This year, the race for Best Actor at the 2020 Academy Awards looks set to be an extremely tough race. The list of potential nominees is a highly impressive one, with some of the industry’s most beloved and critically adored figures in competition with some of the best performances of their careers. There’s Antonio Banderas, whose latest collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory sees him doing some of his best work in decades. Adam Driver has won over many critics with his sharp but tender performance in Marriage Story, while Joaquin Phoenix’s full-throated reinterpretation of a pop culture idol in Joker has some experts positioning him as the year’s front-runner. We could be here all day talking about worthwhile candidates, from Willem Dafoe and Eddie Murphy to Adam Sandler and Leonardo DiCaprio. Some film journalists spend all year predicting the nominees, with lists chopping and changing as reviews pour in and buzz dissipates. However, there was one name I saw consistently pop up in predictions for many months before critics and audiences even saw a second of footage: Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis in The Two Popes.
It’s not hard to see why the role would be considered Oscar bait in any way: It’s a biographical drama about an imagined conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and his soon-to-be successor, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis. Pryce is a celebrated actor of stage and screen who has never been nominated for an Oscar before and he is certainly very good in The Two Popes, embodying the wry spirit and humble devotion of the Jesuit priest who, to many, became the future of the Catholic Church. It’s not a loud or brash performance and there are no flashy Oscar clip moments but it’s very much cut from the same cloth of biopic acting that the Academy has historically favored. Those are all understandable reasons why Pryce was considered as a Best Actor nominee the moment 2020 predictions began, however, the driving force behind that confidence came now from the actor, the director, or the source material: It’s all thanks to the screenwriter.
Over the past five years, the appearance of Anthony McCarten’s name in a film’s credits has filled me with a weary sense of dread. The New Zealand-born novelist, playwright, and filmmaker has emerged over this decade as a golden charm for actors looking to cinch Oscar gold, even as critical responses to his work ranges from reasonable warmth to borderline disgust. Prior to The Two Popes, McCarten has written or had a hand in writing three movies: Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, and The Theory of Everything. Many common elements bind these projects but the one that remains the most notable is that each film won its leading men — Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne — the Best Actor Oscar. No wonder Jonathan Pryce feels like a dark horse to win in 2020.
While McCarten’s creative output is not exclusively biopic-based, the most recent glut of his career has been defined by the oft-maligned genre on the big screen. For anyone seeking to gain a foothold into the middlebrow elites of the medium, it’s a strong place to start as the biopic will never go out of style and its basic tenets can be recycled endlessly for the same end results of commercial success and comforting prestige.
There is nothing that McCarten does as a writer that is especially daring or out-of-the-ordinary as it pertains to biopics, although he is at least savvy enough to not blindly follow the guidebook. Typically, his biopics focus on a specific period in the subject’s time rather than trying to encompass their entire lives, which is how many biopics end up being smothered under the weight of such ambitions. The Theory of Everything, the story of Stephen Hawking, sticks mostly to the timeline of his first marriage and eventual diagnosis with motor neuron disease. Darkest Hour sharpens its gaze away from Winston Churchill’s complex life and tells his story through the events of the evacuation of Dunkirk leading up to his famous ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech. For Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen’s iconic Live Aid appearance acts as the bookends to package a truncated origin story of the band (while helpfully screwing around with the lead singer’s life in a deeply offensive and homophobic manner.) We see this pattern repeated with The Two Popes, albeit in a more fictionalized context, pitting together two Popes (get it?) and using their often contrasting opinions and attitudes to convey the past, present, and future of Catholicism.
Like any biopic writer worth their salt in Hollywood, McCarten has a laissez-faire attitude towards basic facts and historical accuracy. He himself even said, ‘history is a lousy filmmaker.’ This is something that can often leave audiences with major questions, but McCarten’s true skill comes in the strengthening of iconography. Make the heroic central subject a big enough STAR and fans will overlook minor hiccups such as changing the date of Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis or downplaying the often-deep resentments Jane Hawking felt towards her ailing husband. The true success of a mainstream-friendly biopic with McCarten’s touch comes from a willingness to sand off the sharp edges in favor of the palatable softness the Hollywood biopic fetishizes. Critics and scholars have argued for years over the ethical conundrums the biopic offers, and McCarten certainly has questions of his own to answer there. His work is designed to offend as few people as possible yet cannot help but be morally messy at times, such as almost everything that happens in Bohemian Rhapsody. That film, in particular, is designed primarily to make the remaining members of the Queen estate happy and to adhere to their demands over how history should be interpreted. They wanted a fairytale with the shining lights on themselves and nobody else, and McCarten gave it to them. Granted, he very likely had little opportunity to challenge that given the corporate machinations propping up that mess, from Bryan Singer’s involvement to the cinematic smudging of Freddie Mercury’s legacy, but nothing he did with that script greatly differed from what he did on prior biopics. He hits the expected beats of Hollywood, not real life.
Crucially, a McCarten biopic is designed to give male actors a veritable bingo card of Actor Things To Do that will make the Academy consider them. Do you want long speeches of deep emotion and historical heft? How about leaps from overwhelming tragedy to vibrantly uplifting hope? Best of all, are you ready to throw yourself into a deeply transformative part of Genius that will allow to you vaguely torture yourself? It’s all there, whether it’s through the confinement of facial prosthetics or the acrobatic movement of ‘becoming disabled’ or just putting on a pair of false teeth so prominent that they deserve their own credit. It has often been said that actors win Oscars not for the best acting but for the most acting, and McCarten is the ideal provider of that. Oddly, The Two Popes is something of an outlier in this tried-and-true formula, but that’s also what makes it easily his best film as a credited screenwriter. It fails when it slips into those predictable traps, but at least this movie doesn’t try to actively deny history.
Anthony McCarten is not a bad writer. He’s hardly Akiva Goldsman. Merely, he is a man who has perfectly positioned himself as a willing and able cog in an often impossible machine. Biopics are seldom made radical or subverted because wider audiences, awards bodies, and celebrity estates do not desire such choices. There are exceptions, even in this year’s Oscar race, as seen with titles like Hustlers and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which seek to use historical figures and true-life events to illuminate contemporary society and the wider ideas those figures embodied rather than glory in their truncated rose-tinted narratives. In an interview with BAFTA Guru, he said, ‘A great life doesn’t necessarily make a great movie.’ That’s true, but McCarten’s own definition of what qualifies as a ‘great movie’ seems to be the bigger problem here given how purposefully constrained he is by tired tropes and focus market micromanaging. His next project is another biopic, this time on John Lennon and Yoko Ono. A fascinating story featuring two of the defining pop culture figures of the second half of the 20th century. With McCarten writing, we know how that’ll play out.
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