There might be a moviemaking lesson learned about biopics after the news released that Julian Assange sent a letter to Benedict Cumberbatch asking him not to play the role of Assange in “The Fifth Estate.” Playing someone as controversial as Assange must have been as challenging of a decision as selling your soul playing the leads in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” There seems to be real actor sacrifice going on in some film properties lately due to their extreme popularity or manipulation from powerful people. Most of us would be afraid to fire up our computers in the morning if we portrayed Julian Assange in a way that ticked off every WikiLeaks adherent.
Yes, the lesson possibly learned here is that the biopic may not be something Hollywood should be capitalizing on with the living. Cumberbatch will likely survive starting his car in the morning and become one of the best British actors of his generation. But that doesn’t mean an actor with less clout would have survived the turmoil as they would have had the person being depicted died many years ago.
Just how long should Hollywood wait to depict someone in a biopic to allow more time to get a fair assessment? It works well sometimes, especially with truly iconic subjects like Presidents and non-political historical figures. Other times, it’s a clear rush to judgment, as in making criticized movies about Steve Jobs a mere three years after his passing.
With the temptation to capitalize on making biopics about people still alive, the threat is very real of that person becoming too much of an influence on the actor. There’s no telling what Cumberbatch would have done with his performance of Julian Assange had he not received that letter from the real Assange. The producers behind the film should have realized Assange would likely meddle with the actor and try to persuade him not to take the role on.
It makes you ponder whether other notables would have done the same thing had they been alive when certain iconic film portrayals were released. Would President Richard Nixon have written Frank Langella to persuade him not to play the title role in “Frost/Nixon?” What about the alternate universe of a still living Gen. George Patton bullying George C. Scott in how he should play him in “Patton?”
Those performances were examples of how the distance of time led to more interesting portrayals that probably couldn’t have been done had the notables been alive. Then again, they could have done what Cumberbatch should have done: Leave that letter unopened until the performance was in the can.
Considering actors are usually too gracious, ignoring a communique from a notable figure isn’t going to happen. Otherwise, allowing 20 years for some mythologizing to occur after death creates plenty more room for actors to play.