400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
This year we've got at least three biopics jockeying for space in the year-end awards, just like every year. Biopics continue alternately to fascinate and disappoint me. I've already written at length about how these movies tend to be roughly the same, following much the same format and formula (and brilliantly spoofed in last year's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). And I've written about how they're instant award-magnets, causing nearly every artist in Hollywood to scour every last barrel bottom for any famous person's life story that hasn't yet been filmed. So for them, here's a handy dandy field guide to getting awards.
Best Bet: War heroes or political figures. In 1970, was any other movie going to beat Patton for a bunch of Oscars? Robert Altman's M*A*S*H may have been more popular and more artistic, but it didn't have Patton. In 1982, Gandhi beat out the infinitely superior Blade Runner. Schindler's List (1993) counts too. So does Erin Brockovich (2000). And this year, though I'm not ready to bet the farm just yet, it looks like Milk (309 screens) could be the big winner. Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon (205 screens) will probably get some nominations this year, but it's hard for old Tricky Dick to stack up against Harvey. Exceptions to the rule: you have to clearly define your character as either a hero or a villain. Sorry Oliver Stone, no Nixon or W. Malcolm X (1992) came close, but it was a bit too subversive for voters. Forest Whitaker's award-winning Idi Amin was actually the villain of that film, so his purpose was clear. This year Steven Soderbergh's Che (2 screens) is worthy, but a bit too complex for voters, failing to explain whether or not they should actually like Che.
Second Best Bet: Beloved Musicians. Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles are all good choices. They're elegant, refined, classical and wouldn't look out of place on the "Tonight Show." Bad choices include punk singers Sid Vicious and Darby Crash (in this year's What We Do Is Secret), or the guy who killed John Lennon (i.e. Chapter 27). It gets a little shadier when we get into classic rock 'n' roll. Movies about Elvis have rarely done well, and even a good Beatles movie like Backbeat (1994) went ignored. This year's Cadillac Records (180 screens) probably doesn't have a chance, for example. But Bob Dylan last year did pretty well at the Oscars with I'm Not There, so you never know. (Note: painters like Frida and Pollock reside in this category as well.) Better to stick with folks like Beethoven, Frank Sinatra or Duke Ellington. It'll be interesting to see what Don Cheadle does with his upcoming Miles Davis project. It could go either way...
Third Best Bet: Actors and/or Writers. Hollywood is already full of these, so Academy voters aren't easily impressed. One writer biopic won Best Picture all the way back in 1937 (The Life of Emile Zola), but more recent ones, like Quills (2000) or Sylvia (2003), died quickly. Chaplin (1992) earned a nomination for Robert Downey Jr., and Nicole Kidman won for playing Virginia Woolf, but that movie was about more than just her life. On a final note, you can do well with playing an athlete, but you probably won't get anywhere if you're playing a real-life stripper or a porn star. (See Wonderland and The Notorious Bettie Page). But you can play a serial killer (see Monster), given that they are treated as serious news items and can be seen as some kind of reflection of society. See you at the Oscars!