From Cheesy to Thrilling: The Remarkable Evolution of the Biopic Genre

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The Hollywood biographical drama, often referred to as a “biopic” in a manner that may evoke thoughts of a dental tool, is currently experiencing an unparalleled resurgence. Christopher Nolan’s sprawling three-hour epic, “Oppenheimer,” dives into the life of the father of the atomic bomb, proving that a biographical tale can be as vast and luminous as the cosmos. Impressively, the film has garnered Nolan the most effusive acclaim of his career. Meanwhile, Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” presents the story of Priscilla Presley, offering a journey through the looking glass of pop-music fame as she navigates her relationship with Elvis Presley from a tender age. Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” delves into the enthralling lives of Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre, exploring love, sexuality, bigotry, creativity, and the enigmatic nature of marriage. Additionally, Michael Mann’s forthcoming drama, “Ferrari,” promises a filmic experience akin to a blend of “Grand Prix” and “The Godfather” while examining the tale of the Italian automaker.

These movies aren’t just mere cinematic pieces; they are contenders for prestigious awards and, each in its unique way, captivates audiences. Collectively, they mark the triumphant resurgence of a genre that never faded but now stands at the pinnacle of its influence. Yet, one might ponder: What is the impetus behind the current fascination with biopics, and why is it happening now?

It’s crucial to recognize that the biopic once carried a certain cheesy, second-tier status. During the studio era, Hollywood churned out films like “Freud,” “Lust for Life,” and “Man of a Thousand Faces,” where famous lives were condensed into melodramatic narratives, often sanitizing or glossing over the darker facets of these characters. Consequently, the genre fell into disrepute and became associated with mediocre TV movies, marked by a glossy Hollywood veneer that oversimplified complex lives.

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However, a shift occurred in the mid-2000s, catalyzed by two key trends. Films like “Ray” and “Kinsey” in 2004 demonstrated that portraying the flaws of their subjects authentically elevated biopics. Meanwhile, 2005’s “Capote” broke ground by focusing on a specific chapter or aspect of a person’s life rather than attempting to encapsulate their entire existence. This departure from encyclopedic storytelling allowed for more nuanced exploration and depth in character portrayal.

This newer approach to biopics, characterized by a tighter narrative focus and deeper exploration, found its zenith in films like “Milk,” “Lincoln,” and “Love & Mercy.” The quartet of biographical dramas in 2023 follows suit, limiting their scope to deliver a more profound impact.

Beyond formal considerations, the resurgence of the biopic aligns with our evolving celebrity culture, where historical figures have transcended mere gossip to become symbolic of our collective mythology. These individuals, transformed into characters on screen, now hold a special place in our collective consciousness, embodying genuine human experiences. The resurgence of the biopic signals a return to the cinema’s ability to pulse with the heartbeat of reality, a quality that has been notably scarce in recent times.