By Liv Barry
If you have visited a movie theater within the past five years, chances are you have sat down to watch a biopic.
They are inescapable; according to Slash Film, biographical films compose almost a quarter of the 581 films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
While there is a plethora of subgenres to choose from — crime, war, music — these films often land on one topic in particular: exploitation.
In the age of social media, audiences are obsessed with scandal. True crime culture primed consumers to get to the bottom of “untold stories,” and spectacle sells.
According to Billboard, Baz Luhrman’s “Elvis” grossed almost $270 million this summer, marking the film as the second highest-grossing music biopic of all time after “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
While marketed as a typical “cradle to grave” biography, “Elvis” surprised viewers after it was revealed that Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ infamously exploitative manager depicted by Tom Hanks, narrated the film.
Throughout the movie, Elvis’ struggles with drugs, alcohol, and money are undermined by Parker’s manipulation.
While only briefly addressed in the film, Elvis continued this cycle of exploitation. He capitalized off of Black musicians, taking credit for songs like Ellie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up” by Otis Blackwell. Elvis also manipulated his wife, Priscilla Presley, who met Elvis at age 14.
Behind the scenes, “Elvis” star Austin Butler was exploited for the sake of his method acting.
According to Vulture, Luhrman had RCA Records executives heckle Butler to prepare him for the single scene in “Elvis” where he is heckled.
“I had spoken to Leo [DiCaprio] before and he said, ‘Baz is gonna push you in ways you didn’t know somebody could. He’s gonna push you off balance and keep you off balance,’” said Butler. “You gotta be off-balance if you want to get the wiggle right.”
In an interview for GQ, Butler revealed that his method immersion was so intense that he was hospitalized the day after filming for “Elvis” wrapped.
The upcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde” is expected to explore similar themes of exploitation.
Earlier this year, it was widely reported that “Blonde” received an NC-17 rating for explicit sexual content. Director Andrew Dominik said that the film will have “… something in it to offend everyone.”
While Monroe’s cultural legacy is primarily defined by her status as a sex icon, many were upset by the prospect of excessive sexual content in “Blonde.”
“The thing about Marilyn Monroe is that her entire life was full of exploitation. You can’t make a movie about her, [biographical] or fictitious, without acknowledging that. The issue isn’t that Blonde is doing what it’s doing. It’s that it’s doing it in the ways that it is,” said Twitter user @Miguel_Kneeful.
The film is based on Carol Joyce Oates’ biographical novel of the same name, which was criticized upon its release for exploiting Monroe.
“Oates is unable to resist the lurid thrill of the tabloid imagination,” said Guardian writer Cressida Connolly.
She denounced the author for painting a dehumanizing picture of Monroe, in which the actress was an “emblematic figure” rather than a fully realized person.
History is rife with exploitation, so it might be impossible to entirely sever plotlines concerning manipulation from biopics, but Connolly raises a pertinent question about how biographical material frames its subjects.
So long as audiences view public figures as near-mythological symbols, the question of how much creators can humanize their subjects might never be answered.
Box office numbers and award show buzz prove that audiences have an appetite for exploitation, so for now, the star might have to take a backseat to the spectacle.
Photo curtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Caption: The career of music giant Elvis Presley is explored in Baz Luhrman’s “Elvis,” which was recently re-released in theaters to mark the 45th anniversary of the star’s death.