Ten biopics up for an Oscar. But what makes this genre so popular?

The resurgence of biopics we see today is largely due to people's fascination with celebrities, their failures, successes and scandals.

The stories of a musical composer, a physicist, and a Nazi leader are competing for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.
Laura Salafia
The stories of a musical composer, a physicist, and a Nazi leader are competing for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards.

Ten biopics up for an Oscar. But what makes this genre so popular?

A musical composer and orchestra conductor, a physicist, and a Nazi leader, three historical figures whose cinematic biographies are among the contenders for the Best Picture award at the 2024 Academy Awards (Oscars).

Slated to win, however, is Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon. While not strictly classified as a biopic, the movie is still closely aligned with this genre, delving into the history of the Osage Nation and the crimes committed against them by white settlers in the United States.

Biographies and autobiographies have long fascinated writers, artists, and audiences across the annals of literature and the arts.

Various forms of biographies abound, ranging from archaeological records, such as the descriptions of Pharaonic kings and queens inscribed on tombs, to mythological tales like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the rich accounts of heroes, leaders, and philosophers in Greek and Roman tradition.

This is also true of prophets and messengers within the three divine religions, culminating in the prophetic biography chronicled by Ibn Hisham and ancient Arab biographies encompassing biographies and accounts of some of the most prominent Arab poets.

In fact, the concept of biography, described by Lisan al-Arab as "the manner and condition of a person," can be traced back to the dawn of human self-awareness and the impulse to transmit one's story to future generations.

Some of the oldest examples can be seen in cave paintings discovered in Spain dating back 64,000 years.

Arabic biographies

If Saint Augustine's Confessions, written in the early fifth century AD, is regarded as the first Western autobiography, and James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is celebrated as the first comprehensive biography, Arabs boast a rich tradition of biography and autobiography.

This tradition is highlighted by illustrious biographical works that have meticulously chronicled the lives of various individuals throughout different eras and epochs.

Such works include Tabaqat al-Sahaba (Classes of the Prophet’s Companions), Tabaqat Fuḥūl al-Shu'arā (Classes of Champion Poets), Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs), Wafayat al-Ayan (Obituaries of Notable Figures), Bughyat al-Multamis fi Tarikh Rijal al-Andalus (The Aspirant’s Objective in the History of Andalusian Men), Aṣ-ṣila fi Ta'rīkh A'immat al-Andalus (The Continuation in the Historical Accounts of the Leaders of Al-Andalus), among many others.

Some biographies focus on specific individuals, such as the prophetic biography (al-Sira al-Nabawiyya), Manaqib al-Imam (Virtues of the Imam), Al-Ta'rif bi-Ibn Khaldun wa-Rihlatihi Gharban wa-Sharqan (Introduction to Ibn Khaldun and His Journey West and East), Akhbar Abi Nuwas (Chronicles of Abu Nuwas), and Tawq al-Hamam (Ring of the Dove) by Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi.

Additionally, there are legendary folk biographies like those of Antarah ibn Shaddad, Al-Zir Salem, and Al-Zahir Baybars. Some biographies included implicit biographies, as seen in travel literature, extending into the 20th century.

Here, the art of biography, like in the rest of the world, evolved into a popular form appreciated for its high readability and established literary style, whether in the form of memoirs or testimonies with varying stylistic approaches, including literary, narrative, and journalistic styles.

Some of the most prominent Arab biographers include Taha Hussein, Ahmed Amin, Al-Aqqad, Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Naguib al-Rehani, Latifa al-Zayyat, Abdel Rahman Badawi, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, Edward Said, Mohamed Choukri, among dozens if not hundreds of others.

Axel Rangel Garcia

Read more: Revisiting the legacy of Edward Said, the voice of the Palestinian cause in the West

As the cinema emerged, it was evident that biography would play a significant role in its narratives and world.

Just as the stories of great figures, historical characters, lovers, and heroes have captivated audiences in gatherings and cafés for centuries, cinema (followed by radio, television, and now short video clips via platforms like YouTube) swiftly embraced these biographies as a primary source of its stories.

Although the term "biopic" didn't gain popularity until the late 20th century, according to the Oxford Dictionary, it originated in 1945, when it combined "biography" and "picture."

Art historians trace the earliest instance of biographical cinema to Alfred Clark's film Execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1895), produced by Thomas Edison, which lasted a mere 18 seconds.

This sparked a surge in biographical films, including Jeanne d'Arc (1900), The Life of Moses (1909), Queen Elizabeth (1912), The Life and Works of Richard Wagner (1913), Cleopatra (1917), The Fighting Roosevelts (1919), Little Napoleon (1923), and numerous others.

Between 1927 and 1960, Hollywood alone produced over 300 biographical films, with as many as ten films released in a single year.

Challenges in the Arab world

However, in the Arab world, biographies appear to have not held the same prominence as in the West. One reason for this could be the challenges associated with producing this genre of film.

While many Western biographical films (both American and European) draw inspiration from widely popular fictional, historical, or journalistic writings, such sources have remained limited in the Arab publishing landscape.

