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"This simple formula rarely fails. Pick a deceased (or soon to be deceased) musician, artist or mathematician, make sure they're the sort of person the New York media could conceivably refer to as brilliant, insert a big name actor (or Gary Busey) to play the role; watch movie critics and audiences far and wide go apeshit."
Adam Brown of, on the subject of Oscar Bait.

"Biopic" is one word (pronounced "bio-pic" not "bi-opic"). If you were redirected to here and it says "Bio Pic," please change it on the original page you linked from. Thank you.

Based on a True Story, but longer. The Biopic, short for "biography picture", is... well, a picture (or motion picture, rather) that tells a person's biography. It takes a real person's life and tries to create drama from the things that the person experienced, to a varying degree of success.

The difference between a Biopic and Based On a True Story is that the Biopic takes place under a much longer time-span, years as opposed to, say, a summer (Finding Neverland). The famous person must also be the story's protagonist.

Due to the unending way we tend to live our life, the Biopic tends to, much like the 19th century novel, end with either the protagonist's Death, him getting married/ Finding God / Growing Up (after which he gets boring), his Downfall (after which he gets boring unless there's a Comeback) or his Greatest Triumph (which may be or follow the Comeback, but after which there is not much more to say).

Lately there have been a lot of biopics about famous musicians, mainly due to the fact that the (unavoidable?) drug/alcohol-abuse is a simple way to create drama and that all the recording sessions/concerts are an easy foil to let the soundtrack shine. Another popular Sub-Genre, based-on-truth movies about athletes, can count as these, and are a good source of Manly Tears.

The concept of using fiction to tell the story of a real-life figure is relatively recent. The classic works of Ancient Greece and Rome took mythical works as its subjects and avoided depicting contemporary figures, except in satires and for ridicule. The genre's true origins stem from The Renaissance, where writers evinced an equal interest in classical history as in myth, and works depicting scenes from Roman and Greek history became common. In England, history plays from the pre-Tudor era were seen as ideal material for propaganda. In the 20th Century cinema, biopics were common from the silent-era onwards and have changed and adapted with time. While some films might heavily whitewash their subjects and their times if the intent is to show them in a positive light, it's now more common to explore the many facets, good and bad, of a protagonist's personality. This change is probably most noticeable when the subject is a historical figure - a politician and/or a military leader, for example. With performers it's particularly popular to chronicle those whose offscreen/stage behavior sharply contrasted to their work; e.g., comedians who couldn't find laughter in real life. Other films tell of those who didn't necessarily live great lives, but unique ones - it's not a coincidence that the same screenwriting duo wrote Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes, and Dolemite Is My Name.

This genre is extremely subjective with both its makers and its viewers and largely depends on the point of view both parties bring to the table. If the filmmaker is more interested in the sad times, a viewer who loves the subject and knows what's left out might find the film too negative and their hero turned into a Jerkass. A filmmaker who wants to focus on the good times can upset a viewer who feels the protagonist is being unduly glorified.

A rich source of Oscar Bait. Essentially the movie form of the Biography. Compare Roman à Clef. Usually Set Behind the Scenes if the subject is an actor or filmmaker. Expect many to exhibit Mononymous Biopic Titles.

When one of this is made from the perspective of someone other than the subject, it's called a Sidelong Glance Biopic. There's also the Biography à Clef, a particular sub-genre of the Biopic, usually dealing with the subject of an artist, where they are often shown interacting with their fictional creations or counterparts thereof, and said relationship is shown as an origin for their later work, as "artistic inspiration". Making the Masterpiece is another variation, when the film isn't about the subject's entire life but just the creation of their most famous work.

Examples are shown with their endings:

Tropes that are frequently used in this genre include:

