Biographical film

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A biographical film or biopic (/ˈbaɪoʊˌpɪk/) is a film that dramatizes the life of an actual person or group of people. Such films show the life of a historical person and the central character's real name is used. They differ from docudrama films and historical drama films in that they attempt to comprehensively tell a single person's life story or at least the most historically important years of their lives.


Chapaev, a 1934 biopic of Russian war hero Vasily Chapayev.

Biopic scholars include George F. Custen of the College of Staten Island and Dennis P. Bingham of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. Custen, in Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (1992), regards the genre as having died with the Hollywood studio era, and in particular, Darryl F. Zanuck. On the other hand, Bingham's 2010 study Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre shows how it perpetuates as a codified genre using many of the same tropes used in the studio era that has followed a similar trajectory as that shown by Rick Altman in his study, Film/Genre. Bingham also addresses the male biopic and the female biopic as distinct genres from each other, the former generally dealing with great accomplishments, the latter generally dealing with female victimization. Ellen Cheshire's Bio-Pics: a life in pictures (2014) examines UK/US films from the 1990s and 2000s. Each chapter reviews key films linked by profession and concludes with further viewing list. Christopher Robé has also written on the gender norms that underlie the biopic in his article, "Taking Hollywood Back" in the 2009 issue of Cinema Journal.

Roger Ebert defended The Hurricane and distortions in biographical films in general, stating "those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother. ... The Hurricane is not a documentary but a parable."


Casting can be controversial for biographical films. Casting is often a balance between similarity in looks and ability to portray the characteristics of the person. Anthony Hopkins felt that he should not have played Richard Nixon in Nixon because of a lack of resemblance between the two. The casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror was objected to because of the American Wayne being cast as the Mongol warlord. Egyptian critics criticized the casting of Louis Gossett Jr., an African American actor, as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the 1983 TV miniseries Sadat. Also, some objected to the casting of Jennifer Lopez in Selena because she is a New York City native of Puerto Rican descent while Selena was Mexican American.

Film representations

Because the figures portrayed are actual people, whose actions and characteristics are known to the public (or at least historically documented), biopic roles are considered some of the most demanding of actors and actresses. Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Ben Kingsley, Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Eddie Redmayne, and Cillian Murphy all gained new-found respect as dramatic actors after starring in biopics: Beatty and Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi (1982), Depp as Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994), Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999), Downey as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin (1992) and as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer (2023), Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004), Thompson and Hanks as P. L. Travers and Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks (2013), Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014), and Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (2023).

Some biopics purposely stretch the truth. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was based on game show host Chuck Barris' widely debunked yet popular memoir of the same name, in which he claimed to be a CIA agent. Kafka incorporated both the life of author Franz Kafka and the surreal aspects of his fiction. The Errol Flynn film They Died with Their Boots On tells the story of Custer but is highly romanticized. The Oliver Stone film The Doors, mainly about Jim Morrison, was highly praised for the similarities between Jim Morrison and actor Val Kilmer, look-wise and singing-wise, but fans and band members did not like the way Val Kilmer portrayed Jim Morrison, and a few of the scenes were even completely made up.

In rare cases, sometimes called auto biopics, the subject of the film plays themself. Examples include Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), Muhammad Ali in The Greatest (1977), Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back (1955), Patty Duke in Call Me Anna (1990), Bob Mathias in The Bob Mathias Story (1954), Arlo Guthrie in Alice's Restaurant (1969), Fantasia in Life Is Not a Fairytale (2006), and Howard Stern in Private Parts (1997).

In 2018, the musical biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, based on the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury, became the highest-grossing biopic in history at the time. In 2023, it was surpassed by Oppenheimer, based on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb in World War II.

See also


  1. ^ "Biopic".
  2. ^ Bastin, Giselle (Summer 2009). "Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family". A/B: Auto/Biography Studies. 24 (1): 34–52. doi:10.1353/abs.2009.0008. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
  3. ^ "What is a biopic? Seven questions about biographical films answered". BBC. April 2024. Retrieved 8 June 2024.
  4. ^ Custen, George F. (1992). Bio/pics : how Hollywood constructed public history. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-1755-1. OCLC 24247491.
  5. ^ Bingham, Dennis (2010). Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-4658-2. OCLC 318970570.
  6. ^ Altman, Rick (1999). Film/genre. British Film Institute. ISBN 978-0-85170-717-4. OCLC 41071380.
  7. ^ Cheshire, Ellen (2014). Bio-Pics: a life in pictures. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-17205-9.
  8. ^ Robé, Christopher (Winter 2009). "Taking Hollywood Back: The Historical Costume Drama, the Biopic, and Popular Front U.S. Film Criticism". Cinema Journal. 48 (2): 70–87. doi:10.1353/cj.0.0082. JSTOR 20484449. S2CID 153354352.
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (7 January 2000). "The Hurricane". Chicago Sun-Times.
  10. ^ Miller, Judith (2 February 1984). "UPSET BY 'SADAT,' EGYPT BARS COLUMBIA FILMS". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  11. ^ Tracy, Kathleen (2008). Jennifer Lopez: A Biography. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-313-35515-8.
  12. ^ Stein, Joel (7 January 2003). "Chuck Barris: Lying to Tell the Truth". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  13. ^ "Gary James' Interview with Ray Manzarek". Classicbands. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
  14. ^ "Chat with Ray Manzarek". Crystal-ship. 17 November 1997. Retrieved 1 September 2012.
  15. ^ "autobiopic – definition of autobiopic in English | Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries | English. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  16. ^ Spanos, Brittany (10 January 2019). "Korean, Japanese Fans Can't Stop Watching 'Bohemian Rhapsody'". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  17. ^ "Vanilla Ice Biopic Happening with Dave Franco in the Lead?". MovieWeb. 4 January 2019. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  18. ^ "Bohemian Rhapsody becomes highest-grossing biopic of all time". The Indian Express. 17 December 2018. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  19. ^ Pulver, Andrew (18 September 2023). "Oppenheimer overtakes Bohemian Rhapsody to become biggest biopic of all time". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 September 2023.