Here’s a pretty safe prediction: when the Oscars are handed out next February, the contest for best actress will come down to a duel between two icons, a bombshell and a battle-axe—between Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher, as portrayed by Michelle Williams and Meryl Streep. Oscar has always had a soft spot for biopics, especially if Brits, royals or showbiz icons are involved. The main event at the last Academy Awards was an unfair fight between The King’s Speech and The Social Network, as King George VI handily trumped the Machiavellian Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg. And as the current award season warms up, it looks like real-life figures will dominate the field as never before.
They are led by a trio of heavyweights: Streep’s Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Williams in My Week with Marilyn, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover in J. Edgar. Bringing up the rear in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method are Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung. The Lady adds a Nobelist wild card to the race with its portrait of Burmese opposition heroine Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh). Don’t count out Brad Pitt as Moneyball’s Billy Beane, the legendary manager who rewrote baseball’s bible and irrevocably changed the game. And trailing far behind the pack is W.E.’s Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), the woman who forced the abdication that gave us that stammering George VI.
In Hollywood, where making history is almost as important as making movies, the biopic craze shows no signs of slowing down. Steven Spielberg is currently shooting Lincoln, with Daniel Day Lewis carving out his own Rushmore portrait of the American president. And next year, ghostbuster Bill Murray gains gravitas as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson, which has FDR and Eleanor mingling with Queen Elizabeth and King George VI (him again).
So what’s driving Hollywood’s growing obsession with real-life legends? It’s a case of simple math. Conflate a Hollywood star with a historic icon and you have a compound celebrity, a formula for marquee value as old as Elizabeth Taylor starring in Cleopatra. But the current mania for biopics may point to a larger trend. “There’s a crisis in fiction,” according to Simon Curtis, the British director of My Week with Marilyn. “When you think of reality TV,” he told Maclean’s, “so much of our culture now is making fiction out of something real. I don’t know if we’re running out of fictional stories, but there does seem to be a cultural shift.”
Just as Hollywood now relies on comic-book heroes, storybook wizards and teen-lit vampires for its blockbuster franchises, it plunders real-life icons for Oscar-pedigree films. The logic remains the same: it’s easier to sell a movie built around a character the audience knows. Today’s biopics, unlike Cleopatra, tend not to be blockbusters. J. Edgar cost only $35 million, with DiCaprio decimating his fee to $2 million; The Iron Lady cost $13 million; My Week with Marilyn $10 million. But Spielberg, the Cecil B. DeMille of our age, is a special case: he’s planning a full-blown biopic about Moses called Gods and Kings. Chances are it won’t come cheap.
The urge to rebrand historic icons goes beyond marketing, however. For the aging gods and kings of Hollywood’s pantheon, it taps into their romance with the past, and with the faded grandeur of cinema. There’s no better example than Hugo. Martin Scorsese’s enchanting foray into children’s entertainment turns into a backhanded biopic of Georges Méliès, a French magician-turned-filmmaker who pioneered special effects in the early 1900s and made over 500 now-extinct films—all melted down to make boot heels in the First World War. Scorsese uses 3-D as an immersing display case to restore the lost childhood of film itself.
The biopic is cinema’s most literal attempt to conjure the past. To reincarnate Monroe or Thatcher is a magic trick. Which is why the Academy votes for characters as much as for actors—for Ray Charles and Elizabeth II, not just for Jamie Foxx and Helen Mirren. Expect Marilyn vs. Margaret to be one helluva cage match.