Uninspired Hollywood: the pitfalls of the Biopic genre

The exponential rise of biopics in Hollywood in recent decades is not entirely new, as the history of the genre runs deep to the very beginning of the movie industry. A Biographical picture, as defined by George F. Custer in his 1992 book, “Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History,” is “minimally composed of the life, or the portion of a life, of a real person whose real name is used.” By that measure, the director is given complete creative freedom over a depiction of one’s life which is bound to turn a trend into a threat to the industry. 

“Joan of Arc” (1900), “Edgar Allen Poe” (1909), and “The life and death of Pushkin” (1910) are the notable pioneers of the usual format: The protagonist is first shown as a child, and how they navigate problematic relationships with their parents or environment. As they grow up, we see their struggles, often with messy relationships and, in almost all musician biopic cases, substance abuse. Finally, the movie usually ends with a hopeful message or tragic death. This predictable outline is what drives most people away from new releases. Although every movie features a different person, the repetition of the actions of all famous people tends to bore the watcher and desensitizes all of them as a collective. In the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, six out of the ten combined Best Actress nominations went to women playing real-life figures (alive or dead), ranging from Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in “Victoria and Abdul,” to Margot Robbie’s acclaimed role in “I, Tonya.”

In the world of filmmaking, biopics occupy an uninspired, overly commercialized, and uncreative area that is nothing more than a rude attempt to capitalize on already exploited names. The recent release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, starring Austin Butler, is the perfect example of a movie that is incredibly formulaic. It falls into the same tired tropes that characterize the genre. Without the face of Austin Butler, the movie is forgettable and will be lost to the plethora of other biopics. Much like “I, Tonya” or “The Wolf of Wallstreet”, “Elvis” casts a big face with a cult following to reach its one goal: to sell. Austin Butler could draw in a younger audience, unaware of the problematic nature of Elvis Presley’s career, and ultimately create a new version of the musician, as perceived by the director. The life of Elvis Presley is riddled with troubling subjects that many other biopics have shown: addiction, betrayal, and loss. The sheer appropriation of black culture in Memphis is the driving force of the movie, yet it was not received this way by the general public. Custer depicts the source of why some films with familiar faces are perceived positively, regardless of the controversy of the watered-down history it revolves around. “The fact that real names are used in biographical films suggests an openness to historical scrutiny and an attempt to present the film as the official story of a life. And, while such openness may indeed be a pose by a film’s producers, nevertheless is publicly presented as a natural state of film narration: Hollywood biopics are the true versions of a life”. Regardless of the bedazzled imagery Luhrman put on screen, the harmful history of Elvis Presley does not need to be put on a pedestal. 

As the problematic lives of famous people are crafted into large projects, there is still a bigger cloud that hovers over the movie industry. These projects receive incredible budgets and are sponsored by big studios and producers, making all releases feel safe and unoriginal. So if this genre is played out and overused, how come producers still think that the audience like biopics? Many recent examples focus on characters who are still alive and funding their project. Madonna, whose career peaked in the 90s, is currently working on depicting her “incredible journey that life has taken me on as an artist, a musician, a dancer- a human being.” Surprisingly, contemporary artists will select dull, high-budget movies over a documentary with first-hand details and interviews from the era to strengthen their cultural relevance. Tim Gray wrote for Variety, “The flood of biopics isn’t surprising. The explosion of reality TV in the 21st century and the growing interest in documentaries indicate the viewing public has a huge appetite for facts in their entertainment.” Although the movie sets up expectations to be factual, the director may choose to go in a completely different direction than the truth at their own discretion. 

In an era of nostalgia, it is comforting to engage in entertainment that reminds the audience of when times were good. So for somebody who sees a movie once or twice a year, a grand release about a relevant figure from the past may be the best and most exciting choice. If you make it your goal to watch as many great movies as possible, then the inundated roster of big-name films is understandably your biggest pet peeve. Even then, it is essential to think about the history and context outside the scope of the artistic team and make the right judgments about big people in the spotlight to gain the best understanding of how and why some biographical pictures still haunt the screens.