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Everyone’s a Winner, Baby: “I, Tonya”, “The Disaster Artist” and the Modern Biopic

Watching certain genres over a number of years, patterns emerge.

A lot of this is down to success and influence. A lot of studio output is driven by what worked in the genre in recent years. This is why so many studios have tried to fashion their blockbusters into a “shared universe” after the success of The Avengers, or why so many franchise reboots went dark and gritty after The Dark Knight. However, other genres also shift in response to trendsetters, albeit in more subtle and nuanced manners. Some of these shifts can be attributed to critical response or awards success.

For example, following the success of Peter Morgan’s intimate and tightly-focused biographical scripts for The Queen or Frost/Nixon, a lot of biographies adopted a similar approach to their subjects, focusing on one particular incident in a life (or in two lives) that could provide a microcosm through which to explore big issues. This led to other biographies that tended to be built around specific events in the lives of their subjects rather than adopting a more holistic approach, like RushMy Weekend with MarilynHitchcock, Elvis and Nixon, Battle of the Sexes.

In the past two years, an interesting trend has emerged in terms of biographical pictures. Historically, biographies have tended to focus on historically noteworthy individuals who accomplished great things; Gandhi, The Aviator, My Left Foot, Milk. Even more ambivalent biographies were usually defined by the sense that those characters had changed the world; Nixon, J. Edgar, The Social Network. However, the last few years have seen an interesting shift away from characters who actually accomplished tangible change, and those who tried and failed.

To be fair, there have always been biographies that acknowledged the valour of a failed attempt. Cool Runnings was a film about a the Jamaican bobsled team in which the characters did not even finish their Olympic event. Even in terms of fictional sports films, Rocky famously ended with the title character defeated after struggling for the entire film. However, in these cases, the film often acknowledged the valour in the attempt. The Jamaican bobsled team were competing for the first time and changing preconceptions about their country. Rocky was trying to pull himself out of poverty.

In contrast, more modern biographies seem willing to engage with the idea of failure to the point of mockery, exploring characters who have arguably been reduced to pop culture punchlines. Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of a socialite who cannot sing who dreams of performing in front of a rapt audience. Eddie the Eagle is the story of an awful skier who dreams of making it to the top of his profession. The Disaster Artist is the story of an eccentric with delusions of grandeur who through sheer force of will makes what might be the worst movie of all time.

This represents an interesting shift away from many of the conventions of the biographical feature film, providing a sharp contrast with the high-profile prestige pieces that garnered awards and glory in the twentieth century. After all, these movies are not spoofs or comedies. They are not subversions of the biopic in the same way that Walk Hard might be considered to be, nor are they broad comedies adapted from real events like Thirty Minutes or Less. While these films include comedic elements, they are very clearly intended as serious works intended for serious contemplation.

So, what does this shift actually mean?

To be fair, it is probably easiest to contextualise the transition away from more traditional biographies to the more recent fare as part of a broader cultural shift. Irony has become the dominant cultural currency of the twenty-first century, with a lot of pop culture trading on a knowing self-awareness and wry detachment from the world. This infuses all aspects of popular culture, and all types of film. Captain America: Civil War is constructed as a thin analogy for the War on Terror and a meditation on liberty-versus-security, but the characters still joke and banter because this is a knowing comic book movie.

Earnestness has less culture cachet than it used to. This can be seen even looking at the recent winners of the Best Picture Oscar. Birdman is an arch and knowing meditation on the nature of celebrity that very consciously blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and it managed to win the top award when competing against a more sincere and traditional award narrative in the form of Boyhood. When La La Land went head-to-head with Moonlight, the Academy opted for a low-budget gritty indie film over a nostalgic and sincere paean to Hollywood’s history.

This is arguably part of a broader cultural trend. After all, the line between reality and fantasy is rapidly blurring. The world seems to exist in a surreal realm where the very concept of satire is outdated. It is impossible to take the world seriously, to legitimately argue for good old-fashioned values. In this context, sincerity and earnestness seem outdated, and it seems more legitimate to instead deconstruct those sacred cows, to challenge the assumptions inherent in these stories and to play with the audience’s expectations.

Indeed, many of these modern biographies seem to exist in part as a deconstruction of the expected norms of the biographical feature film. Another biography about a character who lives in infamy, I, Tonya features characters who offer openly conflicting accounts of events, while repeatedly pausing and redirecting the plot to advance their own subjective interests. The Disaster Artist repeatedly draws attention to various logical questions about its central character that it cannot answer, including his country of origin and the source of his income.

As such, these films might be read as an ironic and subversive twist on the very idea of a biographical film itself, satirising the suggestion that these types of films should follow a particular arc and are wedded to notions of success. It feels like a wry and knowing joke, to build biographical films about characters whose accomplishments are largely framed in what they couldn’t do, who managed to succeed to the extent that they did in spite of a lack of talent or vision. They are stories of infamy as much as fame.

In that sense, I, Tonya is very much part of this tradition. It is a film about an athlete of incredible ability, but whose sporting performance was horrifically overshadowed by her pursuit of fame and celebrity at any cost, to the point that the bulk of her narrative revolves around an attack on a fellow figure skater. The big climactic sporting moment of I, Tonya is consciously framed as an anticlimax, suggesting a nervous breakdown where anything that she might actually have accomplished (which is more than the subjects of most of these deconstructionist biopics) is lost in the surrounding chaos.

Eddie the Eagle, Florence Foster Jenkins and The Disaster Artist are stories about people who lacked talent by any objective measure. Their subjects would not rise to the top of their fields through their innate abilities. Indeed, it seems fair to argue that those three movies are anchored in characters with innate advantages that allowed them to talent over other worthier contenders. Eddie Edwards qualified for the 1988 Olympics by default. Florence Foster Jenkins had the luxury of incredible wealth to pursue her interests. The Disaster Artist describes Tommy Wiseau’s bank account as “a bottomless pit.”

