From Ordinary to Extraordinary Lives, Biopics Continue to Captivate Film Fans

Angelo Franco


In the vast and ever-evolving landscape of cinema, few genres have captivated audiences as consistently as the biopic. Time and again, we find ourselves drawn to the retelling of extraordinary and ordinary lives–be they politicians, artists, athletes, paralegals, or wine merchants. Our fascination with these larger-than-life figures and quirky events of the everyday man is made manifest in a relentless procession of films. But what is it about the biopic that enthralls audiences? After all, it’s a genre that is widely formulaic, oftentimes laughably so, about stories that we already know exactly how they’re going to end. And lately, audiences have been taking a keener look at the how’s and why’s biopics are produced, and about whom.


As a film genre, biopics—short for biographical motion pictures—have been around since the inception of cinema itself. Years before The Birth of a Nation, Australia gave us The Story of the Kelly Gang, a silent film that chronicles the life of the infamous bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly. Directed by Charles Tait, this film is often considered one of the first feature-length narrative films and a precursor to the modern biopic genre. In 1928 we were gifted with The Passion of Joan of Arc. As the name implies, this silent film tells the story of the French national heroine and military leader, focusing on her trial and execution. The film's powerful and emotional portrayal of its subject is still considered a landmark in cinema history and remains influential in the biopic genre.


There are certain elements about biopics that make them irresistibly predictable, much to the adoration of viewers that sometimes clamor for an easy, popcorn-popping movie experience amid all the Oscar baits. It might be the classic underdog trope, the dramatic transformation montages, or the tear-jerking third-act redemption. It's a recipe that filmmakers have been following for decades to such precision that the formula has even been the focus of parody. This is one of the reasons that biopics can have a bit of a bad rep. Oftentimes, they serve as vehicles for an endless parade of A-list actors chasing an Oscar that they'll gladly don prosthetic noses, wear bald caps, or lose 50 pounds in the name of method acting. And generally, biopics gravitate towards the most average approach of storytelling.


But at their core, biopics are an exercise in empathy. We are invited to slip into the shoes of history's greatest minds, to navigate the complexities of their world, and to share in their joys, sorrows, and triumphs. This empathic connection is only made more potent by the fact that these figures are, in a lot of sense, real; they walked the earth, they breathed, and they touched the lives of countless others.



Through film, we are offered a rare opportunity to glimpse the inner workings of these exceptional individuals, to parse the motivations and passions that drove them to greatness. The biopic's power to elicit empathy is no accident. Indeed, it is carefully cultivated through a series of narrative and visual choices. Directors and screenwriters devote meticulous attention to detail in an effort to piece together a coherent and compelling narrative. This, coupled with an unerring focus on the emotional core of the story, ensures that the resulting film resonates with viewers on a deeply personal level, or at least tries to.


There are several techniques filmmakers use to approach biopics. The documentary is perhaps the most widely distributed biopic form that holds as near a truth about the subject as possible. There is a linear narrative, like most biopic movies; think The Imitation Game and Bohemian Rhapsody, that follow the subject through various stages of their lives in a linear fashion. There is the differing non-linear structure, like 2007’s I’m Not There, in which 6 different A-list actors portrayed distinctive incarnations of the legendary Bob Dylan. And there is fictionalization, by far the most widely used technique and one that is found, to various degrees, in every biopic narrative. Yes, even documentaries: American Splendor, for example, largely stays true to artist Harvey Pekar's life and experiences but it takes certain creative liberties, and this blending of reality and fiction creates a distinctive narrative that blurs the lines between a documentary and a traditional biopic.