  • Ability over Appearance: While a number of biopics try to cast actors who closely resemble the real-life people they play, others simply go for those that best evoke the presence of the subject regardless of their looks (which is especially common when a subject hardly resembles the typical leading man in Hollywood, e.g. Richard Nixon).
  • Abusive Parents: A staple of the genre, if they had a Jerkass parent it will probably get a mention.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Most figures in life who were successful had to have been functional and committed to some extent, even if they were self-destructive in others. In fiction, expect the flaws and neuroses to be dialled up, and expect to be surprised at wondering how that messed-up classical composer ever managed the concentration to write his major opus.
  • Adapted Out: Not every people in the subject's life are gonna get featured. If they're not lucky enough to at least be Composite Characters, they will be outright omitted from the story.
  • All-Star Cast: Features a lot of actors in very different roles.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Occasionally biopics will leave in the more extraordinary details of someone's life, regardless of their believability to laypeople.
  • Artistic License: Big time. In some cases this is a Justified Trope as a fictional work must telescope key moments of the person's life rather than say, all the times, Leonardo sat in his room and waited for his assistants to mix his paints. In other cases this trope exists for legal reasons, for instance if a location where an event did occur refuse permission to use its locations or if the military refuses to lend assets to a topic it regards as controversial.
  • As Himself: In more recent films, expect The Cameo of the subject.
  • Biography à Clef: Films about artists where they are shown interacting with figures who are intended by the author as Meta Origin for their later works. Shakespeare in Love is the most well known example.
  • Bowdlerization:
    • On account of Values Dissonance, expect to be be surprised (or not really) that LGBT figures like Cole Porter were depicted as heterosexual in the film Night and Day (starring Cary Grant in additionnote ), as well as giving Michelangelo Buonarroti (widely suspected to have been gay) a straight romance in The Agony and the Ecstacy.
    • This is doubly the case in films set in earlier eras where the different values and cultural norms get played down to make the characters relatable to a modern audience. Expect to see Kings and Politicians Marry for Love in eras where Arranged Marriage was the norm, and where a Perfectly Arranged Marriage still allowed room in one's heart for The Mistress.
  • Captain Ersatz: Some movies depicting a historical figure will stick close to the outline but change the names for legal and artistic reasons. This happened with Citizen Kane which was modelled on William Randolph Hearst and other press moguls and featured a number of Biopic tropes. It also appears in later films like Velvet Goldmine (based on David Bowie note ) as well as Clint Eastwood's White Hunter, Black Heart (about John Huston).
  • Composite Character: Multiple real people might be collapsed to one in particular if they essentially serve the same purpose in the subject's life (this happens frequently with love interests). Andy Kaufman's late-in-life girlfriend Lynne Margulies is an example in Man on the Moon (where she's played by Courtney Love); she both represents the real Lynne and other women in his life, and enters the story much earlier than in reality.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Even in cases where the past is relatively happy or not as troubling, except loads of Adaptational Angst Upgrade.
  • Deuteragonist: A lot of biopics will usually portray the subject from an Audience Surrogate POV. For example: Hitler is seen by Traudle Junge (Downfall), Mozart by Salieri in (Amadeus) and many others. This is especially the case when the person is supposed to be a bigger than life personality, who writers might regard as difficult or unconventional if shown from within, and easier to do so by a more relatable observer who might at times be a fictional character (see Me and Orson Welles).
  • Downer Ending: A tragic early death, usually by murder or substance abuse.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: More visually-accurate biopics might see actors go to heavy lengths to better resemble the real-life figures they play. Christian Bale for instance gained an immense amount of weight, shaved his head, and bleached his eyebrows to play Dick Cheney in Vice (2018).
  • Fake Nationality: More often than not, an actor playing a character is not of the same nationality as that character. For example, it is not uncommon for an American character to be played by a non-American actor.
  • Flashback, often a Troubled Backstory Flashback.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Particularly for famous people who are dead, as the audience already knows this beforehand. In the case of particularly notable historical figures, the audience will obviously know their fate beforehand. Doubly so if the subject was murdered, and triply if said murder was a high-profile one (by celebrity killing standards anyway).
  • Foreshadowing: Certain scenes will use a metaphor or a Harsher in Hindsight/Hilarious in Hindsight line or scene in which the celebrity is shown in the very distant past, anticipating some of the more famous stuff he'll do later in life.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Movies about artists, philosophers and scientists will often present work as "Eureka!" Moment or a montage rather then attempt to portray in a believable fashion the evolution of an artistic sensibility, scientific acumen or insight. Some argue that this is because actors are, usually, not painters/musicians/composers/scientists so they can't believably portray the artistic and scientific process, even if the film-makers wanted to go in that direction.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Men and women will often be made more beautiful or attractive than they actually were in Real Life. And always according to modern beauty standards.
  • Historical Domain Character: Expect to see multiple films of some figures, especially prominent and important ones like Lincoln, Nixon, Elizabeth I and Napoleon.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Likely to happen when conflict with another person/group is key to the story.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Also likely to happen when conflict is a key part of a story.
