Walk the Line stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
As Joaquin Phoenix prepares to Walk The Line in the upcoming Johnny Cash biopic, Hollywood is already buzzing about potential Oscar nominations for both Phoenix and his co-star Reese Witherspoon.
If the actors do indeed get the Oscar nod, it would continue a long tradition of musical biopics being garlanded with Oscar accolades.
So why is Oscar such a big fan of musical biopics, glomming on to them like an over-zealous groupie? There seems to be a few rules of thumb for sure-fire Oscar recognition:
10. LIVE OR MEMOREX?
The first rule of musical biopics, of course, is that the performers’ rendition of the music (and in some cases, their dance moves) better deliver the goods, or else. Which means that sometimes the actors have to take a back seat to their subjects, and let them do the singing. For those of us who grew up with American Bandstand, a show that raised lip-synching to a low art, the thought of high-priced actors engaging in mimicry on the big screen seems a bit unbecoming. But watch closely: sometimes it’s awfully hard to tell who’s doing the singing and who isn’t.
Case in point: Taylor Hackford’s Ray, in which Jamie Foxx skillfully lip-synchs to Ray Charles’ great song catalog to such an extent that the end result is seamless. Or Angela Bassett in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It?, who shook and shimmied her way through Tina Turner’s career like some once-removed descendent of the singer.
When a star can actually carry a tune, it can really pack a surprising punch with the Academy. Sissy Spacek channeled country legend Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter so effectively that it netted her an Oscar for best actress. Will Reese Witherspoon, who nails all the high and low notes as June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, be the next musical biopic “surprise” to carry home a statuette?
9. DYNAMIC RANGE MATTERS
Musical biopics, with their high premium on acting, singing, and personality adaptation, can provide second-line actors with juicy roles that can propel them to the front ranks of Hollywood A-list status. When the virtually unknown B-actor Lou Diamond Phillips strapped on a guitar to play Ritchie Valens in the 1987 film La Bamba, it turned him, albeit temporarily, into a leading man in other films.
In Walk The Line, two actors with well-defined strengths now have an opportunity to prove their mettle in a new dramatic context. Joaquin Phoenix has long been regarded as a great ensemble actor, often playing unstable, edgy characters in such films as Gladiator. As Johnny Cash, Phoenix has the chance to prove that he can carry a film in which he appears in virtually every scene, and convince audiences that he is, indeed, the great country singer.
Witherspoon, who has heretofore been known as a bubbly comic presence in a number of successful films like the Legally Blonde franchise, can now show off her dramatic and musical chops, and possibly move her career in a different direction. That helps both actors’ chances in the Oscar race; the academy loves to reward actors that have successfully “stretched” and revealed a new dimension to their acting that no one has seen before.
8. THE BIG BREAKOUT
In many instances, musical biopic directors have wisely surmised that it sometimes helps to cast an unknown to play an icon, thereby avoiding any associations or prejudices that audiences might have with the actor playing a well-known public figure. Musical biopics have been great launching pads for a number of actors who then went massive. Jennifer Lopez was a former dancer with a number of small film and TV credits when Gregory Nava cast her as the ill-fated tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez in the 1997 film Selena; the movie, which was a left-field success, was the perfect showcase for Lopez’s many talents; the rest is J-Lo lore.
Gary Busey was a journeyman character actor when he was tapped to star as Buddy Holly in the 1978 film The Buddy Holly Story. Busey’s explosive performance as the late great rock and roll pioneer nabbed him an Oscar nomination and newfound respect. But perhaps the greatest example of an actor finding the promised land in Hollywood via a musical biopic is Barbra Streisand, the Broadway star who won an Oscar playing vaudeville star Fanny Brice in her very first film Funny Girl, and wound up becoming an icon in her own right.
7. HIGH TIMES, HARD TIMES
Embedded within the stories of some of our greatest musical artists are the peaks and valleys of troubled lives. Naturally, those conflicts often wind up working themselves out by the end of the story, but who doesn’t love to see artists triumph over adversity, wrestle with their demons, slide to the brink of ruination and then redeem themselves?
We’ve seen this narrative gambit in many memorable musical biopics, including last year’s Ray, in which Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles struggles with drug addiction and philandering before emerging as a national musical institution. Bette Midler played a hard-living rock star loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin in 1979’s The Rose. A dynamo rocker, she is neglected and abused by the men in her life and driven too hard by her money-hungry handlers, so she turns to the bottle in order to ease her psychic wounds. She’s a vulnerable, wounded creature, and the Academy drew her to their collective breast; Midler won an Oscar nomination for her tortured performance.
