Free Film School #107: Biopics!

Ed Wood

This week's lecture in CraveOnline's Free Film School is going to be a pondering on, and an important lesson in, the notion of the biography film, or “biopic” in Hollywood parlance. I still don't know if the word “biopic” is intended to be pronounced “BUY-o-pick” or “buy-OP-pic.” That's a point that can be debated. Either way, I'm pretty sure the term was coined by Daily Variety. This lecture was, incidentally, inspired by a recent re-watching of Mike Leigh's excellent 1999 biopic Topsy-Turvy which details the lives of Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan and their real life trials they suffered to author the operetta “The Mikado,” an important show in both of their careers.


Filmmakers have always been drawn to the lives of other for potential subjects of their movies. Real-life people, after all, can ostensibly have the most interesting and dramatic lives. What better way to elicit sympathy and drama from an on-screen character than by prefacing your film with the unspoken note that the on-screen character was once a real person who went through something identical in their own lives? And if the subject of your film is a well-known or influential celebrity of some sort, so much the better. The audience will have the full knowledge of the person ahead of time. If they're watching Amadeus, they have the weight of Mozart's entire canon in their minds to help back up the actual drama; we, the audience, know that Mozart's music will live on. If they're watching Walk the Line, they can see the inception of some of their favorite Johnny Cash tunes. If they're watching The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Last Temptation of Christ, they can absorb the beatific nature of Jesus Christ, a figure well known to perhaps everyone in the Western world. And if they see Ed Wood, they will have some insight into the man considered one of the worst film directors of all time.

What biopics offer firstly and most immediately is a natural and expected pretense. A lot of amateur film critics like to use the word “pretentious” as a negative criticism of a film, but pretense isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you know about a great work of literature before you see the film adaptation of it, for instance, it can enhance and change your viewing of the film. If you know about a famous historical figure, likewise, you'll have a kind-of working knowledge of the events of the film before you go in. What you want out of a biopic, then, will be not the usual dramatic surprise you would expect from a typical fiction film, but a dramatization and moving depiction of stories you've heard before from history class. Indeed, the thrill of a biopic can be compared easily and handily to films like Harry Potter and The Avengers. These are not films that necessarily bank on their cinematic surprise, but feed directly into their literary counterparts, and the audiences working knowledge of them. So when we pay money to see a film like Lincoln, we're not expecting new details about the life of Abraham Lincoln to be exposed – those are things we already know, from the log cabin to sic semper tyrannis – we're expecting a stirring facsimile, a tasteful rendition of historical events, a soulful performance that matches what we already know about the man's stature, and, ultimately, a confirmation of what's already in our own heads.


Pretense: Not necessarily a bad thing. You take it to every movie, whether you know it or not.

That's not to say that a biopic can't also be educational. I, for instance, didn't know about all the minute details of the passing of the 13th Amendment, but now I feel like I have a passing knowledge of the times, thanks to Steven Spielberg's great film. Some biopics introduced me to real-life figures altogether. I didn't know the name of George M. Cohan before seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy. I had only heard the name of Harvey Pekar before seeing American Splendor. I knew who Helen Keller was, but I didn't know who Annie Sullivan was until I saw The Miracle Worker. I'm glad I now know who Bix Beiderbecke is, thanks to the obscure 1991 biopic Bix. Films educate as well as they move or entertain, and biographies (or at least good biographies) are going to be the best way to get a sense of what great people think and how they operate, or indeed who they were.

Walk the Line

A brief question: what's more important in a biopic? Dramatic heft, or 100% historical accuracy? I would say that most audiences and critics feel that a fair division between the two is the best approach. It lets us feel a story is being told while also educating us. Sadly, the need to create a story out of lives has most real-life stories looking kind of the same once it makes it way to the screen. I recall that the musical biopics Walk the Line and Ray (about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles respectively) followed similar dramatic arcs, even though the two men were not friends or influences on one another in any way. They didn't even have similar lives. But when you need to boil a life down into film-ready plotpoints, and you need a screenwriter to construct a drama, lives can start to look similar. Some critics have taken serious exception. The late pundit and cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens once wrote a review of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a movie I personally adore, slamming the film for being historically inaccurate. The film was a fiction based on a novel, but it the books were often lauded for their historical accuracy. Hitchens felt the film should be dismissed outright for not cleaving to historical facts closely enough. I think he missed the idea that the film also had strong characters, a wonderful tone, and just enough historical accuracy to be fascinating to history buff, but still enough story to keep average filmgoers satisfied.