Between 1927 and 1960, Hollywood alone produced over 300 biographical films, with as many as ten films released in a single year.

Another significant factor is the political, social, and cultural context in the Arab world, which presents hurdles in initiating discussions about historical figures or achieving consensus on the portrayal of specific individuals.

Nevertheless, there have been some notable attempts, primarily in Egypt, with films such as Khaled Ibn Al-Waleed (1958), Jamila (1958), Saladin the Victorious (1963), and Sayed Darwish (1966), all of which appear to be products of the Nasserist Arab phase.

Two of these films, Jamila and Saladin the Victorious, were directed by Youssef Chahine, who later embarked on a series of biographical films beginning with Alexandria... Why? (1978), followed by The Emigrant (1994), inspired by the biography of the Prophet Joseph and Destiny (The Biography of Ibn Rushd, 1997).

With these works, Chahine was probably trying to partially reassess the Nasserist era and the Egyptian and Arab political reality post-revolution, known as Nasserism.

Against this backdrop, director Hassan al-Imam was a pioneer in producing films depicting the lives of artists in oriental dance and Tarab singing. These include Shafiqa el-Qebteya (1963), Badia Masabni (1975), and Sultana al-Tarab (the biography of the singer Mounira al-Mahdia, 1979).

Actor Ahmed Zaki later pursued a similar direction, dedicating himself to biographical films with several directors portraying the lives of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Anwar Sadat.

It appeared that he intended to continue this trend with at least a fourth film about the late President Hosni Mubarak, but his untimely death prevented this from happening.

In this context, it is noteworthy to mention that while biographical films did not become a sustainable production trend in Arab cinema, they have been able to carve out a decent space in television drama.

One notable example is the portrayal of the life of Taha Hussein in the series Al-Ayam (1979). This genre received a significant boost through religious and historical series during the month of Ramadan, starting with the series Mohammed: The Messenger of God (1980), followed by the immensely popular series Raafat al-Haggan (1988).

Subsequently, the biographical series became a prominent feature of the annual Ramadan drama lineup.

These often large-scale productions proved to be hugely popular and aligned perfectly with the religious and spiritual atmosphere, particularly when depicting the stories of well-known religious figures.

Citizen Kane's revolutionary approach

Although Orson Welles' iconic Citizen Kane (1941) is not a direct biography, it has been widely interpreted as such since its release as portraying the life of media and finance magnate William Randolph Hearst, who died a decade after the film premiered.

The fact that Hearst was still alive during the production likely necessitated using allegory and disguise for legal reasons. Although this film did not depict a controversial or "villainous" figure, such characters have long intrigued filmmakers.

For example, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), released around the same time, was inspired by Adolf Hitler.

Furthermore, Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932), which predates Citizen Kane by nearly a decade, drew from the life of the notorious outlaw Al Capone, distinguishing itself among the plethora of films (over six) about Capone.

These examples underscore the cinematic tradition of exploring complex, often contentious personalities, navigating the delicate balance between artistic expression and the potential legal implications of portraying real-life figures.

The profound impact of Citizen Kane lies in its revolutionary approach to biography, elevating it to a sophisticated art form that meticulously examines the protagonist's character. This film dissects the character's development, unveiling the complex layers that culminate in tragedy.

Through this exploration, the film engages with deep social, political, and existential themes, far surpassing the confines of the protagonist's personal story.

This approach has opened avenues for depicting a wide range of characters from diverse perspectives, particularly emphasising psychological depth.

It introduced the idea that biographical films could explore any individual's life—or even just a segment of the life—regardless of their historical stature or perceived "greatness."

The focus shifts to the character's intricacy, flaws, and the conflicts they face or create. Leveraging his Shakespearean artistic roots and an affinity for tragic theatrical figures, Orson Welles presented a modern interpretation of characters seemingly destined by fate.

This not only marked a pivotal moment in cinematic history but also expanded the narrative possibilities for character-driven storytelling in film.

Citizen Kane's revolutionary approach to biography elevated the genre through its sophisticated portrayal of the lead character.

Citizen Kane's enduring influence has been reflected in every major biopic since the 1940s.

The list is exhaustive and includes such notable films as Ivan the Terrible in its first (1944) and second (1958) parts, The Desert Fox (1951), Lust for Life (the story of painter Van Gogh, 1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), All That Jazz (1979), Gandhi (1982), and Amadeus (1984).

Other biopics portrayed characters from various walks of life—from military leaders, politicians, spies, businessmen, scientists, writers, artists, athletes, and even serial killers.

Genre resurgence

Film researcher William Kohler points out that the resurgence of biopics that we see today is largely due to people's fascination with celebrities, their failures, successes and scandals.

As interest in cinemas has declined over recent decades, a trend that was intensified during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, producers in the film and television industry have turned to biopics to reengage with audiences.

With their relatively modest production costs, these films offer a viable route to profitability. They may not set box office records, but they are consistently profitable. Additionally, the appeal of featuring a well-known figure in a film acts as a marketing draw, which brings down promotion costs.

