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What is a Biopic?

A biopic is a film that dramatizes the life of a real person, blending facts with cinematic storytelling to bring history to life. These movies offer a lens into the triumphs and struggles of iconic figures, inviting us to walk in their shoes. Ever wondered how a biopic chooses which moments to portray? Join us as we explore the art behind the scenes.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A biopic is a movie made for theaters or for television that dramatizes some one's life story. The earliest biopic is often considered to be the silent French film Jeanne D’Arc released in 1899. Cecile B. DeMille also made a film about Joan of Arc in his 1916 Joan the Woman. Thus it can be fairly stated that biopics emerged at the beginning of films, and show no signs of slowing down.

Some consider that a biopic, from a historical point of view, is likely to fudge truths at times. This is because directors need their films to create drama, and as well to do so in a relatively short time period. Most written biographies have details that many historians consider important. From a cinematic sense, they may not be considered equally important.

The Oscar-winning film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is a well-know biopic.
The Oscar-winning film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is a well-know biopic.

Alternately, a filmmaker might presumably use a biopic as an interpretation of a historical character. They might emphasize certain elements of a person’s life that seem relatively unimportant historically, as social commentary, or to reinvent the historical subject.

It is certainly true that a biopic may not present information truthfully, in order, or completely. For example, the biopic A Beautiful Mind concerning John Forbes Nash, an exceptional mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia, has been criticized for glossing over some accusations that Nash was anti-Semitic.

Virtually every biopic plays with the truth at some point. Filmmakers argue that it is necessary to do so in order to produce art that is also marketable. Historians or biographers, however, may shake their heads in disagreement.

Biopics sometimes offer a more dramatic vision of a historical figure's life.
Biopics sometimes offer a more dramatic vision of a historical figure's life.

If one sidesteps the issue of complete accuracy in the biopic, then it is clearly a genre, which is very popular and includes some of the best films made. Biopic films are frequently nominated for Academy Awards and other equivalent awards. They often prove to be box office gems, though this is not always the case.

Past biopic films that have won Best Picture Awards include: The Great Ziegfeld, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Gandhi, Amadeus and A Beautiful Mind. The nominee list of biopic films is even more extensive.

Best Picture nominees for biopic films from 2000 onward include Capote, Ray, Good Night and Good Luck, Finding Neverland, The Aviator, Erin Brockovich, and The Pianist. Over 60 biopic films have received best picture nominations.

Film critics, even amateur ones, love to make lists of best films, and of course, most have a best biopic films list. There can be great debate about which of these films are actually the best, and individual taste varies. However many agree that the following biopic films belong somewhere in the list of most popular biopics. The list includes Gandhi, Amadeus, Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, Citizen Kane, Malcolm X and Patton.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a biopic?

A biopic, short for "biographical picture," is a film that dramatizes the life of a real person. These films often cover significant events or periods in an individual's life, highlighting their accomplishments, struggles, and impact on society. Biopics strive to provide insight into the character's personality and motivations, sometimes using artistic license to fill in gaps or enhance the narrative.

How true to life are biopics?

Biopics vary in their fidelity to the actual events they portray. While some stick closely to recorded history, others take creative liberties for dramatic effect. According to a study by Information is Beautiful, biopics like "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" have a high level of accuracy, while others like "A Beautiful Mind" take more creative liberties. The truthfulness of a biopic can often be confirmed by cross-referencing with historical records or biographies.

What are some of the most acclaimed biopics?

Some of the most acclaimed biopics include "Schindler's List," which tells the story of Oskar Schindler's efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust, and "Gandhi," which chronicles the life of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. These films have been praised for their powerful storytelling and have received numerous awards, including Oscars for Best Picture.

Can biopics change public perception of historical figures?

Yes, biopics can significantly influence public perception of historical figures. By humanizing these individuals and providing context for their actions, biopics can generate empathy and understanding, sometimes even revising previously held views. For instance, the film "Amadeus" popularized the image of Mozart as a genius with a childlike personality, which has since become a widely accepted aspect of his legacy.

Why are biopics important in the film industry?

Biopics are important in the film industry because they combine entertainment with education, offering audiences a glimpse into the lives of influential people. They can inspire viewers, bring attention to lesser-known historical figures, and provide cultural commentary. Additionally, biopics often attract top-tier acting talent and are frequently contenders during award seasons, underscoring their significance in the industry.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent WiseTour contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent WiseTour contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Reminiscence

There are times when I wish a biopic would show a particular real life character warts and all. Usually the person or his estate has a lot of control over what gets shown and what gets buried in the background, but sometimes there will be a biopic that just lets it all out, the good and the bad. I don't like it when I read a biography about someone and then see a biopic that glosses over a lot of things. I can handle watching an actor play some negative scenes about a generally good person, as long as it's not a complete hatchet job.

I recently saw the biopic on Liberace, "Behind the Candelabra", and thought someone was really carrying a grudge against the real person. I saw the Jackie Robinson biopic, "42", and thought someone caught the essence of a hero I knew very little about.

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    • The Oscar-winning film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is a well-know biopic.
      By: Sarah Pett-Noble
      The Oscar-winning film based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi is a well-know biopic.
    • Biopics sometimes offer a more dramatic vision of a historical figure's life.
      By: dariazu
      Biopics sometimes offer a more dramatic vision of a historical figure's life.