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A biographical film, or biopic (//; abbreviation for biographical motion picture), is a film that dramatizes the life of an actual person or people. Such films show the life of a historical person and the central character’s real name is used. They differ from films "based on a true story" or “historical films” in that they attempt to comprehensively tell a person’s life story or at least the most historically important years of their lives.
Because the figures portrayed are actual people, whose actions and characteristics are known to the public (or at least historically documented), biopic roles are considered some of the most demanding of actors and actresses. Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey, and Jamie Foxx all gained respect as dramatic actors after starring in biopics: Depp as Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Ed Wood (1994), Carrey as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999), and Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004).
In rare cases, sometimes called auto biopics, the subject of the film plays himself or herself: Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story; Muhammad Ali in The Greatest; Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back; Patty Duke in Call Me Anna; Bob Mathias in The Bob Mathias Story, Arlo Guthrie in Alice's Restaurant; and Howard Stern in Private Parts.
Biopic scholars include George F. Custen of the College of Staten Island and Dennis P. Bingham of Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. Custen, in Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (1992), regards the genre as having died with the Hollywood studio era, and in particular, Darryl F. Zanuck, but Bingham's 2010 study Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre shows how it perpetuates as a codified genre using many of the same tropes used in the studio era that has followed a similar trajectory as that shown by Rick Altman in his landmark study, Film/Genre. Bingham also addresses the male biopic and the female biopic as distinct genres from each other, the former generally dealing with great accomplishments, the latter generally dealing with female victimization. Christopher Robe has also written on the gender norms that underlie the biopic in his article, "Taking Hollywood Back" in the 2009 issue of Cinema Journal.
A certain amount of fabrication is expected, at least to reduce the risk of libel, but the films often alter events to suit the storyline. Events are sometimes portrayed more dramatically than they occurred, time is "condensed" to fit all important events into the film or several people are blended into a composite.
Although many viewers and critics forgive such fabrications for entertainment value, some biopics have come under criticism for allegations of deception. Historians noted the wayward chronology of Michael Collins, a team of Greek lawyers threatened to sue the makers of Alexander for implying that Alexander the Great was bisexual and many boxing fans resented the villainous portrayal of Max Baer in Cinderella Man. But a more controversial biopic in terms of accuracy is 1999's The Hurricane, about boxer Rubin Carter and his hotly disputed triple murder conviction. Several details were altered to enhance the image of Carter and details about the police procedures that led to the conviction conflicted with court records. Also, former middle weight champion Joey Giardello, who won a title bout against Carter, sued the film's producers for suggesting he won due to a racist "fix". The case was settled out of court.
Roger Ebert defended the The Hurricane and distortions in biographical films in general, stating "those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother. ... The Hurricane is not a documentary but a parable."
Some biopics purposely stretch the truth. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was based on game show host Chuck Barris' widely debunked, yet still popular, memoir of the same name, in which he claimed to be a CIA agent, and Kafka incorporated both the life of author Franz Kafka and the surreal aspects of his fiction.
The Oliver Stone film about the band The Doors, mainly about Jim Morrison, was highly praised for the similarities between Jim Morrison and actor Val Kilmer, look-wise and singing-wise, but fans and band members did not like the way Oliver Stone portrayed Jim Morrison, and a few of the scenes were even completely made up.
Casting can be controversial for biographical films. Often, casting is a balance between similarity in looks, and ability to portray the characteristics of the person. Anthony Hopkins felt that he should not have played Richard Nixon in Nixon because of a lack of resemblance between the two. The casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror was objected to because of the American Wayne being cast as the Mongol warlord. Egyptian critics criticized the casting of Louis Gossett, Jr., an African American actor, as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in the 1982 TV miniseries Sadat. Also, some objected to the casting of Jennifer Lopez in Selena because she is a New York City native of Puerto Rican descent while Selena was Mexican-American.