This is by design. In fact, fictionalizing parts of a story can sometimes be necessary. The use of fictionalization can help simplify stories that are too large and complex to fit neatly in a two-hour movie; it can help fill in some of the gaps in an otherwise unknown facet of a subject’s story; and, importantly, it gives filmmakers creative license to weave a more effective account by including more dramatic plotlines to propel an emotional narrative. This is one of the most potent tools in the biopic's arsenal: its ability to condense a lifetime into a series of pivotal moments, to distill the essence of a person's existence into a two-hour narrative. In fact, the way they often manage to stretch the thinnest of material over the course of two-plus hours may be one of the most enchanting, if not downright miraculous, aspects of biopics.


This process is not without its challenges, as filmmakers must walk a fine line between accuracy and storytelling. Too much adherence to the facts can render a film dull and lifeless, while excessive creative license risks alienating viewers who are familiar with the subject's history (as it is most often the case, after all). Yet, when executed with finesse, this narrative distillation can offer a profound meditation on the nature of identity, of the forces that shape us, and the indelible marks we leave on the world. Though of course, the use of fictionalization can be a slippery slope because it blurs the line between fact and fiction. When filmmakers invent scenes or characters for dramatic effect, it can be difficult for audiences to discern the truth.



For The Social Network, for example, the character Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara, is entirely made up—or, at least, we have no way of knowing to what extent this character is based on reality. Albright is portrayed as Mark Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend, whose rejection supposedly motivated him to create the website that eventually evolved into Facebook. In reality, there is no evidence of such a person or event in Zuckerberg's life. The character of Erica Albright was created as a narrative device to simplify and dramatize the motivations behind Zuckerberg's actions and provide an emotional throughline for the film.


Meanwhile, 1984’s Amadeus presents a highly fictionalized account of the lives of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, with a particular focus on their rivalry. One significant gap that the filmmakers filled using fictionalization is the nature and extent of this rivalry between Mozart and Salieri. While there is some historical evidence to suggest that Salieri may have been envious of Mozart's talents, the bitter and intense rivalry portrayed in the film is largely a work of fiction. The film takes creative liberties with the facts and embellishes the relationship between the composers, filling in gaps in historical knowledge with a dramatic and engaging narrative that explores themes of genius, envy, and the nature of artistic creation. This fictionalization of certain aspects of the story and filling in gaps in the historical record creates a compelling and emotionally resonant portrayal of Mozart and Salieri's lives, even if it does not adhere strictly to the facts.


The example of Amadeus is an interesting one because even though the film uses a widely fictionalized story of real historical figures, the movie is largely considered to be a gold standard of filmmaking and acting, it’s oftentimes included in lists of greatest films, and the actors were regaled with accolades for portraying almost caricature versions of some of music history’s most important individuals. 


Compare that to the backlash that more recent biopic movies and series have received, and it seems that we’re hurdling towards an inevitable turning point where audiences will begin to demand a more nuanced, and true, take on stories about real people. As filmmaking and cultural mores have evolved, so has the need to observe this media with a more critical eye, calling emphasis on the ways that stories about real people can be used to present whitewashed, sanitized versions of otherwise complex stories to the detriment of the true essence of a narrative. And, to be clear, this criticism is not particularly new, but rather it has now been considerably amplified in the age of social media in the midst of a cultural reckoning.



In 2008, Milk received some criticism for its portrayal Harvey Milk's assassin, Dan White. While White is a real person, his motivations for assassinating Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone are portrayed somewhat ambiguously in the film. Some critics have argued that the movie is too sympathetic to White and doesn't do enough to explore his conservative politics and anti-gay views. Even back in 2001, A Beautiful Mind, about the mathematician John Nash, received criticism for its omission of many of the more controversial aspects of Nash's life, including his bisexuality, his extramarital affairs, and his belief in conspiracy theories; not to mention the fact that his wife is a Latina immigrant played by the decidedly non-Latina Jennifer Connelly. While these details may not have been relevant to the overall narrative of the film, their omission can be seen as a form of sanitization or straightwashing, as it instead presents a version of Nash's life that is more palatable to mainstream audiences.Bottom of Form


The Crown is a popular Netflix series that dramatizes the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The show has been well received by both audiences and critics, and has won several awards for its performances, writing, and production values. However, the show has also been the subject of controversy, particularly in the United Kingdom where it is set.


