This article was written on 16 Jun 2013, and is filled under Film & TV, Theory.

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The Platonic Academy (On the Oscars and Contemporary Biopics)

Despite the allegedly minor status of the genre, a very high number of Oscars have gone to actors and actresses engaged in biopic performances in recent years. These biographical reenactments are regarded as the highest exercise of acting virtuosity according to the aesthetic norms validated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Since 1998, at least one of the four Oscars for acting, in leading or supporting roles, has been awarded to a biopic performance each year. Even more significant is the fact that, since 2000, up to 38 biopic performances have been nominated for Best Actor and Actress, and of those, fifteen of them have won an Oscar. The list of actors and actresses who recently received the Oscar after interpreting biopics is extensive. Examples of these awards for performance of an actor in a leading role range from Jamie Foxx (Ray, 2004) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, 2005) to Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, 2011) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln, 2012). Julia Roberts was awarded the Oscar in 2000 for becoming the iconic lawyer Erin Brockovich –her padded bra being a crucial aspect of her ‘earthy’ impersonation –and biopic performances were so popular in the past decade that they monopolized the category of Best Actress in Leading Role for three consecutive years between 2005 and 2007: The otherwise forgettable actress Reese Witherspoon obtained the award for interpreting Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter in Walk the Line; a year later, Hellen Mirren was recognized for transforming herself into Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen; and in 2007 the Oscar went to a French actress for the first time in history, after Marion Cotillard became Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. In this context of impersonation fever, it was not surprising at all that Meryl Streep received the Oscar in 2011 for interpreting Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Our age of simulacra, Jean Baudrillard argues, cannot be explained in terms of original vs. copy, for now images weightlessly float in a space of hyperreality open to potentially infinite syntagmatic connections in the absence of a final reference. (Prior to Baudrillard, most versions of (post)structural poetics tended to operate in non-referential terms as well, mainly due to Ferdinand de Saussure’s influential notion of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign). Andy Warhol’s photographic sequences have been often described as the epitome of an era in which autonomous artworks that stand for nothing but themselves. In his essay “Living Stories: Performance in the Contemporary Biopic” (in Cornea 76-95), Dennis Bingham relates the biopic to the postmodern episteme when he asserts that it is “no accident that the biopic performance would reach a point of perfection in the postmodern world when the simulacrum, the synthesis, becomes the standard” (78-9). My claim is the opposite: that Hollywood has privileged the copy over the simulacrum in a very Platonic fashion.

It is well known how, in The Republic, Plato restricts mimetic operations to a narrow range of contents tailored to educate the guardians of the ideal State, while he condemns a broad notion of mimesis for constituting an operation that it is doubly removed from the Ideas. When I define the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a Platonic body, however, I do not have in mind his take on mimesis in The Republic as much as his approach to this issue in his later dialogue The Sophist. In The Sophist, Plato adopts an intermediary stance in order to navigate Parmenides’ monism and the relativism of sophists. Plato acknowledges that those copies that maintain a relation of resemblance to the original, products of what he terms as figurative technique (“téchné eikastiké”), participate in some degree in the essence of Being. But the counterpart to this positive gesture is his plan to track and hunt down –the hunting metaphor is central in this passage (235a-236d)– those who are makers of simulacrum (“phántasma”), the result of a technique that produces appearances (“techné phantastiké”). We are thus presented with what Gilles Deleuze defined as “good” and “bad” copies based on the criteria of similarity and dissimilarity.

On a general level, the Academy of Arts has embraced the Platonic distinction between good and bad copies by continually awarding the Oscars to a series of acting performances that privilege actuality over any sort of critical distance. Additionally, the Hollywood Academy has constructed an archive of Western (mostly Anglo-American) celebrities, a centripetal movement that reacts to the exposure to Eastern films that has characterized international film festivals lately. Thanks to this cultural and historical archive, the spectators can learn, for example, about Abraham Lincoln, who overcame partisan politics to eventually pass the thirteenth amendment shortly before his assassination; King George VI of England, who humbled himself to the point that he accepted the unconventional methods of an Australian speech therapist, and was eventually able to broadcast on the radio England’s declaration of war on Germany  in 1939; Queen Elizabeth II, who apparently lost the support of her subjects after her refusal to display sorrow for Lady Di’s death; and the American author Truman Capote, who developed a personal relationship with two murderers sentenced to death in Kansas in order to obtain first-hand materials for his revolutionary novel In Cold Blood. In these films the viewers can enjoy the presence of real footage (the English royal family in The Queen, for example) as well as scenes containing literal reproductions of iconic photographs, such as the pictures of Capote with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, taken by the fashion photographer Richard Avedon.

