Ten years after Queen Christina, MGM released another classic women’s biopic: Madame Curie, this time about the Polish-French physicist/chemist Marie Curie (1867-1934), who was “the first woman (Links to an external site.)Nobel Prize (Links to an external site.)win the Nobel prize twice (Links to an external site.)
Biopics about male scientists aren’t common. Some examples are The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), about the microbiologist; Kinsey (2004), about a sexologist; Embrace of the Serpent (2015), scientists in the Amazon; A Beautiful Mind (2001), Russell Crowe as John Nash, math genius; The Theory of Everything (2014), about Stephen Hawking; October Sky (1999), Jake Gyllenhaal as rocket scientist; The Right Stuff (1983), astronauts; First Man (2018), first man on the moon; The Insider (1999), Russell Crowe as chemist/whistleblower; The Imitation Game (2014), about Alan Turing, mathematician and computer scientist.
Even less common are biopics about female scientists, which you can find in the Women’s Film List in Files. Like biopics about queens, their plots are often about the conflict between a scientist’s personal life and her work, which often involves “saving the world.” The films differ widely in choosing to focus on the details of her scientific work, which usually needs to be explained and dramatized simply to a nonspecialist viewer. So what devices are used in these science biopics to explain principles and experiments and then create emotional and dramatic suspense? How is a woman scientist’s work woven with details of her personal life? How does a film like Madame Curie depict Marie and Pierre, her husband, as marriage AND parental AND science partners?
Remember these basic questions to come up with common and digressive elements of the women’s biopic:
Why and how is the childhood of the subject introduced, if it is?
What is the subject’s legacy (family and ethnic origin, parental issues, previous tragedy)?
What stage(s) of the subject’s life does this biopic emphasize most?
How is the subject’s appearance, and maintenance of it, significant to the film?
How does the film show that the subject is remarkable, different from the rest?
Is the subject cursed or burdened by some recurring force? Are there omens about her future?
What is the basic plot of this biopic? How are the events of her life narrated into a story?
Who are the most important members of the subject’s inner circle (family, friends, associates)?
What is the subject’s relationship with her public, if there is one?
What objects, symbols, animals, people, words recur in this biopic?
What is the role of romantic love in the subject’s life? The role of sexuality?
Does the film trace the subject’s transformation? If so, what kind?
How do other characters fight over the subject woman, and for what reasons?
What is the takeaway about this woman’s life?
How strong are traces of other genre films—epic, war, romantic comedy, melodrama—in this biopic?
Now that you’ve seen two classic-era MGM women’s biopics, can you see common narrative patterns or devices in them?
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