In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biopics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Developments in the Contemporary American Biopic
  • The Biopic as International Genre
  • The Biopic as a Sub-Genre of the Historical Film and in Relation to Genre Debates
  • Biopic and Docudrama
  • Performance and the Biopic
  • Gender, Sexuality, and the Biopic
  • Documentary and Experimental Biopics

Cinema and Media Studies Biopics
Tom Brown, Belén Vidal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0206


“Biopic” (sometimes spelled “bio-pic”) is the most common term used to refer to films representing any aspect of the lives of famous people from the past or the present. Of unclear origins, the term seems to have originated in the trade papers and then penetrated the consciousness of producers and critics. Its widespread use has replaced the more formal “biographical picture.” Originally associated with the prestige pictures produced by the Hollywood studios during the classic era, the term has also become naturalized in the domain of British cinema (particularly with the consolidation of studies on heritage cinema). “Biopic” has also entered (not without certain resistance) the vocabulary of the study of other national cinemas, such as the French cinema. While George Custen’s 1992 study of the studio biopic established the foundations for its study as a Hollywood genre, the debates about the biopic have pursued several lines of inquiry from the start. On the one hand, the genre was perceived as a belated offspring of popular biographical formats at a time (the early 20th century) when literary biography was moving to new and experimental forms of life writing. On the other, the biopic began to be studied as a form of historical cinema, and as such it could become the target of historians’ concerns about fidelity and (mis-)representation, agency, and the ideological subtexts underpinning the retelling of history as well as the reconstruction of national narratives. The genre’s unabated popularity throughout the history of cinema has spawned attempts to classify and analyze its recurrent iconography in terms of types of biographical subjects and social worlds represented in the biopic. Likewise, the biopic’s showcase of film performance and its star-making capabilities have proved particularly fertile field of debate. So too has its biased fetishization of the great white man as the agent of history been much discussed from gender-informed perspectives. In our era of media convergence and the explosion of celebrity culture, the biopic is at the center of a new wave of scholarly interest in transmedia formats (such as the biopic/docudrama hybrids) and the possibilities opened up by a new digital culture obsessed with the self.

General Overviews

As a quintessentially middlebrow genre, film studies and cinephile criticism long neglected the biopic. “Low”(er) genres such as the musical, western, and so on and more highbrow “art” cinemas have been preferred over the highly conventional seriousness supposed of the biographical picture. Early journalistic overviews, such as Thomson 1977–1978, pessimistically saw the form as increasingly a part of an impoverished culture of commodified celebrity (in contrast, perhaps, to the mystique of the studio era) but Thomas Elsaesser 1986 had much greater influence on the field with his complex ideological historicization of the key 1930s Warner Brothers cycle of films that helped lay the groundwork for later films. In France, Baldizzone 1986 proposes a general classification (a “catalogue”) of biographical subjects tackled by fiction cinema. Anderson 1988 usefully brings together a large number of films and summarizes the key dynamics of the field, but it was in 1992 that George Custen published the seminal work on the genre (at least in its studio-era formulation). Participating in the same moment that gave birth to David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), Custen 1992 examines a “purposive sample” of films in relation to strategies of studio promotion to understand the educational, ideological, and self-aggrandizing strategies embodied by the production of Hollywood biopics. Custen 2000 is an updated version of this work with a particular emphasis on post-studio era television production, but it was not until Bingham 2010 that another major monograph on the biopic would be published. Writing from the vantage point of a major resurgence of “neo-classical” biographical forms that had often performed very well at the box office and in Academy Awards, Bingham’s tacit preference is for the more experimental, auteur-driven, and independent films that developed particularly in the first decades of the 21st century. Vidal 2014 brings the debates up to date and departs from the other work compiled in this section by not focusing solely on Hollywood but also on the international “life” of the biopic, while Cheshire 2015 (the most recent monograph on the biopic at the time of writing) draws mainly on journalistic reception of the genre.

  • Anderson, Carolyn. “Biographical Film.” In A Handbook of American Film Genres. Edited by Wes D. Gehring, 331–351. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988.

    Based on survey of two hundred films produced 1929–1986, this chapter can claim to be one of the first broad surveys of the genre in Hollywood and comments on the then-available scholarship. Notes development of more experimental film biopics as well as growth of highly conventional tele-film examples.

  • Baldizzone, José. “Esquisse d’un catalogue des biographies cinématographiques.” In Special Issue: The Cinema of Great Men. Edited by Pierre Guibbert. Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque 45 (May 1986): 13–21.

    One of the first attempts at generic classification of biographical fiction films by type of subject and corresponding themes. Baldizzone claims that full-fledged film biographies are still rare, with historical figures serving, more often than not, to reinforce the reality effect of historical cinema rather than taking center stage—a view subsequently challenged. Contains international filmography. In French.

  • Bingham, Dennis. Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010.

    With Custen 1992, this is the major monograph on the genre. Focused on Hollywood cinema, tracing genre’s genesis through the classical period but main focus is the post-classical, with particular emphasis on the development toward more innovative films. Part 1 of the book examines “great (white) man” biopics; the second half of the book being devoted to female biopics.

  • Cheshire, Ellen. Bio-Pics. A Life in Pictures. New York: Wallflower, 2015.

    Short monograph on the biopic as a contemporary film genre, covering popular English-language films from the 1990s and 2000s. Each chapter reviews key films and contains a further viewing list. The book draws mostly on journalistic sources, thus focusing on the way recent biopics have been received in the media.

  • Custen, George F. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

    Seminal first book-length history of the genre. Custen draws upon Leo Lowenthal’s 1944 categories “idols of production” versus “idols of consumption” (“The Triumph of Mass Idols.” In Literature, Popular Culture and Society. Repr. By Leo Lowenthal, 109–140. Palo Alto, CA Pacific, 1961) to chart the development of studio-era Hollywood’s choice of biographical subjects 1927–1960. The book focuses on production context and promotion as much as on film style and reflects on its own methodology including the use of a “purposive sample” of films.

  • Custen, George F. “The Mechanical Life in the Age of Human Reproduction: American Biopics, 1961–1980.” Special Issue: Biopic. Edited by Glenn Man. Biography 23.1 (2000): 127–159.

    DOI: 10.1353/bio.1999.0010

    Something of an afterword to Custen 1992, focusing on the post-studio years and the increased importance of television as a site for biopic production. Like his 1992 book, it contains useful tables of biographical subjects by profession.

  • Elsaesser, Thomas. “Film History and Social History: The Dieterle/Warner Brothers Bio-Pic.” Wide Angle 8.2 (1986): 15–31.

    Much cited early scholarly essay on the genre. Concerned with classical Hollywood, with particular focus on one major 1930s cycle. Considers the ideological work of the classical biopic broadly as social history and in terms of the studio’s manufacturing of a cultured image. Extended analysis of scenes of heroes surrounded by crowds.

  • Thomson, David. “The Invasion of the ‘Real’ People.” Sight and Sound 47.1 (Winter 1977–1978): 18–22.

    Discusses screen production since the 1930s but places particular emphasis on recent (1970s) film and television narratives based on real people. Pessimistically sees genre as part of trajectory toward impoverishment of the real and commodification of our own lives.

  • Vidal, Belén. “Introduction: The Biopic and its Critical Contexts.” In The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture. Edited by Tom Brown and Belén Vidal, 1–32. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    Offers broad critical history of the biopic traced through discussions of classical Hollywood, relationships with literary biography, theories of performance and embodiment, theories of film genre and hybridity, and in context of discussions of more recent media convergence. Vidal also reflects on poor critical reputation in combination with genre’s considerable middlebrow kudos.

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