  • Hollywood Atlas: It's expensive to shoot on multiple locations, so different places are collapsed into each other.
  • Hollywood History: Since Hollywood popularized the genre it often informs biographical misconceptions of famous figures.
  • Hollywood Old: Many biopics limit how accurately their actors can resemble their subjects in older age, resulting in imagery such as a 70-year-old being played by someone who obviously looks decades younger.
  • Montages: With the sheer amount of time covered, transitions from one period to the next are often handled this way.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The reason why biopics about writers are far rarer than composers, dancers, musicians and painters. Writing is generally not considered to be visually interesting since it features men and women in a room (sometimes a cafe) with a piece of paper. Movies which feature writers tend to be about their colourful personal lives and drama (Kill Your Darlings) or their involvement in a political cause (The Life of Emile Zola dealing with the Dreyfuss Affair). Shakespeare being that he's a playwright and theatre actor, gets a free pass to the extent (that he has his own trope).
  • The Musical Musical: Usually in biopics about musicians and composers, and especially ones about people who have performed in stage musicals.
  • No Antagonist: Some biopics don't have a physical villain (at least not as a character). The conflict may come from the protagonist's own inner demons, whatever they may be.
  • Nothing but Hits: Common to the genre as a whole, but most pronounced in films about musicians. The musician's Signature Songs are likely to be used.
  • Oscar Bait: Has been one since the 1930s.
  • Politically Correct History: A side effect of the Historical Hero Upgrade in particular, but pops up in nearly all of them to varying degrees.
  • Postmodernism:
    • Because story structure in this genre is so predictable, some more recent films invoke this to freshen things up. Commonly, the filmmakers try to frame the story in the style of the performer's work. For example, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers has a film-within-a-film structure: Peter (Geoffrey Rush) is making the film and "actually" playing everyone in it. Man on the Moon admits its use of Artistic License in the opening sequence and builds a Credits Gag from it.
    • Film-in-a-film/character as himself is also used in Beyond The Sea, to justify Kevin Spacey's tiny bit of Dawson Casting— the subject, singer Bobby Darin died at a relatively early age.
    • Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is about Bob Dylan's artistic career rather than his personal life, so its a film done In the Style of Dylan's music and personae, with different actors (including women) playing him at various points. An earlier version of this is Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters which is a Deconstruction of the subject's life and work.
  • Real-Person Cameo: Often at the end, should one of the subjects still be alive at the time of filming.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: It's extremely rare to see films about famous figures at the height of their fame and level of influence. Some argue that the objectivity and distance of time is needed to get some measure of the life and work to form a worldview. In other cases it's because of legal reasons (fear of libel) which leads instead to Captain Ersatz coming to the rescue. A recent notable exception is Oliver Stone's W., made while President George W. Bush was still in office. A film about Kennedy's war years was released while he was still alive, so there is a precedent, but Stone's film presented a critical view of Bush's presidency during that period.
  • "Rise and Fall" Gangster Arc: Gangster films based on real-life criminals tend to follow this plot structure. Examples include American Gangster, American Made, Blow, GoodFellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, Legend (2015), and many others.
  • Shown Their Work: Expect Martin Scorsese and Roberto Rossellini to lean heavily on this trope at least.
  • Talent Double: Frequently averted as noted on the trope page, although a Non-Singing Voice/Not Quite Starring is often heard.
  • Tear Jerker: Biopics frequently exploit the subjects' personal drama to invoke this reaction from the audience, which is especially true when said subjects were wracked with actual tragedy (e.g. Ian Curtis, who had to deal with depression, epilepsy, and marital dysfunction all at once).
  • They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: Viewers more knowledgeable than others about the subject matter are often aggravated by any changes made to the story, particularly reordering events and/or dropping them. Since different people have different ideas about what is important, this is extremely subjective. Also, it doesn't just apply to viewers — the subject and/or their friends/family might have issues with what is and isn't included. This at times lead to later biopics that address the previous ones.
  • Timeshifted Actor: Very frequently with the character as a child or teenager.
  • Time Skip: Another common way to handle the passage of time.
  • Titled After the Song: Common in biopics about musicians and songwriters. Usually, the name of their Signature Song is used.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Some biopics are made for audiences who already know a lot about the person and will alienate the general public who hasn't got enough knowledge beforehand.
  • Viewers Are Morons: Things are often simplified in order not to confuse, disturb or make audiences think too much. Often they are downright romanticized.
  • Warts and All: Some more audacious biopics will openly show their subjects as flawed figures with distinct vices, especially when the subject is a controversial figure like Richard Nixon or Jerry Lee Lewis.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Familial drama is a common plot point in biopics, with subjects seeking approval from their parents that they only scarcely got.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In the more unflinching biopics.
  • When It All Began: Rule of Drama frequently means that real people's motivations will be distilled down to one significant event in their life.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Especially if the subject is still alive at the time the biopic is made.