One of the main criticisms of The Crown is that it takes significant liberties with historical events and characters. While the show is based on real people and real events, it often compresses timelines, invents conversations, and portrays characters in ways that some people find inaccurate or unfair. Some critics have accused the show of outright falsehoods and character assassination, while others argue that its creative license is necessary to make the story more compelling and dramatic.


Another point of controversy is the show's portrayal of the royal family, which, interestingly, some have argued is either too sympathetic or too critical, depending on the character and who you ask. Some have criticized The Crown for being overly deferential to the monarchy and presenting a sanitized version of its history, while others argue that the show is too harsh and unfairly paints members of the royal family in a negative light.



Despite these criticisms, The Crown remains a popular and highly acclaimed series. Many viewers appreciate the show's lavish production values, strong performances, and compelling storytelling, even if they acknowledge that the show takes some liberties with the facts. Overall, the show's reception is a testament to the enduring fascination and intrigue surrounding the British royal family and their history. This may be what has helped the biopic retain a substantial piece of the Hollywood pie.


The biopic's appeal is not limited to its capacity for empathy and introspection; it also offers a tantalizing glimpse into the world of fame and fortune. We are drawn to these films and series not only for the insights they offer into the lives of the famous but also for the vicarious thrill of experiencing success and adulation from a safe distance. And so, it doesn’t matter, at the end, if The Crown presents the British royals as power-hungry or constrained to their circumstances, as evil-laughter-cackling bigots or as elements of an institution that was made to resist change, or even if the series is trying to make a case for or against the monarchy. For a few brief hours, we can inhabit the world of the rich and powerful, luxuriating in their opulent surroundings and basking in the glow of their achievements or reveling in the schadenfreude of their failures (again, depending on the character and who you ask).


In the same vein, biopics can serve to recontextualize and reassess the lives of individuals who were once maligned or misunderstood, offering fresh perspectives on their stories and sometimes helping to rehabilitate their reputations. It could be argued, for example, that The Crown itself does a fairly fine job of navigating the tumultuous life of Princess Diana, helping to further humanize her by moving beyond the sensationalist media coverage that often surrounded her during her life. 2021’s Spencer offers a fictionalized account of a weekend in the life of Princess Diana, as she spends Christmas with the royal family at the Sandringham. The film focuses on Diana's emotional turmoil and her struggle to reconcile her public role with her private desires and needs. It seeks to portray her as a complex and multi-faceted individual, rather than just a tabloid figure.


Taken by their word, this was also the goal for the team behind Hulu’s Pam and Tommy. They wanted to create a story about a woman that moved beyond the scandals that came to be synonymous with Pamela Anderson and sex-tapes. It would have been impossible to separate one from the other, much as the series’ creators wanted to form a narrative centered on the impact of fame and love and, unequivocally, being the epitome of a sex symbol whether Ms. Anderson wanted to be one or not. The series wanted to be a critique on cultural voyeurism, even if it needed to sometimes be lurid or sleazy to get its point across. But, critically, Pam and Tommy was made without the blessing, let alone the input, of Pamela Anderson herself. In fact, not only did Ms. Anderson not agree to be part of the project, she explicitly spoke against it and made it clear that it was being produced against her wishes.



Pam and Tommy was made anyway, of course. It received generally favorable reviews though; in the zeitgeist that is the current state of the Hollywood machine, the series has been largely forgotten already. It came and went and it rode the visibility that anything about a sex-tape was bound to receive, especially if it was about one of the most famous sex-tapes in the world to this day. That Ms. Anderson had no input in its production was beside the point, just like the creators’ intent was also beside the point. The existence of the series itself generated enough press that it fell victim to its own critique of cultural voyeurism. 


