What makes a good biopic? A compelling biography, obviously, with a few tragedies along the road to eventual success, followed by another descent into darkness before a triumphant end. While a historical figure important enough to be considered for a biopic might have lived a suitably gripping life, as movies, these stories usually get translated into something formulaic and predictable. It’s not the subject’s fault. It’s just that life in general can’t escape the shackles of a linear beginning, middle, and end.
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A biopic is also only as good as its star, the actor or actress given the task of interpreting—if the subject is dead—or doing an impression of the notable individual (if the subject is still alive). If dead, then the job requirements are simplified. As far a convincing depiction of a character, looks alone can suffice, like counterfeit goods. When there’s enough historical distance, the aura is no longer faithfully preserved. It’s just a costume to inhabit, a game of dress-up to play. Biopics of the living are rarer. Like organizing a career retrospective of a living artist,
There’s always the risk that the climactic moment will come later, making the biopic’s narrative arc seem rather irrelevant.
Fashion biopics are even more rare. Maybe it’s because it’s harder to argue the importance of fashion history to an audience wide enough to justify the expense of a film, or to determine which of fashion’s most significant players should have their life depicted. In order to avoid a snooze-fest, there has to be more drama than the raising or lowering of a hemline.
For this reason, the ultrahot subject right now is Coco Chanel. Last August, Lifetime produced a mini-series starring Shirley MacLaine as Chanel, and next month Coco Avant Chanel, starring the gamine Audrey Tatou, will premiere stateside. A third film, starring Demi Moore, is also rumored to be in the works. Chanel satisfies all the prerequisites for a good biopic: A beautiful protagonist, historically significant—by casting off corsets, she invented modern sportswear for women—and don’t forget sultry affairs with all those dashing lovers.
Lest Chanel’s story hog all the attention on the silver screen, Kate Winslet is set to portray Vivienne Westwood, British punk fashion icon, in a forthcoming film. Could fashion biopics be the new black? If Sacha Baron Cohen can make Br¨no, then why can’t Maya Rudolph play Donatella Versace? And Johnny Depp is just a last name and a few hair extensions away from John Galliano. Who knows, maybe Project Runway whetted our appetites for the drama contained within the construction of a sleeve after all.
Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."