Biopics: valuable or voyeristic?

Biopics, films that explore and dramatise the lives of famous or infamous individuals, historical figures, or fascinating lesser known mortals, despite their range of factual accuracy or fame of their protagonist, all share one thing – they are about the lives of real people.

Biopics are by no means a recent phenomenon, and have existed with the history of cinema, having been around since silent film, and reached a heyday during the 1920s and ’30s when the introduction of sound to film meant well known stage actors took on cinematic roles. Among the earliest biopics are tales of history’s great inventors, such as Edison the Man, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, and The Story of Louis Pasteur. People became interested in the lives of societal figures; lives that affected their own. And this fascination only continued to grow.

Since the 1990s, cinema has again seen a rise in popularity of the biopic. As a genre, it has been nominated for and won more Academy Awards than any other. Biopics sell. The facts are present but the question remains – why is the biopic so popular? Why, as an audience, are we so fascinated by ‘real lives’, and as an industry, why does cinema constantly produce this genre, inundating the market with ‘the story of…’? Statistics show that actors playing real people have won more Oscars than any other, and the simple fact is that biopics are made because biopics sell. Music biopics have been described as ‘the new hot ticket in Hollywood’ with the likes of Walk the Line, Ray, Control, Nowhere Boy, Notorious and a stream of other recent pictures playing a huge part in recent cinema release.

So biopics sell. But as the consuming audience, what makes biopics so attractive to us?

As a nation, nay as a world, we are obsessed by the idea of celebrity. Increasingly we view celebrities as a sort of public property, and the biopic could be suggested to be just one more way of laying our claim on celebrity lives. Film is a means of delving even deeper into the lives of people we admire or obsess over; we feel closeness, an affinity with these worshipped, accessible beings. (Look out for the new Justin Bieber 3D epic soon to hit our screens…)

Is there something shallow, even morbid curiosity, about our fascination with the biopic? Is it an acceptable means of modern voyeurism? There is some perverse intrigue attached to films such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, My Left Foot and The Elephant Man and as an audience we cannot help but be fascinated by the tragedy and horror, both of individuals, and of whole nations, such as in The Pianist or Hotel Rwanda.

No longer is it enough to for a film to be ‘based on a true story’, it must be based on real life. Has this fascination and obsession with celebrity culture meant that we are no longer content with a story, rather we must view someone’s life?

Divulging the story of a real person gives credibility to a narrative. Even if the details have been embellished or in some cases completely fictionalised, as an audience we are drawn in, and therefore be more affected by a sequence of events if we believe they are based on real life. (Would Schindler’s List be quite as affecting if it was not based on real life events, and backed up by the touching final scene where real relatives and survivors from the camps are seen visiting graves?)

In some way then, do biopics play on our sense of humanity? Are they in fact contrived and manipulative?

The author of ‘Whose Lives Are They Anyway: The Biopic as a Contemporary Film Genre’, Dennis Bingham, believes otherwise. He claims that rather than being obsessed with celebrity, we are intrigued by the biopic due to our humanity – “so as to plumb that mystery of humanness, the inability completely to know another person, and the absolute importance of knowing them and ourselves”.

Rather than harbouring a morbid curiosity for the lives of others, rather, we can be inspired by them. Pictures such as Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi do not appeal to an obsession with celebrity, but rather to the great figures of our time.

But the credibility of the biopic does not end there. Our interest in the biopic is not only in order to ‘know’ a person, but also a time and a place. Biopics reconstruct a period, as well as a protagonist. Often the social or political context or simply the aesthetic appeal of a time past is what attracts viewers to this unfairly berated genre.

Above all, I believe the biopic is educational. At the height of anti-biopic cynicism it could be argued that they are made for easy success and starred in for award-winning greed – nonetheless they are some of the most gripping, inspiring and educational films to watch.

My inspiration for this term’s ‘Biopic’ theme was a surprise at my own ignorance. Having never heard of the gay rights activist Harvey Milk until watching Gus Van Sant’s Milk I was appalled at myself but impressed by just how eye-opening a high-budget, award-winning Hollywood flick could be. If the biopic could be used as a tool of mass-education, can we not look beyond industry motivation?

Recently in the New York Times the biopic has been described as “the most reductive of movie genres”, suggesting that the genre is either glamourised, boring or predictable, and that writers “diminish their subjects or else succumb to hagiography. More often than not we know how they will end.”

Disparagingly the same article commented that “because there is an expectation that biopics will reveal something previously unknown about public figures, they often pin their protagonists to the psychiatric couch” and concludes that “the most profound pleasure a biopic can offer [is] the sense of one artist being moved by another.”

Is it not enough that one individual can move another? As a medium of unparalleled accessibility, film should be used for education as well as entertainment. Film is a medium that reaches the masses; and has the power to retell the integral stories of some of the most influential figures in our history.

Such snobbery and elitism dismisses the biopic on the grounds that the plot may be predictable (yes, as films about famous people, we may know a lot already about the protagonist); reductive (understandably it is difficult to condense an extraordinary life into a watchable feature-length); or searching for some hidden meaning or depth to a public figure that may become fabricated or may not even exist.

Rather than being predictable, I suggest the biopic can be enlightening rather than reductive, exploratory and, rather than unsuccessfully or dubiously reaching into undiscovered (or non-existent) depths, I propose that the biopic can inform a wider audience on figures with which they may otherwise never become acquainted.

The biopic is an indispensable genre. It can only continue to grow, and remain a medium of enlightenment.


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