Essays · Movies

The Curious Case of the Biopic

For a genre known for winning awards, the biopic doesn’t seem to have many fans.
By  · Published on October 20th, 2017

For a genre known for winning awards, the biopic doesn’t seem to have many fans.

Biopic season is upon us again.

If you would like to a “Based on a True Story” big-screen experience today, starring actors playing people who actually lived or are in some cases even still alive, you have no less than ten options: Only The Brave, American Made, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Marshall, Battle of the Sexes, Victoria & Abdul, Breathe, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Stronger, and Loving Vincent.

But whereas pumpkin spice fever will give way to peppermint and eggnog by the time Black Friday rolls around, you can expect biopic season to trudge along all the way through the end of December, the Oscar eligibility cutoff date.

But why do biopics exist? It’s the sort of question that pops to mind when you’re looking up movie showtimes and realizes that somewhere between a third and half of your options fit within one category that quite often doesn’t seem to have a fan base. For example, if one searches Google:

However, when I asked Google to explain why biopics are so popular, a quick scroll through the first few pages of results left me deeply underwhelmed. So I’ve spent the past two weeks doing a lot of reading and enough number-crunching to make me seriously question at least half of my life choices in search of a satisfying answer. While I have not transformed into an all-knowing font of biographical film knowledge, I have learned some things, condensed for your convenience below.

Red Dots

Prestige Pictures

“Biography first became a ‘prestige’ item when Adolph Zukor presented Sarah Bernhardt as Queen Elizabeth as movie bait for middle-class audiences in 1912.” (Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?)

Considering their constant presence in film culture through the decades, there are surprisingly few books dedicated to the study of biopics as a genre out there. George F. Custen’s landmark book-length study Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History is so ubiquitous that I don’t believe I encountered any sources of any substantial length published afterward that do not make mention of it.

As such, it is unsurprising the general narrative Custen lays out in Bio/Pic regarding the history of the genre remains the underlying assumption upon which the vast majority of later discussions of the biopic are built, a story which goes as follows: the classical studio system loved biopics because they had a built-in air of “respectability,” have had some degree of the “Oscar bait” quality for which they remain known since the nascent days of the Academy Awards (thus the moniker “prestige picture”), worked great as vehicles for various stars, and were easy to market. As such, studios churned them out with assembly-line level efficiency. When the classical studio system crumbled over the course of the 1950s, biopics faded into a minor form.

As Bio/Pics was published in 1992, Custen’s version of events ends there, but various articles from the past decade or so have taken his narrative and tacked a 21st century biopic resurgence onto the end of it, attributed as a reaction to the critical and commercial success of early 2000s biopics such as Erin Brockovich, A Beautiful Mind, and Catch Me If You Can.

The idea that biopics would take a beating when the classical studio system crumbled makes perfect sense. After all, that is exactly what happened to arguably the other biggest darling of the studio era, the musical. (And yes, just in case you are wondering, they did regularly smash the two together; musical biopics used to be a substantial subgenre.) But I crunched some numbers of my own, and in spite of what the literature suggests, if biopics were reduced to a minor form in the 1960s, somebody forgot to tell the Oscars, that ultimate measure of Hollywood “prestige.”

From an Academy Awards perspective, the pattern regarding the presence of biopics is that there is no pattern. Biopics are frequently nominated in just about every category and quite often win, and that is true in the 1940s and true in the 1980s and all the decades before and after and in between, with only two total exceptions, 1932 and 1986.

Looking at Oscar numbers gets messy because the categories and numbers of nominees change with stunning frequency. For example, black and white and color films were awarded separately for things like cinematography for several years. For the purposes of this article, I included all “general” categories—meaning I excluded shorts, Best Animated Film, Best Documentary, and Best Foreign Language Film, as nominees for that category take a very different path to get there involving a lot of extra variables.

Furthermore, biopics are weird. While the stereotypical birth-to-death biopic formula is notoriously as innovative and interesting as a piece of dry toast, trying to identify and quantify them reveals that they are far more nebulous than they first appear. Do you count adaptations of Shakespeare’s historical plays? What about Shakespeare in Love?

Ultimately, in deciding which of the thousands of Oscar-nominated films qualified as biopics, I stuck with Custen’s general definition of a biopic as being “minimally composed of the life, or the portion of a life, of a real person whose real name is used.” So as long as Shakespeare’s histories are kept in their proper historical period I counted them (the 1995 Richard III didn’t make the cut). Problem children like Shakespeare in Love and 2002’s Adaptation. were the bane of my data-collecting existence, but in the end, I decided not to include them with the exception of acting wins/nominations given for portrayals of real living or historical figures (Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth, Chris Cooper as John Laroche). Films where characters did not share the names of the real people they were based on, even if marketed as “based on a true story,” were not included.

‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’ (1936)

But just to clarify that I am not alone in my confusion, take a moment to appreciate that, in 1937, The Story of Louis Pasteur won both Best Original Story and Best Adapted Screenplay. While this is easily the most obviously contradictory incident in Oscar biopic history, it is not alone. Biopics are still regularly nominated for both Original and Adapted Screenplay, though since Louis Pasteur no writing double wins (or nominations) of a single biopic have occurred. Still, that biopics are considered Original Screenplays so long as they do not claim to have one main source reference—a biography, memoir, long-form news article, etc.—seems decidedly strange, but unfortunately, I don’t make the rules. (I would love to hear someone try to rationalize that one, though).

However, while my decidedly ugly graph does seem to undermine the narrative of the rise and fall and rise of the biopic, I am not claiming that the post-Bio/Pics study of the genre was built on a lie. I’m just saying that one should really be careful to read Custen’s endnotes, where he qualifies that when he’s talking about the biopic’s “post-studio era of virtual extinction,” he’s thinking more in terms of revenue than little gold men. From 1971-1980, only one biopic—Coal Miner’s Daughter—ranked among the top fifty grossing films of the decade, in comparison to 1941-1950, which saw twelve biopic entries in the top 75, including 1941’s #1 grossing film, Sergeant York. Also, Custen does mention in a 2000 essay that his 1992 claims might have been somewhat exaggerated (“I have since concluded that this judgment, expressed in 1992, is incomplete”).

Red Dots

‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Money Matters (Kinda?)

Contrary to the usual movie-making paradigm, biopics are not popular because they make money. At least, that certainly shouldn’t be the motivation, because for the past twenty years the top 25 grossing films at the U.S. box office have included an average of one biopic. Last year biopics outdid themselves with a grand total of two representatives—Hidden Figures (#14) and Sully (#24)—but still, even biopics that get a general thumbs up from critics can have trouble scraping together a profit at the box office. The Lost City of Z, for example, released earlier this year in the U.S., only made back $17.2 million of its $30 million budget. Foxcatcher, nominated for five Oscars in 2014, earned $13.6 million at the box office against a $24 million budget.

Ultimately, biopics flop far too often to be seen as a “safe” investment by anyone with a lick of sense. And while even critically successful biopics can fail to turn a profit, in contrast to some genres in which films can manage to rake in cash even when the general critical consensus is “raging garbage fire,” take a moment to try to think of a biopic that managed to be financially successful while being critically panned. It must have happened at some point, considering how long movies have been around and the sheer number of biopics that have been made in that time, but in order to find an example, you’ll probably have to go back to the studio era, before the film industry had to compete with television for the public’s attention.

Red Dots

‘Steve Jobs’ (2015)

The Word “Biopic” and Connotations

 “This movie is not a biopic.” –Aaron Sorkin, talking about Steve Jobs

Pulling quotes, it quickly becomes clear that “biopic” ranks just below “remake” on the list of “Things filmmakers would rather their films not be called.” By the way, the best headline on this subject, hands down, goes to The Washington Post’s “Aaron Sorkin doesn’t want people calling the Steve Jobs biopic a biopic.”

Why is “biopic” a bad word? Well, to quote the aforementioned Washington Post article by Stephanie Merry it’s probably because a “biopic” is “the tired Oscar bait genre that follows a cradle-to-grave narrative of some luminary, punctuated by formative milestones and culminating in meaningful catharsis.”

Interestingly, though, the “cradle-to-grave” formula that we all love to deride has never been the formula at all. Even back when the biopic was at its most formulaic, when studio producers like Daryl F. Zanuck were literally and unashamedly modeling biopics after other biopics or even entirely fictional films first and the actual life of the individual in question second, the grave was only present about 29% of the time and the cradle even less so. The biopic formula of the studio era was one of Great Men who embodied “American” values (even if they were not actually American) and there is nothing more (stereo)typically American than the Great Self-Made Man. However, the Great Man seems far less self-made if it turns out it was all his mother’s idea, or what have you, so almost half of classic studio biopics (around 44%) do not feature the subject’s parents even by way of mention. The fact that these individuals were once children capable of being influenced and molded by others would undermine their innate Special-ness. The one major exception was when their families serve as an opposing force or obstacle that our subject must overcome.

It’s true that on the whole classic biopics tended to cover a much larger swath of an individual’s life (usually decades) than they do now, but those decades usually took them from young adulthood to old adulthood, and no further.

So then where does the “cradle to grave” stereotype actually come from?

I have no idea.

Red Dots

‘Lincoln’ (2012)

Biopics and Acting

 While we often refer to biopics as being “Oscar bait” in a generalized sense, when you get down to it we are usually not talking about the race for Best Costume Design, though biopics have won that category almost 35% of the time since its introduction in 1948 (24 wins). At the end of the day, when thinking of biopics and awards what we are really thinking of is acting.