6. COME BACK, LITTLE OSCAR
Musical biopics can not only provide a power boost to the actors that appear in them; they can also give the subjects themselves a fresh injection of popularity. By 1940 Al Jolson, once a massive musical stage star of the Jazz Age, had been relegated to the dust bin of history. Then Larry Parks played Jolson in the film The Jolson Story, reintroducing movie audiences to this firebrand performer, and suddenly Jolson experienced a renaissance that lasted until his death.
Ritchie Valens for years was the answer to the trivia question, “who else was on the plane that killed Buddy Holly?” But after 1987’s La Bamba, Valens was recognized as a great forgotten artist, the first big Latino rock star, and his record sales experienced a spike. The L.A. band Los Lobos had a number one hit with a cover of Valens' song “La Bamba.” Perhaps no artist has experienced the “big bounce” effect more than Ray Charles. Ray’s success helped the great R&B legend sell literally millions of records.
5. THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
Often, a musical biopic is the end result of a years-long journey. A director or an actor yearns to tell the story of his musical hero, but struggles for years to get it produced. Kevin Spacey’s film about his hero Bobby Darin Beyond The Sea was the end result of a nearly decade-long struggle to see the film come to fruition. Similarly director Taylor Hackford endured countless rejections from financiers and studios, who saw no commercial potential from the story of a blind R&B singer who became a junkie, before producer Howard Baldwin took a chance on his dream Ray Charles project.
Those hard-luck stories count for a lot with the Academy, who tend to embrace artists with unstinting vision that get their dream project made despite countless obstacles blocking their way. In that sense, the journey of the film mirrors the artist’s journey in the films themselves.
4. HONOR THY IDOL
Handing out Oscar nominations to actors that play real-life musical performers is a great way for Oscar to acknowledge the performance, as well as the subject. When Jamie Foxx won his Oscar for Ray, it was also an homage to Ray Charles himself, a way for the Academy to bestow their love on a musical artist they would otherwise have no other way of honoring. The Best Picture win for Amadeus in 1984 was a great chance for the Academy to tip its collective cap to the genius of Mozart, and demonstrate itself to be a patron of the high arts.
3. FROM MOVIES TO MYTH
Popular music certainly has its share of larger-than-life figures, but movies have a way of enlarging these musicians into even greater mythical realms, maybe because we’re seeing these artists as literally larger-than-life figures on a big screen. In Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors, Jim Morrison is elevated into some kind of shaman mystic, a seer who helped a generation unleash their own Dionysian energies. By bringing a bit of Morrison’s gonzo madness to the cineplex, The Doors, despite not earning any Oscar nominations, nonetheless solidified Morrison as a major mainstream cultural figure.
Movies have a knack for legitimizing even the most outrageous and lunatic rock stars. Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy brought the flophouse depravity of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) to movie audiences that had never heard of Vicious before; the 1986 film’s critical success enabled The Sex Pistols, one of the most controversial bands of the 70’s punk era, to garner legitimacy among the Art House crowd.
2. PLAYING THE NOSTALGIA CARD
If a filmmaker is going to make a musical biopic and hopes to lure the Academy into bestowing nominations, it helps to pick a beloved figure from the past. Jessica Lange received an Oscar nomination nod for best actress for her portrayal of 50’s country legend Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, and Sissy Spacek won Best Actress for Coal Miner’s Daughter, the rags-to-riches story of 60’s-era country star Loretta Lynn.
1. LEGENDS IN THE MAKING
It seems that Hollywood’s appetite for musical biopics is insatiable. Among the upcoming films that focus on musical performers is Dennis Quaid’s directorial debut Shame on You, about fiddler Spade Cooley, a popular Western Swing star of the 50’s who murdered his wife. Hollywood has long talked about making films based on the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons and Johnny Rotten. And coming soon is another fictional film about a fictional band (in the great tradition of This is Spinal Tap): Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, a film starring those beloved overweight metal slacker dudes, Jack Black and Kyle Gass. Even though the “D” isn’t really a band, if Oscar has any sense, they will surely pay attention to these rockin’ sock-em mock rockers.
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