Do you ever wonder what is a biopic, or what counts as a biopic? In contemporary cinema, biopic movies seem to be everywhere. Old historical figures, musicians, politicians, as well as “regular” people dealing with extraordinary events. There have been more biopic films in recent decades, but they’re nothing new. Biopics have been a staple in the cinema landscape dating back to its earliest days. So, what is a biopic, what do they usually entail and how has the genre evolved to be where it is today?
What does biopic mean?
The spectrum of what qualifies as a biographical film is rather wide, leaving room for creative expressions of true life. For example, consider how Tarantino adapted Sharon Tate's story in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. Before getting into the real complexities of biopic films, let’s first provide a biopic definition that all these films share.
What is a biopic?
A biopic is a movie that dramatizes the life of a real, non-fictional individual. Short for “biographical motion picture,” a biopic can cover a person’s entire life or one specific moment in their history. Topics for biopics are nearly endless, with famous figures from history, along with popular celebrities of late, being covered.
When pronouncing “biopic,” you should be saying it “BYE-oh-pic” and not “bi-YAW-pic.” This incorrect pronunciation of biopic can sometimes get confused with “bioptic.”
Biopic characteristics include:
- Covering the life of a real individual.
- Taking "creative license" with parts of the individual’s life or character for dramatic purposes.
- Covering multiple years in their life or focusing on very specific moments.
- Featuring a “Where are they now?” section that covers what happened to the individual(s) after the events portrayed in the film.
While all biopics are essentially movies about a real-life person, they can differ in many other ways. This video provides a great breakdown of biopics; they not only define biopics but provide excellent examples from the sub-genre, just one of the many movie genres.
The most obvious way a biopic differentiates itself is in how accurate it is to the subject’s history. Depending on the story you want to tell, a biopic can be almost wholly fictional, using only surface facts to create a mostly made-up narrative.
If the biopic is about someone who has a great myth around them, a filmmaker might be more interested in making a movie about the legend of the person instead of the facts.
Unfortunately, a 100% accurate biopic is impossible. If you are basing the movie on someone who existed centuries ago, filmmakers will only have so much to work with. In some of those cases, even if the facts are available, the myth surrounding a person might be a bigger draw or a more interesting story.
Take Todd Haynes I'm Not There, which casts multiple actors to portray Bob Dylan. More than simply a marketing stunt, this varied cast accentuates Dylan's own constantly shifting personas.
20th century biopics about 20th century individuals are often caught embellishing the facts for the sake of making the subject look better or worse than they really were. So if you make a biopic about someone who is still alive, you will absolutely get told about how right or wrong your biographical film is.
More often than not, though, biopics fudge the truth for the sake of making a better movie. This is nothing new, as artworks and plays have stretched the truth in some way for the sake of the art itself. After all, movies are not real life, and if someone really wanted to know the facts of an individual’s life, they could look up a written biography.
Biopic Early Days
The emergence of biopics
It may surprise some to learn that biographical movies have always been popular. Some of the first films ever made were biopics, often focusing on historical figures such as Peter the Great, Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte, and even Jesus of Nazareth.
George Armstrong Custer and Abraham Lincoln are two historical figures, alive around the same time, who managed to get several biopics in cinema’s early years. For Custer, these include Custer’s Last Fight (1912), The Plainsman (1936 and 1966), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Many of these films were criticized for fabricating and romanticizing the history and facts of Custer’s life.
Abraham Lincoln also got his fair share of many, many biopics before 1950. Of these many biopics, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is probably the most well known and revered, having been directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Lincoln. Unlike most movies about US Presidents, Young Mr. Lincoln exclusively focuses on Lincoln’s days as a young lawyer in Illinois, working on a murder case.
Aside from historical figures, early biopics would also feature celebrities of the day. Possibly the most significant and well known of these is Yankee Doodle Dandy (1943), starring James Cagney, focusing on George M. Cohan, otherwise known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” Regardless of how accurate it is, it proved to be a huge success, getting awards attention and critical acclaim.
Yankee Doodle Dandy also sheds light on a very important aspect of biopics, which is their popularity. On top of people wanting to see a dramatization of a real life person, biopics require actors to more or less “be” the real life individual, which can prove to be a challenge. As a result, it can be very impressive to see how an actor pulls off being so much like the real life subject.
