The Problem With Biographical Films

Orla Newstead

With new biopics hitting the screen such as House of Gucci and King Richard, the question of whether biopics are reliable to retell the realities of some people’s lives is raised. Biographical movies show us stories of some of our favourite celebrities and some lesser-known tales, from the Academy Award winning Bohemian Rhapsody to Bill Bryson’s adapted novel A Walk in The Woods. These films allow us to infiltrate the private lives of some of the most interesting people of the period. However, the pitfall of biographical films is that they will always be biased; it is impossible to create a film based on a person’s life without some form of unreliability.

Biopics are a form of self-glorification

It seems to me that biopics are a form of self-glorification. Take, for example, Rocketman. I love the music of Elton John and I love this film, but whilst he does portray himself as inherently human with flaws (struggles with addiction and an eating disorder) he ultimately paints himself to be a hero with everyone else around him being the inconsistent people. He conveys his father as an uncaring and unsympathetic person and John’s brothers have actively come forward to state that they do not believe this portrayal to be an accurate image of the man they knew. In an interview with the Daily Mail, one of John’s younger brothers stated that: ‘”This coldness, it’s a million miles away from what Dad was like”’. Because of Elton John’s heavy involvement in the filmmaking process, he can arguably be seen as an unreliable narrator. Despite this, unreliable narrators can help give an advantage in a biopic. The film I, Tonya uses the fact that all the characters are unreliable narrators to the film’s creative advantage by interviewing and breaking the fourth wall with the characters to allow the audience to decide for themselves who is telling the truth about the events that unfolded in Tonya Harding’s life and career.

It is difficult to produce a criminal biopic that does not offend someone

Not only can biopics be the glorification of oneself, but they can also glorify crime. The film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile shows the crimes and trial of the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The film is based off of the memoir of Ted Bundy’s ex-partner Elizabeth Kendall, yet the movie hardly shows her reactions to the crimes and trial. In the media, Bundy was glamourised as a handsome and charismatic man and the film seems to adhere to this perception and in turn desecrates the memory of the women he brutally attacked and murdered. More recently, the criminal biopic House of Gucci, has come under criticism from the Gucci family who released a statement saying that they felt the ‘relatives were portrayed “as thugs, ignorant and insensitive to the world around them’. However it is difficult to produce a criminal biopic that does not offend someone, as it means that actors, directors, and producers can monetise on the suffering experienced by real people.

Unlike these criminal biopics, the biopic Bombshell exposes the truly harrowing sexual misconduct committed by Roger Ailes and other senior male members of the Fox News network from the perspective of the women who experienced it. At the end of the film, women who were assaulted by these men come forward and tell us their stories. This is crucially important: it takes the idea of film being purely for entertainment and reinforces to the audience that these crimes were actually committed, people have really suffered from the actions of these men, and that sexual harassment in the workplace is a persistent issue that people face daily. However, Megyn Kelly, one of the women who came forward about Ailes, has made conscious effort to distinguish the fact from the fiction within the film in an interview with several other women who were harassed at Fox News. The women are clearly affected by the events that occurred and it prompts the question of whether it is right to make a film about such a personal and distressing topic. Juliet Huddy, one of the women who Kelly interviewed, stated: “It’s very surreal to see a story that involves you to be told without you being able to tell it.”

Biopics can present to audiences some of the most extraordinary people and show us the greatness within them. The Imitation Game shows us the fascinating work of Alan Turing, and also the vile treatment he received as a homosexual man in the mid-twentieth century. In this sense biopics are crucial to the cinematic landscape as they educate as well as entertain. From an entertainment perspective, the film First Man exposes Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, whilst also exposing the domestic tension within his marriage.

Biopics are often an unreliable way to view the events of a person’s life and they will always end up offending someone, specifically the direct relatives or victims of the person. Some biopics can fill us with joy, like A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood or they can fill us with despondency. Whatever the reaction provoked from us, biopics are an entertaining genre of film that can provide new entertainment to new viewers, but with the familiarity of the tales of the people audiences are already accustomed to. 

Orla Newstead

Featured Image courtesy of John via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image

In-article trailer 1 courtesy of Lionsgate Movies via YouTube. No changes were made to this video.

In-article image courtesy of houseofguccimovie via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

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