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16th February 2023

Why can’t we leave dead women alone? The perils of the biopic

Recent on-set photos of the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black have prompted questions about how Hollywood biopics disturbingly exploit women
Why can’t we leave dead women alone? The perils of the biopic
Photo: Fionn Kidney @ Wikimedia Commons

Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of rape, exploitation, eating disorders, addiction, and miscarriage

Amy Winehouse is the latest victim of Hollywood’s preoccupation with posthumous exploitation. Recent onset photos of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s upcoming biopic about the late singer, Back to Black, were leaked on Twitter for the whole internet to dissect. The reaction was not positive with users commenting: “After seeing this picture, I will not be watching it” or simply, “disgusting, this”.

The images depicted Marisa Abela as Amy – adorned with the iconic updo and cat eye – in a state of distress, presumably in a re-enactment of the artist’s disputes with on-again-off-again partner Blake Fielder-Civil.

The film is a subject of further controversy due to an endorsement from Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father. It has been heavily suggested in Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, Amy, that Mitch Winehouse was complicit in his own daughter’s exploitation. Mitch Winehouse will profit further from his daughter’s suffering when Back to Black hits cinemas next year.

Making a biopic of a person who is no longer with us will always be an ethically murky endeavour. It’s almost impossible to fact-check or capture the emotional subtleties of what really happened. This is perhaps why the documentary is the most persuasively truthful mode of storytelling. It is also impossible to expose the intimate details of a public figure’s private life without subjecting them to more scrutiny and voyeurism.

The biopic has recently become a seductive genre in Hollywood, a trend for which we have the 2019 Academy Award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody to thank. Biopics are relatively low-stake investments for studios. There’s already a pre-existing fanbase for the subject, any actor who can play a different famous person well is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, and if the film is about a musician, then half the runtime can be filled with musical performances.

Combine this formula with a dash of personal struggle that makes the protagonist relatable, and you end up with a sure-fire hit. The biopic uses bankable names to generate profit and its recent ubiquity indicates a lack of confidence in original stories.

Not all biopics are made equal, however. The level of consultation with the subject’s families is a factor in the ethical justifications of the film. The creatives behind Bohemian Rhapsody used Freddie Mercury’s band members to inform their portrayal of him and Elton John produced Rocketman himself, but it becomes difficult to make a film about a famous person without their input, especially when they’re unable to tell their side of the story.

The recent influx of films about famous women includes last year’s cinematic car crash: Andrew Dominik’s insultingly voyeuristic portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in 2022’s Blonde. Blonde took a lot of artistic license in depicting the life of a star. Monroe’s image has probably been the most exploited in all of Hollywood history, existing perfectly at the intersection between beautiful and tragic. Marilyn’s autopsy photos are on display in Hollywood’s Gruesome Museum of Death, proving that even after death, the bodies of famous women are treated as public property.

The slightly more palatable 2022 Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody negotiates the poorly drawn line between celebrating an artist’s work and using their personal distress as dramatic source material. Pam and Tommy, the story of the sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee was made without the input of Pamela Anderson despite including multiple intimate scenarios from her life.

Pam and Tommy was released in the same year as I Wanna Dance With Somebody and Blonde, suggesting that the media still refuses to relinquish its grip on the private lives of famous women. The resulting effect however signifies a fascination with the traumatic events which the subjects kept private: miscarriages, rape, addiction, and substance abuse are all reduced to material of voyeuristic fascination. Why does an audience of strangers have any right to derive entertainment from such private experiences?

I don’t personally believe that Kris Jenner is responsible for all known evil in the world, however, the Kardashians are partially culpable in changing how we treat celebrities. In a post-Keeping Up With the Kardashians society, fame seems to guarantee public access to the inner sphere of celebrity. The Architectural Digest house tours, the Vogue 72 questions interview, and the intimacy of the Insta post all break down barriers between celebrity and ‘normal’ person creating the hybrid of the two: the influencer.

Beginning with Kim’s sex tape, the Kardashian Dynasty has built an empire by knowing how to monetize their own sexuality and have subsequently turned their image into a worldwide brand. It’s a genius business plan and almost admirably feminist (if only they could stop denying having cosmetic surgery). Male studio heads have been exploiting women’s sexuality for years, so it’s empowering in the Only Fans era to see women take it into their own hands. The public is always hungry for insight into the lives of the rich and famous, and the Kardashians gave us full access.

The Kardashians commodified every aspect of their lives and are now perceived as public property. This public-facing career, however, requires them to be outwardly vulnerable about their divorces, cheating scandals, childbirths, and their inability to acknowledge their own privilege, as Kourtney Kardashian once said, “Kim there’s people dying!” This omnipotent access makes the audience feel they know the reality stars as they would close friends.

The nature of our celebrity schadenfreude is this: we love to watch them rise, but we love to watch them fall even more. Amy Winehouse was a once-in-a-generation kind of artist who was never meant to be a celebrity. She was treated as a cultural whipping post during her struggle with addiction, substance abuse, and eating disorders whilst being ruthlessly hounded by the paparazzi. Her death prompted debate about the culpability of the press in the downfall of celebrities.

Back to Black already appears to be an extension of the media’s persistent probing into Amy’s personal life. Why must we continuously excavate the lives of famous dead women for our own entertainment? What do we stand to gain from making spectres of the past? Marilyn Monroe said, “You know, most people really don’t know me,” perhaps it’s best if we don’t pretend to.



Pip Carew is a third-year student at the University of Manchester studying Film Studies and English Literature. As head editor of the film section, she enjoys writing cultural journalism and has interviewed many industry professionals. After graduation Pip hopes to pursue a career in journalism with anyone who will let her write.

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