The resurgence of biographical films in recent years can partly be attributed to the emergence of a new breed of celebrities, appealing to both young and diverse audiences.

Figures like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, brought to life in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010), and Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, portrayed in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs (2015), represent the youthful appeal and innovative spirit of the tech era.

Moreover, films like Catch Me If You Can (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring the notorious con artist Frank Abagnale, and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), directed by Martin Scorsese, about the infamous stockbroker Jordan Belfort, tell compelling stories about controversial figures.

Wolf of Wall Street

Inspirational stories also play a significant role in this resurgence, with biopics such as A Beautiful Mind (2001) by Ron Howard, which depicts mathematician John Nash, and Frida (2001) by Julie Taymor, which showcases the life of painter Frida Kahlo.

These films, along with others focusing on figures like boxer James Braddock in Cinderella Man (2005) and businessman Christopher Gardner in The Pursuit of Happiness (2006), both directed by Ron Howard and Gabriele Muccino, respectively, highlight individuals overcoming adversity.

Furthermore, the latter half of the 20th century, especially the 1970s and 1980s, has provided a rich tapestry of personalities for cinematic exploration.

Musicians such as Ray Charles in Ray (2004), directed by Taylor Hackford; Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), directed by James Mangold; astronaut Neil Armstrong in First Man (2018), directed by Damien Chazelle; and actress Marilyn Monroe in Blonde (2022) directed by Andrew Dominik.

The Oscars 2024

The list of biopics nominated for the 2024 Oscars in various categories encompasses elements or trends from all the types of characters mentioned above.

Among them, we find the character of the musician Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (directed and starring Bradley Cooper); the Black political activist Bayard Rustin in Rustin (directed by George C. Wolfe); and the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer (directed by Christopher Nolan).

There is also the story of Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad in the inspirational film Nyad (directed by Jamie Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi); French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte in Napoleon (directed by Ridley Scott); and Nazi leader Rudolf Hess in The Zone of Interest (directed by Jonathan Glazer).

There is also the story about Ugandan political activist and musician Bobi Wine in Bobi Wine: President of the People (directed by Moze Bwayo and Christopher Sharp); and Chilean activist and journalist Augusto Góngora and his wife Paulina Urrutia in the poetic documentary The Eternal Memory (directed by Maite Alberdi). 

The resurgence of biopics we see today is largely due to people's fascination with celebrities, their failures, successes and scandals.

And finally, there is the story of Tunisian mother Ofa Hamrouni in Four Daughters (directed by Kaouther Ben Hania); and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in one of the worst biographical films, Golda (directed by Guy Nattiv).

Among these ten films (excluding the two documentaries), the ones that stand out artistically are indeed those nominated for Best Picture and/or Best Director, namely MaestroThe Zone of Interest, and Oppenheimer.

These films impress me for different reasons.

In the story of the American musician Leonard Bernstein, we witness multiple layers of characters and dramatic arcs, touching on issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, the creative process and its intricacies, marriage and family dynamics, and profound existential questions.

As actor and director, Bradley Cooper demonstrates clear mastery and thoughtful deliberation in weaving these elements together.

While the initial quarter of the film sets a breathless pace reminiscent of La La Land, the narrative unfolds to present cinematic scenes, character development, and poetic moments rarely seen in recent film trends.

As for Oppenheimer and The Zone of Interest, they appear to be—despite their differences in scope, narrative style, and artistic approach—two sides of the same harrowing story: the narrative of the universal evil that engulfed humanity during World War II.

Michelle Thompson

Read more: Nolan's "Oppenheimer": An explosive masterpiece

In Oppenheimer, we are confronted with the horrors of the nuclear bomb and the murky political machinations that preceded, accompanied, and followed its invention and use.

Similarly, in The Zone of Interest, we encounter the character of a remorseless genocidal killer, devoid of any semblance of humanity, for whom murder is a bureaucratic task and a means of advancement in their career.

Simultaneously, the film serves as a metaphor for the pervasive indifference during the Holocaust, hauntingly reminiscent of contemporary events in Gaza. It underscores the notion that the world often stands by as genocide unfolds, either incapable or unwilling to intervene.

Read more: Making sense of the senseless: Gaza's horrors throw up a mix of emotions

As previously noted, Scorsese's film Killers of the Flower Moon doesn't necessarily fit into the biography genre. Instead, it serves as a backdrop to the genocidal mindset and its origin.

In this film, Scorsese appears to distil all the lessons and insights garnered from the myriad characters—both real and imagined—he has encountered throughout his career to reach the essence achieved by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

Ultimately, it suggests that the evil leading to genocide isn't confined to an individual and cannot be embodied in a single person, regardless of how deranged or violent they may be.

Rather, it's the product of a system, historical context, and entrenched patterns of ideas, perceptions, and biases that can transform in a moment of blindness into "a way or a condition that humans find themselves in," as delineated by the definition of biography.

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