Real People, Real Stories: The Biographical Film Genre

         Biographical film, also referred to as a biopic, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Biopics attempt to dramatize the life of an actual person and to comprehensively tell an individual’s life story or depict a historically significant period during their life. A certain amount of truthfulness is expected of biopics, often to reduce the risk of libel, but the films often alter events to suit the storyline. Events are sometimes portrayed more dramatically than they actually had occurred, and time is often condensed to fit all important events into the film, or several people are blended into a composite. Films chronicling the lives of political figures, celebrities, and even infamous criminals began to emerge in the 1980’s as technological and budgetary increases made it possible for directors to more realistically create historical periods and settings on screen. Although biopics emerged in the early 1980’s, it was not until the 1990’s that biographical films became widely acclaimed and awarded.

         Traditionally biopics focus on a beloved historical figure, however some have gained great success by focusing instead on more dubious figures. The People vs. Larry Flynt, directed by Scott Alexander and released in 1996, focused on the life of controversial pornography publisher Larry Flynt and how he became a defender of free speech for all people. The film enjoyed success at various film festivals and earned an Oscar nomination for best picture. Monster, directed in 2003 by Patty Jenkins, which chronicled the life of notorious prostitute turned serial murderer Eileen Wuornos, earned its lead actress Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004.

         Casting can be controversial for biographical films. Many critics strongly opposed the casting of Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, by Oliver Stone in his film Nixon (1995) due to the lack of resemblance between the two. Likewise, many Selena fans objected to the casting of Jennifer Lopez in a biopic about her because Lopez is Puerto Rican and Selena was Mexican. Because the figures portrayed are often of such historic importance, biopics are considered demanding films of actors and actresses. Will Smith, Jim Carrey, and Jennifer Lopez all gained respect as dramatic actors after starring in biopics, Smith as Muhammad Ali in Ali, directed in 2001 by Gregory Allen Howard, Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, directed in 1999 by Scott Alexander, and Lopez as Selena in Selena, directed in 1997 by Gregory Nava.

         The biographical film genre has become a staple of modern-day film projects. Since its beginnings in the 1980’s, technological advances have allowed the genre to expand and given directors and actors a chance to portray real life figures within society. Critics can and will argue just how truthful these portrayals are but audiences seem to have fallen in love with idea of watching “real-life true” events of the famous, historical, and infamous unfold on the big screen.

Tara Wagner

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