Oscar Watch: The Imitation Games.

Eddie Redmayne in 'The Theory of Everything.' (Focus Features)

Eddie Redmayne in ‘The Theory of Everything.’ (Focus Features)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, four of the eight Best Picture nominees this year are film biographies – and of those, two feel awfully similar, if only on paper. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything both tell stories about young male geniuses in mid-20th century England. The leads on both films are played by lanky serious-actor heartthrobs (who, in fairness, both do terrific work). And both films likely don’t stand a chance of winning the big prize, at least in part because of this rather unsettling sameness that links them in the eyes of voters – and audiences.

Benedict Cumberbatch, right, in 'The Imitation Game.' (The Weinstein Company)

Benedict Cumberbatch, right, in ‘The Imitation Game.’ (The Weinstein Company)

That last part isn’t entirely fair, as these two films are absolutely not created equal. The Theory of Everything, based on a memoir by Jane Hawking, is as much the story of the author’s complex and ultimately failed marriage to Stephen Hawking as it is about Stephen’s well known lifelong struggle with ALS and his groundbreaking achievements in quantum physics. Felicity Jones absolutely earned her Best Actress nomination for playing Jane, and Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen is full of nuance and emotional power. By contrast, Morten Tyldum’s Imitation Game is a bit of a letdown: Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing, the prickly mathematician who cracked the Nazi Enigma code and helped end World War II, is laudable but can’t avoid comparisons with Cumberbatch’s own recurring role as the unlikeable Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock – or, for that matter, with The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper.

Still, the question of which one is better is less interesting than the mystery of Oscar’s fascination with these imitation games. Biopics are the Meryl Streep of movie genres – if you make one, it seems, you’re already halfway to scoring a suitcase full of Academy Award nominations. And it’s not because these movies are uniformly great – many of them can be predictable and downright dull. So what’s the attraction?

Much of the answer, I think, lies in the solemnity of these films. Both Game and Everything – and while we’re at it, Selma and American Sniper, the other two Best Picture biopics – share a seriousness of tone that plays directly to the pretense of Important Filmmaking that inspires Academy voters to action. This, by the way, is why comedies have had such an historically rough time at the Oscars. I’d argue that the exquisite timing found in a great comedy is much harder to pull off than the wrenching drama of a well-made biopic … but to the Academy, laughter is lowbrow.

There’s also the matter of the acting. Most film biopics are narratively built around a lone character, and smart casting will give the actor playing that character a chance to shine under a bright spotlight for two hours. That doesn’t mean the films themselves are simple, but our ability to appreciate them can be distilled to a single consideration: Redmayne is amazing as Hawking; David Oyelowo is magnetic as Martin Luther King. Our opinion on that central performance becomes a referendum on the entire film – if the lead actor scores, so does his or her movie.

Mind you, understanding the appeal of biopics to Academy voters doesn’t do anything to diminish the sense of inevitability that comes with the annual anointing of the genre. Year after year, earnest and pretty-good film biographies are lauded with nominations while countless deserving films go unnoticed. Its hard not to conclude that the voters are taking the easy way out, picking films they ought to like – and letting the quality of the film, not its type, determine its destiny.