This begs the question, though: Does it matter that Ms. Anderson did not give consent to televise her own story as a fictionalized biopic? Sure, The Crown and Spencer offer a more nuanced take on Princess Diana, but of course there was no one to ask if she wanted her story told in the first place. To what extent does it even matter that filmmakers and series creators approach the genre with respect, sensitivity, and a commitment to accuracy and honesty if the subject is either not willing to participate in its production or simply not around to give consent? And anyway, who even has the right to tell someone’s story? I’m afraid there are no easy answers and, as it’s usually the case, it comes down to being an informed observer and consumer of media. There is no denying that biopics have a tendency to oversimplify complex lives and reduce them to a series of easily digestible Hollywood narratives. By their very nature, biopics must condense and simplify the events of a person's life in order to fit them into a two-hour movie format (or a 10-episode arc, as the case may be).


On the other hand, while biopics are often a vehicle to illuminate the lives of the extraordinary, they also serve as a potent reminder of the power of ordinary people to shape the course of history. In telling the stories of those who defied convention, overcame adversity, and challenged the status quo, these films offer a powerful counterpoint to the Great Man theory of history.


They remind us that change is often driven not by the actions of a single individual, but by the collective efforts of countless people, each contributing in their own small way to the arc of progress. The life of Elvis Presley, of one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century, has been painstakingly archived for anyone who is truly interested in learning about the famous artist; so last year’s Elvis was really more of an exercise of what Baz Luhrmann’s vision of the life and times of the king of rock and roll was going to look like.



Whereas Erin Brockovich became a household name only after Julia Roberts won an Oscar for portraying her in a movie, and the same can be said for the LGBT+ icon Harvey Milk, to whom many audiences were introduced for the first time after Sean Penn’s award-winning portrayal of the politician. We all heard John Glenn’s name in 8th grade social studies class, but it’s probably safe to say that the majority of us had not heard of Katherine Goble Johnson until we watched 2016’s Hidden Figures, a movie about a group of African-American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the space race and that offers a powerful and inspiring portrayal of the contributions of often-overlooked figures in history.


This is an important and formidable tool, because not only can these kind of stories help to create a more diverse and inclusive portrait of history, but they can also give voice to individuals who might otherwise be overlooked and call to critique systems of powers that have gone unchallenged. This is the case for Fruitvale Station, for example, about Oscar Grant, a young African-American man who was fatally shot by a transit officer in Oakland, California. The film raises awareness about racial profiling, police brutality, and the need for criminal justice reform.


The Hurricane tells the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a professional boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent almost 20 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. The film brought attention to Carter's case and the broader issue of racial injustice within the American criminal justice system. We all learned about the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in the United States at some point in our American schooling, but Loving also offers a nuanced and complex portrayal of the couple at the center of the case: rather than presenting them as perfect or flawless heroes, the film acknowledges their flaws and imperfections, and critically focuses on an exploration of the challenges and struggles they faced in their fight for justice.



This emphasis on the power of the individual is particularly resonant in the current cultural moment, as we grapple with the myriad challenges facing our world. Biopics can remind us that we are not passive observers in the unfolding of history, but active participants, capable of effecting change and shaping the world around us. Central to the biopic's appeal is its ability to illuminate the complexities of the human condition. By delving into the lives of exceptional and ordinary individuals, these films expose the universal themes that underpin the human experience: ambition, love, loss, resilience, and redemption. In doing so, they invite us to examine our own lives and to draw parallels between ourselves and the figures on screen, between our circumstances and those that shape our celluloid mirror selves. A well-crafted biopic can be a powerful reminder that even the most extraordinary lives are, at their core, a tapestry of ordinary moments.


At their best, biopics function as a mirror, reflecting our own lives and experiences back at us and inviting us to interrogate our own choices and motivations, our societies and systems, our sense of justice and cravings for change. They can challenge us to consider what it means to be human and to grapple with the complexities of our own existence. Through the stories of others, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, exploring the contours of our own identity and the forces that have shaped us.


Author Bio:

Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine


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