Perhaps these biographies represent more than just a deconstruction of the celebrity biopic, but instead offer a reflection of contemporary society. The twenty-first century has heralded in an era of instant news and viral sensations, where the already highly volatile celebrity culture of the twentieth century has been heightened to an absurd degree. The current President of the United States is best known to the American public as the host of a reality television show. Celebrity candidates seem to be lining up for the next election cycle; Kanye West, The Rock, Kid Rock, Mark Zuckerberg.

There is a sense that fame is not the end result of talent or ability, but instead an aspiration of itself. Fame is a currency that can be parlayed into greater fame and more influence, with people whose primary claim to fame seems to be being famous in the first place. Eddie the Eagle, Florence Foster Jenkins and The Disaster Artist focus on the pursuit of this fame as an end of itself, rather than in service of a greater goal. These are characters who never seem to consider whether their creative aspirations are worthy of public attention, but instead assume it.

Indeed, The Disaster Artist acknowledges the absurdity of this idea of celebrity reflected back on itself. Tommy Wiseau claims to be from “the Bayou” in “New Orleans”, and insists that he is “American as apple pie.” He is monomaniacally focused on producing a “real American movie”, with the film acknowledging the absurdity of Tommy’s pursuit of authenticity through artifice. The Disaster Artist features a movie shot on a standing set for an alleyway rather than using a real alleyway, while a large number of scenes unfold on a green-screened rooftop.

The Disaster Artist is a movie in which the fantasy of celebrity has overtaken any tangible object, in which the measure of how real the movie is can be taken by the level of artifice involved. The Disaster Artist is a movie which suggests that the pursuit of intangible fame leads down a bizarre hall of mirrors, to the point that Tommy Wiseau even retroactively tries to claim the credit when his would-be masterpiece is transformed to a black comedy of epic proportions. Wiseau is so obsessed with being famous that anything resembling his vision can be adjusted after the fact to fit whatever celebrity he might accrue.

Celebrity was always a facet of American life. The Greatest Showman will focus on that most American of hucksters and an early master of celebrity, P.T. Barnum. However, the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle and then the development of social media only served to amplify this tendency. Films like I, Tonya and television series like American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson have even tried to tie these modern anxieties about a culture where fame is its own currency back to their period settings. Indeed, those last two examples neatly tie into one another.

To be fair, Eddie the Eagle, Florence Foster Jenkins and The Disaster Artist are openly sympathetic to their protagonists. These films find something endearing in the sheer pluck of their lead characters, in their refusal to conform to society’s expectations of them, to accept that they are not simply good enough to succeed. These characters simply do not have the talent to compete at the level to which they aspire, and the films never gloss over this fact. However, the films never seem to question the legitimacy of their efforts.

That said, The Disaster Artist acknowledges Wiseau’s difficult personality and possessive behaviour, but it remains in awe of the accomplishment of Wiseau succeeding on his own terms. After all, Wiseau is not the character who gets to play the hero. Greg describes Wiseau as “a villain”, while an acting coach suggests that he exploit his “malevolent presence” to further his career. Wiseau is repeatedly told that he will never make it, “not in a million years.” As such, the very act of getting his film produced (and seeing it acknowledged as a cult masterpiece) is ultimately vindication for the character.

Even I, Tonya remains sympathetic to its protagonist. The film repeatedly acknowledges the character’s technical accomplishments, and stresses the role that the character’s background (and her poverty) played in explaining her behaviour and her attitude. I, Tonya is perhaps the most candid of these biographical pictures, but it is still understanding of the character. The film seems to hold at least as much contempt for the audience and the establishment as it does for its own lead character.

Perhaps this compassion and this sympathy reflects the underlying fascination that drives these films. The American Dream is predicated on the idea that a sufficiently talented individual can accomplish anything that they set their mind to, that they can become anything that they want to be in America. However, the twenty-first century has seen a creeping cynicism around this idea. Increasingly, parents worry that their children will not have a better life than they did. There is anxiety around social mobility and movement. There is a tangible fear that the success promised by the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.

Biographies have long seized upon the inspiring sentiment that underlies the American Dream, arguing that an individual’s talent can radically change the world. Sports biographies are particularly invested in this idea, because sports is seen as a great social equaliser. Even fictional sports films like Rocky argue that sports can provide somebody from a lower economic background with an opportunity to escape the trappings of their lives, that with enough skill and effort they can climb the social ladder. In the twenty-first century, this prospect seems increasingly out of reach.

These biographies seem to exist in this context, deconstructing the idea that fame and success are tied to innate talent. Eddie the Eagle is obviously a story about a British character, but it clearly belongs in this milieu. Both I, Tonya and The Disaster Artist contextualise their characters’ struggles in light of the American Dream. Tommy Wiseau is (obviously) an immigrant trying to recreate his vision of America through green screens and weird sets. Ronald Reagan looms over the early scenes of I, Tonya, and characters repeatedly talk about Tonya’s relationship to America and to the American public.

In some ways, these biographies feel like a fundamental deconstruction underlying the assumptions made by most biographic feature films. The genre has long argued that talent is the key to success, and that success can change a person’s life and even the world. However, Eddie the Eagle, Florence Foster Jenkins, The Disaster Artist and I, Tonya seem to pointedly turn that notion on its head, asking their audience whether there is any tangible link between ability and success, between talent and celebrity, between skill and accomplishment.

The answers are not encouraging.

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