Besides the construction of a pantheon of celebrities, the Hollywood biopic can also crystallize in narratives of redemption that acquire meaning in a context of celebration of the virtues of the American democracy. Julia Roberts, for example, obtained the Oscar for embodying Erin Brockovich in the homonymous film (2000), the story being that of an environmental activist who, despite her lack of formal education, wins a historical anti-pollution lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. In The Blind Side (2009), Sandra Bullock became Leigh Anne Tuohy, the stepmother of a troubled African-American young man who becomes an NFL player thanks to her generous mentorship. Bullock, mainly known for action films and average comedies, received the Oscar in a year in which four of the five actresses were nominated for their work in a biopic. This second version of the biopic continues the propagandistic tone of films such as Forrest Gump (“you can achieve the American dream no matter your limitations”) yet with an attenuation of parodic elements and a higher emphasis on the actuality of the events. The ideological implications of these alleged slices of reality are obvious: The more transparent the medium is, or seems to be, the more the ideological message can be conveyed as a naturalized entity.

While the good copies are publicly celebrated, as shown above, the false imitations are obviously more difficult to trace. There are cases in which the bad copy is condemned for replicating a fragment of reality that we are not willing to see re-enacted. This is the conviction behind Bingham’s negative evaluation of Geoffrey Rush’s impersonation of Peter Sellers in The Life and Death of Peters Sellers (2004): “The brilliance and truthfulness of Rush’s portrayal and of the film’s concept are almost wrecked, however, by moments in which Rush competes with Sellers in movie scenes that many fans know by heart, such as President Muffley’s phone call to the Soviet premier in Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Inspector Clouseau’s ‘Fact!’ speech in A Shot in the Dark (1964)” (90). When Bingham affirms that “to have Geoffrey Rush try out alternate line readings on a universally known Peter Sellers performance is simply ill-advised mimicry” (90), he is echoing Plato’s criticism of the copy that is doubly removed from the original – Sellers being a “universally known” fictional figure.

But, when it comes to condemning the simulacrum, the official impostor for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has the name of Jim Carrey. Previously regarded as an inoffensive comedian, he was critically acclaimed for his change of registry in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Carrey’s new status as ‘serious’ actor was confirmed when he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama for his work in this film, in 1999; but, to the surprise of many, he was not even nominated for the Oscar. A year later, in 2000, he obtained his second Golden Globe for playing Andy Kaufman in Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon (1999). In his second winning speech Carrey made ironic reference to his not being nominated for the Oscar the previous year, despite the critical appraisal he had received for The Truman Show: “Gosh! Another one… Second year in a row. What’s going on, man? I’m the establishment “I was rejected” … “I’m the Tom Hanks of the Golden Globes!” That year, Jim Carrey did not receive an Oscar nomination for Man on the Moon either. This was the confirmation that doing a biopic was not enough for somebody who had showed (too) many different faces in his acting career without need of retorting to a transformational rhetoric connected to psychological realism. For the Academy, Carrey was still a funny trickster but not a real artist, a figure comparable to the juggler under attack in Plato’s The Sophist.

Oddly enough, the Academy picked Carrey to deliver the presentation speech for a secondary Oscar that same year of 2000, a decision that gave Carrey the opportunity to stage his personal revenge by performing a final trick from his sleeve. When the time came to present the Oscar, Carrey entered the stage adopting pretty standard body language and facial gestures, and saluted the audience with apparent irony: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m here tonight to present the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing. That’s… all I’m here to do. I have nothing else to worry about. I can just show up and enjoy the parties”. Most of the attendants applauded the joke while he looked at them in silence, as if enjoying the few seconds of glory that he apparently deserved. But then Carrey broke into tears, struggling to recompose his figure and saying to himself that, after all, “winning the Oscar is not the most important thing in the world”, to the amusement of most of the audience. Not everyone in the Kodak theatre, however, interpreted his tears as fake tears – Sofia Loren, for example, seemed genuinely concerned about Carrey, probably unaware of his reputation of great pretender. Carrey’s speech was far more complex than a simple lying act, since he kept modulating his body, face and voice to communicate contradictory meanings (the frivolous comedian who does not care about the establishment, the naïve man who thought this would be finally his year, and so on) that complicated the distinction between reality and fiction, true and false copy. Rather than wearing a mask, what Carrey did was masterfully deploying one mask after another, pretty much in the same way that Andy Kaufman, the eccentric entertainer who inspired Man of the Moon, had done both in his professional career and his life. It could be said that Jim Carrey’s masterful simulacrum of speech was a more truthful act than the copies that are supposed to be faithful imitations of our reality.


– Andrés Pérez-Simón

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