From Priscilla and Jackie to I, Tonya and The Iron Lady, history is finally being viewed through the lens of famous (and infamous) women, with more female-focused biopics on the horizon
Around 18 months after the release of the spectacular biopic Elvis (2022), another viewpoint of “The King of Rock N Roll” is seen in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2024). Endorsed by the subject herself, it centres on Priscilla Presley (Cailee Spaeny) and her often fraught relationship with Elvis (Jacob Elordi).
Critically lauded, it’s one of a number of films that have looked at historical moments through female eyes, perhaps for the first time.
The women who witnessed history
Priscilla Presley isn’t the only partner of a famous figure to have their voice heard on film. One of the turning points in 20th century politics was the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963. Partly based on a real-life interview, the 2016 biopic Jackie depicts the perspective of Kennedy’s wife, Jackie (Natalie Portman) in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s brutal death, which she witnessed first-hand.
The film shows the former First Lady, a well-known figure throughout her life, in the most piercingly personal moments of agony and loss. To millions, the Kennedys were nothing short of American royalty, with Portman illustrating what it’s like to share your grief with a nation as she fights to remember her husband the right way.
A similar path was taken with 2022’s Till, with Danielle Deadwyler giving audiences goosebumps as a mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, who makes a painful choice to expose the racism behind the brutal murder of her son, Emmett Till.
Film has a way of giving life to the headlines, and this is a fine example of how modern filmmakers find a way to offer female perspectives that hadn’t been explored in the past.
Behind closed doors
On film and in television, the late Princess Diana has been one of the most examined figures in recent years. Prior to her tragic death in 1997, she redefined what it was to be globally famous. Her mixture of royal glamour and modern chic made her a fascinating figure for the world’s press, while contemporary filmmakers have been absorbed by the idea of a progressive woman stuck within a repressive institution like The Royal Family.
Having covered a member of unofficial royalty in Jackie, director Pablo Larraín tackled the genuine article in 2021’s Spencer. The facts of Diana’s life will perhaps always be hard to come by, so the filmmaker chose to imagine what life might have been.
Described in the opening credits as “a fable from a true tragedy”, Kristen Stewart plays Diana in 1991, visiting The Queen’s Sandringham Estate for Christmas. While the plot is imagined, the themes relate to Diana’s life, which was fraught with misogynist tradition.
In the film she is told to be weighed on arrival (Diana had a long history of eating disorders) and being seen as the villain by her own in-laws for objecting to her husband, Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. The role of women in institutions such as royalty is skewered throughout the drama, as Diana is shown to put her sanity at risk to fight for her independence.
Another new perspective is that of women who are more divisive figures in history. In 2017, Margot Robbie portrayed one of American sport’s most notorious villains, Tonya Harding, in the offbeat drama I, Tonya. Figure skater Harding became infamous in the 1990s for her connection to an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, her bitter rival, by her ex-fiancé Jeff Gillooly.
Harding denied any prior knowledge of the attack, only pleading guilty to concealing knowledge after the act to protect her partner, but to this day speculation on how much she knew goes on. With so much of the truth unknown, director Craig Gillespie instead focuses on the life that would create such a notorious figure. It illustrates the psychological abuse that Harding experienced at home, and the classism she suffered in competition.
Instead of casting judgement, the camera and Robbie’s performance instead look at what happens when someone is unwillingly cast as a public villain. In the closing narration, Robbie’s Harding explains “The haters always say, ‘Tonya, just tell the truth’ But there's no such thing as truth. It's b******t. Everyone has their own truth. And life just does whatever the f**k it wants”. While the film didn’t vindicate Harding, it gave a human face to controversy.
Not all audiences are as eager to hear all sides, however. 2010’s The Iron Lady was the biopic of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), dramatising her rise to power, as well as portraying a fictional present-day Thatcher struggling with dementia (the film was released prior to the politician’s death in 2013).
In Britain in particular, there are few moderate points of view about the first female British Prime Minister. To some, Thatcher was a heroic changemaker; to others a demonic figure whose shadow looms large. As such, an impartial portrayal of her was always going to be difficult, but director Phyllida Lloyd focused on the person rather than the politics.
“I was very interested in the notion of a lone woman in a sea of men in a political world”, she revealed in a behind the scenes feature for the film. Streep, who won an Oscar for her performance, confesses she empathised more with the scenes that showed her struggles with age, but added there is a fascination to playing someone so notorious. “The way that certain figures are has to do with how people regard them, and how they affected events” she says. “How she seemed is how she was, and why we look at her the way we do”.
Perhaps inevitably, this attempt at objectively looking at Thatcher was met with a mixed reaction. Streep’s performance was universally praised, but a Rotten Tomatoes score of 52 per cent perfectly sums up how prepared critics were to feel empathy for The Iron Lady.
The biopics future is female
With forthcoming biopics about Amy Winehouse, religious activist Francesca Cabrini, and Olympian Claressa Shields on the way, this looks to be a continuing trend.
As we take a more three-dimensional view of the past, we see new heroes emerge from the shadows of famous men.
Banner photo credit: Priscilla (Mubi)
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