Why Do Biopics Keep Failing Great Actresses?

Once again, we are at the time of year when most film criticism and entertainment writing must contend with the final push of awards season to the Academy Awards. Speaking for myself, this is not because I think that the Academy Awards are that vital to film criticism, but because it is the way that the majority of Americans interact with what it means for a film to be “good.” The number of Academy Award nominations a movie gets is shorthand for those who don’t obsessively follow festivals and release calendars to compile a list of movies they should watch. For better or worse, the Academy Awards are effectively the first draft of film history in that they are a cultural institution that still projects sway on how people consume films. Yet I sit here stewing about a constant part of the awards season that annoys me every year: why do Oscar-bait biopics about famous women continue to fail our best actresses? 

The thought came roaring back to mind while I watched The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021). Lee Daniels’ film chronicles roughly 20 years of jazz singer and activist Billie Holiday’s (Andra Day) life, focusing on two interconnected battles that defined her life: first, performing her anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” even as the F.B.I. fought to silence her, and second, her heroin addiction, which the F.B.I. saw as an opportunity to harass and frame her through the D.E.A. The resulting film is a paint-by-numbers “tortured artist” story that squanders Holiday’s titanic life story by attempting to squeeze it into recognizable beats and images. I could not get last year’s awards contender Judy (2019), which netted Renée Zellwegger an Oscar for her portrayal of similarly drug-addled singer Judy Garland, out of my head. Garland and Holiday had vastly different lives, namely because Holiday was forced to deal with racism and the ensuing violence in ways the white Garland never did. Yet, functionally, both women’s stories are shoehorned to fit the same rise and fall narrative, punctuated by performances of their greatest songs and painful scenes of the abuse they suffered at the hands of the men in their lives. It is lazy writing and filmmaking that is a disservice to the legacies of the people these films depict. It also sets a terrible precedent that the only women worthy of biopics are those who have been abused, drawing a discomforting line between greatness and trauma that should not be glorified into the realm of biopic archetype.

Why is it that every year around awards season we are forced to write the requisite “x actress was phenomenal in y biopic that otherwise failed” reviews? I already mentioned Judy, but last year also consigned Cynthia Erivo to the same fate in Harriet (2019), and back down the line you can go, picking up Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), Jennifer Lawrence in Joy (2015), and two-for-one year with Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs (2011) and Streep (again) in The Iron Lady (2011). This is not to say that biopics do not fail male actors the same way, but there are far more meaty roles and possibilities for them, and therefore the phenomena in that Best Actor category angers me less because, for every stinker like Darkest Hour (2017), you can also turn to a The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) or Steve Jobs (2015) to see great writers and directors taking pains to tell nuanced and artful stories about notable figures. Audiences fawn over male movie stars donning make-up and accents to play historical figures of import, but the standard of quality we accept for the movies around our female performers is stark in contrast to the degree of success regularly turned in when it’s a male performer in the featured role. It strikes me that the biopic brings the dearth of opportunities for actresses into stark relief: great actresses have to settle for giving notable lead performances in mediocre to bad major productions in order to gain awards recognition far more than great actors do. 

What makes it all the more infuriating to me is that in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, as is the case in many preceding Oscar-bait films, Day’s central performance is breathtaking. The way that she, a first-time lead actress, dominates the screen is definitional of movie stardom. Day is a singer by vocation, so it’s no surprise that she is captivating in the performance scenes, but there is no letdown in her magnetism once she steps off those stages. Her performance seizes you and never lets go, cycling between charisma, agony, and melancholy in affecting ways. Day achieves this in spite of performing in a mediocre film that does little to match the power she brings to the screen. Daniels’ directing is scattershot and chaotic, bouncing between palettes and stylizations in confusing ways that fail to serve the narrative. In one stretch, we are in a decidedly verité feel where we exist as a fly-on-the-wall to the backstage goings-on, but then we whiplash into a hyper-stylized stretch full of black-and-white and double exposures. It is a testament to Day’s performance that through all of it she maintains a blistering pathos. 

Of course, this becomes all the more nauseating when you consider what Black actresses are faced with. Day is only the fourteenth Black woman to be nominated in the Best Actress category, thirteenth if you count Viola Davis, who is also nominated this year for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), before her. Of the preceding twelve other nominated actresses, five of them were nominated for playing a notable Black historical figure, including Diana Ross in 1972 for previously playing Billie Holiday. Considering those roles alongside the remaining nominations not tied to biopics, a total of nine of them are for roles that see the nominated actress suffer deeply on screen, and in many cases, die by the end of the film. The lesson seems clear: if a Black woman wants to be nominated for an Academy Award, she needs to portray one of a small pool of Black historical women that the Academy sees as “important,” and if you can’t do that, you better get beat up and/or have a drug addiction. I highlight this not to take away from the superb work that each of the nominated women turned in for their respective roles, but to point out that the lane for Black actresses to gain Oscars recognition is so narrow that the choices for trying to get there are ludicrously sparse. The Academy Awards are the film industry’s biggest stage, a launching pad for greater stardom and more sway in terms of deciding future projects, and it is a simple truth that Black actresses are kept away from that possibility to extend their careers because of the way Hollywood and the Academy produces and recognizes their performances. 

In the coming weeks, I will spend an inordinate amount of time breaking down the races in major categories leading up to the Academy Awards, and one of them will be the Best Actress race. I have one more nominated performance to see, but unless that performance blows my mind, I will be pulling for Day to walk away with the statuette on April 25th. Her performance is riveting and left me thinking of all the incredible work she could do next. I do not think The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a good movie, but I hope that what Day was able to do in it drives her forward towards great movies. More broadly, I hope that the structural changes in the Academy voting body and the pressure on studios to rethink how they make movies will carry us on to a point where we have to write fewer pieces spotlighting memorable work from great actresses despite bad movies. Biopics are failing our actresses, especially our Black actresses, and Hollywood needs to take a long look at why that is the case and eradicate the cultural and economic norms that perpetuate such deficiency. 

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