Just look at this year. Sure, it’s only October, but if I had a quarter for every time I have heard or read the word “Oscar” in conjunction with the names “Jake Gyllenhaal” and “Gary Oldman” thanks to their performances as Jeff Bauman in Stronger and Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour respectively I could pay off about half of my student loans. And, as mentioned, it’s October.

Now, there are actually two things that seem to function like catnip for acting awards. One is playing real people. The other is playing someone who is afflicted with some psychical or mental condition—paralysis, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, the list goes on. Exactly half of the Best Actor Oscars handed out in the past 28 years have gone to actors for playing disabled characters. In the same period, 12 have gone to actors for playing real people. As you can imagine, there is considerable overlap, from Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot to Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

As Dennis Bingham writes in “Living stories: performance in the contemporary biopic,” “in film history the biopic is practically a barometer of the refinement of film acting as a technical skill.” This particular formula works best when both the actor in question and the person they are portraying are known quantities. There is nothing an actor can do that is quite so chameleon-like as transforming into another familiar figure, especially one that differs significantly from their own. This transformation is very rarely “complete” enough to be truly compelling, but on the rare occasion it is, it does truly feel like watching some kind of magic trick.

Red Dots

Biopics and Truth (and Reality)

Above are three screenshots from trailers of three biopics currently in theaters. I cannot remember which one is which, but the point I’m trying to make by showing you three of them is that it really does not matter. Biopics love reminding audiences that they are based on stuff that actually happened. They tell you in the trailer, as shown above. They usually tell you at the beginning of the movie itself, in case you somehow managed to wander in without seeing the trailer. They almost always conclude with postscripts telling you what became of all the real people portrayed in the film, and more often than not follow this up with pictures of the actual people themselves, as if to say LOOK, SEE, I TOLD YOU THEY WERE REAL. SEE? SEE? 

Biopics take creative license. They don’t have a choice, first of all. There is still no way of capturing an event such that every nuance is preserved in an objective, impartial manner; the recreation of a person or place or historical event still by necessity involves some degree of creation. In other words, there is stuff that will be made up because the truth is lost to history. There is stuff where accounts differ and filmmakers will have to make choices and take sides.

And then there will be instances where, inevitably, the filmmakers will intentionally veer from the truth, whether for creative reasons or logistical reasons or some combination thereof. However, these choices are now far more in the filmmaker’s hands than they used to be, back when American films were subject to MPPDA censorship and the restrictive guidelines laid out by the Hays Code. How the 1940 biopic Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, the story of Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s search for a cure for syphilis, actually managed to get made at all is little short of miraculous, even if it did have to contort various realities of the situation to the point of ridiculousness in order to get approval. So while the conservative attitudes of Hollywood executives were a huge part in the sanitizing of history that occurred with many of these biopics, other factors were involved.

Even though we know biopics to be fictional, they nonetheless have a huge impact on how we remember the past, and that can have decided consequences for the future. Love it or hate it, fiction—particularly fiction that emphasizes its basis in reality, as biopics do—has significant real-world consequences.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich cited the Spencer Tracy film Boys Town, loosely based on Father Edward J. Flanagan’s work with underprivileged and at-risk boys, as evidence that “private philanthropic efforts could make up for cuts in Government spending on social benefits.” Considering the film in question was released 56 years prior makes this statement all the more impressive.

A Film International article by Tommy Gustafsson back in 2008 describes Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as being an “important factor in the creation of a Swedish government organization, the Living History Forum, with the purpose to ‘spread … knowledge about the darkest sides of human history’, especially the Holocaust.”

With decades of “Great Man” (and the occasional woman) narratives, biopics have propagated and reinforced a glamorized and often sterilized narrative of human history that spotlights the chosen few at the cost of all others. Though since the 60s we have seen more and more inclusive, subversive, or even downright critical biopics, they all ultimately present biased and flattened depictions of “real” events. In other words, it could be argued that the biopic has not, on the whole, been a force for good.

That said, biopics are also in the best position to undermine and even undo what we might call the “damage” they have done. Whether by showing the uglier aspects of the past with unflinching attention to detail, like 12 Years a Slave, calling to attention and questioning cinematic representation on a fundamental level, like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and Pablo Larraín’s anti-biopics Jackie and Neruda, or returning forgotten or otherwise unacknowledged contributors to public memory, like Hidden Figures, the biopic has the potential to contribute to a more inclusive, nuanced collective memory.

There are some signs things might be headed that way; three of the four films I just listed were released last year. Or things might be headed straight back the way they came, with the same few handfuls of royals, politicians, criminals, and more artists and entertainers than you can shake a stick at going around and around like a Ferris Wheel that never stops.

We are, after all, getting yet another Mary Queen of Scots next year. (There are some questions that even extensive research binges fail to answer, and why we might need or even want three biopics with the exact same name about the exact same historical rivalry is definitely one of them. )

Related Topics: , ,

Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.