The Dos and Don’ts of Biopics

We take a look at some of the lessons cinema's greatest biopics have for future cinematic outings...

It would seem that every celebrity and their dog wants to do a biopic nowadays. And with the attention these character driven, powerhouse performances garner come award season it’s little wonder that everyone is clamouring for a bite of the biopic cherry.

However, success is by no means guaranteed. You only need look at the recent backlash against 2013’s release of Diana, which has maybe, only just, accumulated enough stars across the entire review world to fill up that of a McDonald’s trainee badge, to see that real life + royalty + controversy does not always an Oscar worthy winner equal.

With that in mind, wewould like to extend a helping hand to those looking to follow suit – a guide to the pitfalls and prerequisites that any biopic should be mindful of.


DO keep it current

Historical accounts of real life mobsters and 20th century revolutionaries are so last decade. Those behind the most recent biopic trend must be glued to BBC World News given the multitude of current headline grabbers that are being given the movie treatment. Whether it be the hunt for Osama Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012) or Julian Assange’s founding of Wikileaks (The Fifth Estate, 2013), it’s clear that a story need not be yesterday’s news to be turned into a workable plot.

One to look out for in the near future is Londongrad, currently in development and set for release in 2014, which follows the tabloid frenzy favourite that was the polonium poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko.


DON’T regurgitate the headlines

The critically panned W.E. (2011), depicting the so-called true story behind the Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII affair (sans the Nazi sympathising might we add), should have rung alarm bells for the makers of the aforementioned Diana (2013). Any script wading through the tabloid smut and scandal of a real life story was bound to land them in hot water with the critics. Much better to take a hint from previous Oscar darlings The Queen (2006) and The King’s Speech (2010) of which both delved far deeper into the heart and soul of their characters rather than portraying them as media fodder.


DO put on the beef

There is no shortage of actors willing to go the distance in order to portray their real life counterparts effectively but particular kudos should go to Tom Hardy who put on a commendable three stone of solid muscle in preparation for his role as Britain’s most infamous inmate Charlie Bronson (Bronson, 2008). Although mostly down to some stellar acting on Hardy’s part, the 2,500 push-ups he endured daily to get into shape no doubt helped to portray Bronson down to a tee.


DON’T play it straight

A little crass but donning that rainbow flag would seem to vastly improve one’s chances of award success. Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank and Sean Penn have all come away with Oscars for their portrayal of individuals in same sex relationships; (Monster, 2004) (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999) and (Milk, 2008) respectively.


DO give your vocal cords a work out

Johnny Cash (Walk the Line, 2005), Ray Charles (Ray, 2004), Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose, 2007) – need we go on? The music biz is ripe for blockbuster Oscar winning biopics. There’s just something about watching the highs and lows of our favourite musicians on the big screen that tends to tug on the heart strings while at the same time make our feet tap in time to the music. It’s an infectious combination that is set to continue with the welcome news that a Janis Joplin biopic is on the way and the not so great news that a Susan Boyle rags to riches story will also hit our screens in the near future.


DON’T skimp on the visual detail

Life imitates art and vice versa. If you want to impress then pull out all the stops. Such was the approach taken by the likes of Amadeus (1984) that was so jam-packed with powdered wigs, lace cravats and silky undergarments it would make Sir Elton John weep with joy. Likewise, Best Picture winner two years earlier, Gandhi (1982) put available people power to good use with its 300,000 extras for the memorable funeral scene.

For real painstaking attention to detail, Cate Blanchett should thank the make up artists involved for her Oscar win in The Aviator (2004), owing to the fact they spent countless hours painting her body with freckles identical to that of Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn.


DO make use of bodily fluids

The famous and much parodied bunker scene in Downfall (2004) is superb for a number of reasons, not least because of the bucket loads of sweat pouring out those Nazi generals coupled with the genuine spittle being sprayed on them by a fantastic Bruno Ganz losing his rag as Adolf Hitler.

We doubt very much that the props department needed to keep a spray bottle handy for maximum effect in this scene – the fear on the men’s faces as well as the sheen on their foreheads looks like the real deal.


DON’T let the truth get in the way of a good story

Hollywood cannot be trusted not to add arms and legs on to any true story – an undeniable fact that most cinemagoers are willing to let slide for the sake of a good yarn. Man on the Moon (1999) took that artistic license and ran a country mile with its not so subtle suggestion that comic Andy Kaufman was still alive and well following the public announcement of his death from lung cancer in 1984. Still, it won Jim Carrey his second Golden Globe in as many years.


DO side with the underdog

This one’s a given. Telling a story from the perspective of life’s losers, the plucky underdog and the hapless romantic has long been the starting-point for many a movie script. A real life character that encapsulates all three is Edward D. Wood Jr, the subject of Tim Burton modern makeover Ed Wood (1994). Johnny Depp is brilliant as the hopeless hack of a director but it was Martin Landau that scooped the Oscar for his portrayal of B-movie veteran Bela Lugosi.


…and most importantly DON’T bow down to peer pressure

If Oliver Stone’s woefully under-appreciated W. (2008) tells us anything it is to stick to your guns despite the potential backlash. The news that Hollywood’s king of controversy would direct a George W. Bush biopic was met with great excitement that it would finally give the ex-Pres the cinematic spit-roasting he deserved. What the film actually depicted was a spoilt yet annoyingly likable jock that more than anything just wanted to have a bit of fun. Some audiences felt cheated but ‘Dubya’s’ depiction as a goofball thrown into the international spotlight is most likely, albeit regrettably, closer to the truth. The film managed a measly nomination for an IFTA award (that’s an Irish Film and Television Award of course) to name but one of very few accolades. However, quietly bold, W.’s artistic merit remains intact.

Discussion feed

Up next in movies