A biography is a way to simultaneously humanize a great person who would otherwise seem distant and aloof (by depicting their struggles as relatable and human) and to canonize and honor them (in that they are being memorialized in film). Indeed, this twofold approach to biography is what keeps the genre so endlessly fascinating. We go to biopics to see our favorite heroes or authors or artists recorded in a fictionalized real life, hoping to receive a kind-of honorific to their lives, a statue to how great they were. But then most biopics tend to show the everyday struggles and trials and dramas of what it was like to actually be that person, and we see everyday human weaknesses. Our need to create relatable drama often outstrips our need to memorialize. But then, by the film's end, the hero has become a hero, and we have a memorial after all. So maybe the function of the biopic leans more heavily on the honorific, and less heavily on the drama.

So biopics: Half honorific, half humanizing drama. All entertainment or education.

But by dividing the function of the biopic into honorific and dramatic elements, we're exposing something dangerous about movies in general: the nature of their fictionality. Dour indie filmmaker Todd Solondz once made a film called Storytelling, which was divided into two segments called “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” The first of the two tells the story of a writing student who has sex with her teacher, and then writes about it, only to have her class lambast her for having written something not very believable. The teacher then gravely intones “When you write it, it becomes fiction.” Does that mean, then, that when you film something, it becomes a story, and is robbed of all its factual basis in real life? This is an interesting question to ask, seeing as most film students and film professors are drawn to the truth of cinema more than they are drawn to the fiction. To reiterate for the 100th time, Godard's famous saying about cinema being truth at 24 frames per second implies that there has to be something “real” in every shot of film. But, at the same time, filmmakers use film so heavy as a storytelling medium (true stories, fictional stories, all kinds of stories), that it can be argued that the camera turns any truth into a story. That the camera is inviting us, the viewers, not to passively absorb imagery as the filmmaker intended, but to assign a narrative to everything we see. There is a truth to it all (you can only film real people after all), but we're often encouraged to look past the truth and find the fiction. But if the epic of Gilgamesh proved anything, it's that we're a storytelling species. We tend to assign stories to everything, even something as loose-knit as a human life. We are real, living, breathing people. But we are also stories, and we tell stories to ourselves about our own lives, making connections, coming up with causes and effects, thinking up important memories that serve as plot points in our own epics.

The Social Network

Maybe, by being pure stories that are scripted and acted and filmed – by being entirely fictional in their construction and dramatic in their design – biopics are being the most important honorific of them all. They are not necessarily humanizing capital-G-Great men and making them relatable (although they do do that), but they are honoring them with a tale. There is no difference between honoring Ulysses with an epic poem like The Odyssey, and making a movie about Jacking Robinson with a movie like 42. Or a movie like Gandhi. Or Schindler's List. Or The Elephant Man. Or Lenny. Or Shakespeare in Love. Or The Last King of Scotland. A biopic is an honor. A tale. Maybe the tale is not flattering (I'm not sure if The Social Network actually liked Mark Zuckerberg), but every biopic with a tale to tell is trying to straddle two of the greatest of human notions: That of story and that of history.

Homework for the Week:

What is your favorite biopic? What mixture of historical accuracy and dramatic fiction do you prefer in your biopics? Do you think all biopics are a mixture of honorific elements and humanizing elements? Do you like historical figures to be honored or to be made relatable? Does it depend on the subject; are some people to be honored and some to be humanized? Are biopics better at building someone up, or bringing someone down? Do you feel that all films are inherently true or inherently fictional?