Jolson Sings Again and the ultra-low-budget gangster film Dillinger. The Stratton Story, about a one-legged baseball player, copped a best story win for Douglas Morrow.

Two other great films from the period are relevant, even though they can’t strictly be called biographies because their central figures were fictionalized. In 1941, Charles Chaplin was nominated for his script for The Great Dictator, in which he portrayed a ruler who was Hitler in everything but name. The following year, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles won for their original screenplay Citizen Kane, which is only slightly less about William Randolph Hearst than The Social Network is about Mark Zuckerberg.

Six of the eight bio-scripts nominated in the 1950s were about real-life performers or artists. The only winners among the octet, both  in 1956, were studies of beleaguered female singers: Love Me or Leave Me, about the scandal-plagued chanteuse Ruth Etting, for the screen story by Daniel Fuchs, and Interrupted Melody, for which William Ludwig and Sonya Levien won original story and screenplay for their study of opera singer Marjorie Lawrence’s battle back from polio. Nominated scripts about creative men were The Glenn Miller Story, The Eddy Duchin Story, Lust for Life and Man of a Thousand Faces.

Royals and political/military figures dominated the eight nominated biographical films of the 1960s, most of which reached well into the past. The winners, all based on distinguished plays, were Becket, adapted by Edward Anhalt; A Man for All Seasons, by original playwright Robert Bolt; and The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, also the stage drama’s author. The decade’s other nominees were Lawrence of Arabia, Freud, Khartoum, the royal-centric Anne of the Thousand Days and Bonnie and Clyde — the only American-set film of the bunch and one with a setting and period any number of people of a certain age would have experienced personally.

The 1970s saw some new types of people serving as the subjects of the nine biographical films nominated for their scripts, as well as a shrinking period between current days and those onscreen. Two were about New York City cops: The French Connection, for which Ernest Tidyman won for best adaptation in 1972, and Serpico. Yet another was about a relatively contemporary activist, Norma Rae. Two were about counterculture heroes: Lenny and Bound for Glory. The other winners were Patton, an original screenplay about the World War II general by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, and Julia, an adaptation by Alvin Sargent, about author Lillian Hellman and her Nazi-fighting friend. The other two nominees were in more traditional bio modes: Lady Sings the Blues and Young Winston.

The 1980s, when 10 biographies received writing nominations, saw the political-activist model blossom for the Academy. The winner among them was Gandhi, with John Briley honored for his original screenplay, and other contenders in this group included Coal Miner’s Daughter, Reds, Silkwood, Salvador, Gorillas in the Mist and Born on the Fourth of July. The decade’s other winners were looks at artists — Amadeus, adapted by playwright Peter Shaffer, and Out of Africa, adaptation by Kurt Luedtke — and royal epic The Last Emperor, written by Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci.

In the 1990s, portraits of artists further increased in popularity among Oscar voters, with five of the decade’s 13 biographical script nominations being so oriented. The only winner among them was Gods and Monsters, a heavily fictionalized look at film director James Whale, adapted by Bill Condon, but also nominated were Shadowlands, Quiz Show, Shine and Topsy-Turvy. The only other biographical script to win was Schindler’s List, adapted by Steven Zaillian. The others were the gangster-showbiz mix Bugsy, the royal portrait The Madness of King George, the presidential Nixon, the epic Braveheart and three that were quite contemporaneous — Reversal of Fortune, Donnie Brasco and The Insider.

During the past decade, when a record 14 Oscar-nominated scripts featured biographical underpinnings, the subjects and natures of the films varied ever more widely. The three winners centered on distinctly unusual individuals: an unstable mathematician in A Beautiful Mind, adapted by Akiva Goldsman; a Polish musician who survives the Nazis in The Pianist, adapted by Ronald Harwood; and a gay activist-turned-politician in Milk, written by Dustin Lance Black.

Five more nominees focused on figures involved in the arts in the widest sense: American Splendor, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. British royalty popped up yet again in The Queen; a familiar American president returned in Frost/Nixon; political activists were center stage in Erin Brockovich, Hotel Rwanda and The Motorcycle Diaries; and a race horse was the subject of Seabiscuit.

It seems likely that, with screenwriters increasingly uninhibited about tackling vital living figures and with “reality” in all of its manifestations preoccupying the public’s leisure time to an ever-accelerating degree, we will see more biographical films akin to The Social Network, set in something very close
to the current day.

It is also possible that contemporary activist do-gooder types are now the most likely candidates as subjects for modern inspirational films. Still, the past is always more reassuring than the present, which is why there will always be room for films like The King’s Speech, in which history can be molded in such a way to persuade viewers that if those imperfect characters made it through those hard times, then we can probably make it through our own.