This success can also bring with it awards, which many biopics receive. Regardless of the plot’s quality, the main draw for a biopic movies is often the acting, which ends up either being the most notable part.
The changing world of biopics
As cinema began to change, so did the biopic meaning. While still retaining similar act structures and an air of romanticism, biopic films started to cover a greater swath of subjects. Additionally, the rate of biopics being released began to increase, particularly after the 1940s.
Auditioning actors is hard enough — trying to find a perfect match for the subject of a biopic is an entirely different challenge. The debate of choosing someone who looks like the person over whether they can act like the person is a never-ending debate, with various arguments for either side. While some believe what matters most is the performance, others think that looking like the subject is what’s important.
Additionally, if the film does not represent the subject in a way that others deem fair, it can cause problems for the actor doing the portrayal.
Some biopic movies have eliminated this issue by having the subjects star in the movie their lives were based on. Notable examples of this include Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and Howard Stern in Private Parts (1997).
Biopics can really run the gamut of all movie genres. While biopics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) used their subjects to tell grand narratives, other types of biopics were beginning to crop up.
Andrei Rublev (1966), though set in the 15th century, uses its setting to criticize the then Soviet Union’s suppression of artistic and spiritual freedoms. Since the film was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in the Soviet Union, the country had it banned and then censored.
One of the most controversial films of the 1960s was also a (simplified) biopic: Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the classic crime couple, the film featured shameless sex and violence that broke new barriers in American cinema. It is now recognized as one of the first films to come from the burgeoning and vital New Hollywood era.
Later in the 1980s, Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) took a highly artistic approach to the biopic. Balancing its focus between the last day of Yukio Mishima’s life and recreations of some of his stories, Schrader created a biopic that dared to be way more artistic than factual. This film truly complicates the answer to "What is a biopic?"
Biopic Meaning Today
The modernization of biopic movies
As the 20th century raged on into the 21st, the subjects of biographical films expanded to include lesser known figures alongside famous ones. Film critic David Edelstein digs into some recent and classic biopic examples in this video, along with the genre’s continued popularity.
In the last few decades, politicians and musicians have strongly dominated the biopic scene. Whether it’s a recent US president or someone else working in Washington D.C., plenty of notable biopics have been about American political figures.
Using Richard Nixon as one example, he managed to get two different movies made about him in the 1990s. The first was Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), starring Anthony Hopkins, which was a sprawling, three-hour-plus drama that touched upon his personal life and politics.
The other was Dick (1999), which starred Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as two teenagers who somehow get involved with the Watergate scandal. While Dick is more obviously a comedy, it’s still about a real historical event and has an actor playing a real politician (Dan Hedaya as Nixon).
While politicians are fun to watch, no other industry seems to get as much biopic attention as music. Elvis Presley got a made-for-television biopic in 1979 (simply titled Elvis), starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter (their first collaboration).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart got a stage play that was adapted into the film Amadeus (1984), directed by renowned Czech filmmaker Milos Forman. And Selena Quintanilla-Perez got one with Selena (1997), starring Jennifer Lopez, which also brought with it some casting controversy.
Many more music biopics between the 1970s and now have been released, proving their popularity and saturation. Some very recent and famous examples include Straight Outta Compton (2015) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the latter of which became the highest grossing biopic of all-time as of this writing.
Also of note is how formulaic biopic movies can be, especially when music is the subject. Watch the video below to see a deep analysis of music biopics, courtesy of Patrick (H) Willems.
There is no shortage of biopic movies out there, and there likely never will be. Movies now have even more technology to reproduce worlds and people, thus enhancing the authenticity of any given film.
Make-up artists continue to make sure their actors look like the subject while the actors themselves still need to convince the world with their performance. And with the amount of subjects that can be chosen from, there will never be a shortage for a movie based on a real life person.
Creative ways to adapt a true story
Now that you have a solid understanding of "what is a biopic," their history, and what they can entail, let's turn our attention to how a few notable films adapt those real life stories. Using the scripts themselves, along with various clips, we dig into how filmmakers like Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman and the Safdie Brothers adapted their source material to make engaging cinema.