Why the Term “Biopic” is no Longer Useful


Something is happening to the Oscars.  It probably started in 2004 and 2005, when Ray and Walk the Line proved to be massive hits with critics and audiences alike.  Since then, there’s been a flood of movies that attempt to condense a person’s life into a 2, 2.5 hour long movie.  Yes, it was the rise of the biopic.  Since then, there’s been a ton of these movies released, seeking the same returns that a film about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash warranted.  There once was a time where the word “biopic” meant something.  Short for “biographical motion picture,” the term as it’s used today has become an all encompassing genre for any character-based film that just happens to have really happened.

2012’s Lincoln, for example, is a fantastic movie.  The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln, is just as good as it sounds like it would be.  It’s funny, moving, sad, and patriotic without being sappy or jingoistic.  The movie has, unfortunately, been called a biopic repeatedly.  Lincoln has even been advertised as a movie solely about Abraham Lincoln (look at the title!).  Unfortunately, this isn’t a movie about Abraham Lincoln — it’s a movie with Abraham Lincoln in it.  It’s based on true events, and Lincoln is the main character, but this is not a movie about one of America’s greatest presidents.

The source material for Lincoln was pulled from Team of Rivals, a book about the process of ratifying the 13th amendment to the United States’ constitution.  Was this a career defining moment for Lincoln?  Absolutely.  Was this a life defining moment for Lincoln?  Absolutely.  However, just including the the president’s pivotal moments as a leader of a nation at war with itself doesn’t necessarily mean it ought to be labeled “biographical.”  Calling Lincoln a  biopic is like saying that Saving Private Ryan is really all you need to know about World War II, or Platoon is all you need to know about Vietnam.  The same applies to 2012’s Hitchcock (and the less circulated The Girl) — both are movies about Alfred Hitchcock, but not about his life.  Hitchcock focuses on his attempt to get Psycho made, and The Girl focuses on his obsession with Tippi Hedren.  Can we learn about World War II from Saving Private Ryan?  Of course, and in exactly the same way that we can learn about Abraham Lincoln’s life by Lincoln even though these movies don’t tell the whole story.  Audiences get the “gist” of Lincoln’s character, his relationship with his wife and sons, his ability as a presdient, etc…  Does that make these movies biographical?  The Social Network, ostensibly a movie about the creation of Facebook, is more about the character of Mark Zuckerberg, but it’s rarely regarded as a biopic.

Here’s why “biopic” is no longer useful: the phrase encapsulates both the Ray‘s of cinema and the Lincoln‘s.  These movies, while based on true events, have very different purposes and approaches.  The first (Ray, Walk the LineEd Wood, A Beautiful Mind) attempt to condense a person’s life into a two hour film.  That isn’t to say that these movies are necessarily cluttered, but they cover a span of years.  The second brand of biopic focuses on defining moments in a person’s life (The King’s Speech, Lincoln, Hitchcock, Capote, Hyde Park on Hudson).  The key difference is that the arc of the stories are different based on what the film attempts to do.  The first brand of biopic’s arc and plot are focused on someone’s life, with the film usually chronicling childhood/early years and the death of the character; in A Beautiful Mind, audience are given some scenes to show John Nash as an old (and happily married?) man.  The second brand of biopic’s arc works on a smaller scale, with the climax and resolution coming from the pivotal moment of that person’s life; in The King’s Speech, we don’t see “Bertie” get old, we just see him complete a speech to rouse England during World War II.  

We’ve been classifying movies that focus on key events in a person’s life as a biopic.  Aren’t these movies more like character studies?  While the term “character study” is mostly conjured in fictional works, it applies well to movies like Lincoln or Hyde Park on Hudson.  Traditionally, character studies involve placing a character in a situation and watching how said character reacts and responds to his environment.  Isn’t that what these smaller scale “biopics” have been doing?  These movies don’t try to the audience about the life of a person — they try to convey who this person was.  In 2012, Entertainment Weekly created their “50 Best Biopics Ever” list.  It included Hotel RwandaSchindler’s ListErin Brokovich, and Stand and Deliver.  Are these movies “biographical motion pictures”?  Should they be in the same list as A Beautiful MindMy Left FootEd Wood, or The Aviator?  Unfortunately, all “biopic” means here is that it’s based on true events, and there’s a person in it.  We can come up with something a bit more descriptive than that, can’t we?

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