NO NEW TALE TO TELL
In light of this, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that all of this adds up to a film genre to which there is little or no point at all. However, the fact is that when done correctly biopics have resulted in some of the most compelling moments in cinema history. For without the biopic we wouldn’t have witnessed Edith Piaf remembering her own performance of ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ nor would we have watched Robert De Niro seemingly become Jake LaMotta himself, in Raging Bull.
The impact of these films hasn’t gone unnoticed either, since 2000 there have been 26 winners of Best Actress and Actor Academy Awards, 14 of those have been for parts in bona fide biographical films. This Oscar domination is impressive enough but when you take into account the comparatively small amount of biopics that are made each year, quite frankly it becomes ridiculous. At this point there mustn’t be an actor in Hollywood who isn’t desperate to play a British monarch.
Of course it can’t just be critical success that is keeping this genre at the forefront of filmmaking, there has to be a wide audience. As already mentioned, fans of biopic’s subjects can often be a curse, however they can also provide a biopic with a readymade audience, much like that afforded to film adaptations of already successful books. These fans arrive at the film with a vested interest and can often be the driving force behind it.
The success of the biopic genre stands as yet another example of our seemingly never-ending interest in people and the stories of their lives. Because these films provide us with a sense of simplicity and are based in truths, it can be almost impossible not to be taken in by a truly great biopic.
Ever since Georges Méliès wrote and directed his 1900 short film Jeanne D’Arc, biopics have become a staple of modern filmmaking. In recent times biopics have emerged as practical Academy Award guarantees for actors, as impersonation has become a perfected art in Hollywood. Not without their controversy these ‘biographical’ films have often blurred the lines between fact and fiction, though the impact that the genre has had on the film industry is undeniable.
Because of their nature, biopics are forced to contend with a number of obstacles, proving at times to be unbeatable, before they can even have a hope of tasting success. Fictional films don’t have to take contend with keeping their main character’s real-life counterpart satisfied with the way they are being portrayed, and often worse than the subject themselves can be the subject’s family. For example, Lenny Kravitz had been signed up to play Marvin Gaye. That was until he dropped out after objections from Gaye’s son who described the production as “shameful”.
Not only do filmmakers have to contend with the opinions of those portrayed but also strong-minded fan bases that can, if anything, be even more critical of a celebrity’s portrayal. Fans of The Doors, for example, took exception to the portrayal of the band’s front man Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s depiction of the band, and many claimed the film was rife with inaccuracies.
The question of legitimacy has often surrounded biopics as directors and writers alike have been forced to make the choice between a documentary-like factual representation, or instead a more dramatic embellishment of events. When reviewing the controversial biopic The Hurricane, film critic Roger Ebert said of biopics, "those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother.”