History and Conventions of a Biopic Genre Angharad Wilkins
What is a Biopic?A sub-genre of the drama or epic film genre. These films depict and dramatizethe life of an important historical personage (or group) from the past or presentera. Sometimes, historical biopics stretch the truth and tell a life story withvarying degrees of accuracy.Big-screen biopics cross many genre types, such as:-Western-Crime;- Music-Religion- War- Art- ScienceAnd many more…
When did it begin?Biopics have existed since the earliest days of silent cinema in films such asFrench filmmaker Georges Melies feature-length epic Jeanne DArc (1899) (andCecil B. DeMilles Joan the Woman (1916) with opera star Geraldine Farrar),D.W. Griffiths religious epic Judith of Bethulia (1914), Abel Gances innovativesix-hour-long epic Napoleon (1927), and director Lloyd Ingrahams Jesse James(1927) with Fred Thomson as the western outlaw.
ConventionsProfessor Rick Altman of the University of Iowa has written about the notion ofgenre in his book ‘Film/Genre’ (1999). In his book, Altman seemingly disregardsthe role of emotion within genre study by outlining that genre is fundamentallydivided into just two sectors, the “semantic” (iconographic elements) and the“syntactic” (structural and symbolic elements). In accordance with Altman’sphilosophy, the ‘biopic’ does constitute its own genre. Although lacking inconsistent syntactic qualities, the biopic does however comply with numeroussemantic conventions of structure and incorporates devices which aid thecompression of time, such as montage, flashback, voiceover and the use ofvaried film aesthetics which convey a sense of ‘truth’.
StructureThe biopic typically contains a simple and highly defined narrative arc. It is oftenthe story of an individual’s rise to fame, and then ultimately their demise.‘Success comes at a price’ as Anderson says, ‘It accommodates itself as easilyto the cautionary tale as to the sweep of the inspirational fable’. (Anderson1988: 332-3 cited in Neale 2000:64).
ControversyDennis Bingham, author of Whose lives are they anyway? (2010) states that thebiopic is “unfairly maligned as static, formulaic, unchanging and perhaps dying”This again supports the case to suggest that the ‘biopic’ does indeed constituteits own genre as it conforms to ‘formulaic’ principles. It is however curious tonote that if this statement is in fact true; why then is the biopic also recognisedas the most successful genre of all time, with the genre attracting more industryawards than any other in existence? Biopics are commonly referred to as ‘Oscarbait’. In modern times, films are most likely to receive Oscars nominations ifthey are difficult for the average viewer to watch, "Thediseased/addicted/mentally impaired always get the Oscar" (The HollywoodRulebook, Vanity Fair, 2002).
Key Functions and AudienceAccording to the ‘Uses and Gratifications’ theory, devised by Blumler, Katz andGurevitch, aside from just entertainment, the biopic can be broken down underthe following divisions that provide a means of ‘Personal Identity’, ‘Integration’and ‘Social Interaction’ for audience to:- Find models of behavior.- Gain insight into ones self.- Gain insight into circumstances of others; social empathy.- Identify with others and gain a sense of belonging
Ranking the 10 Greatest Biopics1) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)2) Schindler’s List (1993)3) Raging Bull (1980)4) Amadeus (1984)5) Goodfellas (1990)6) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)7) Patton (1970)8) Malcolm X (1992)9) My Left Foot (1989)10) The Elephant Man (1980)