Biographical films, or biopics, depict the lives (or segments thereof) of past and present eminent, famous, and infamous people. The boundary between the biopic and other genres is fluid, since biography can include historical film, costume drama, musical, melodrama, western, crime film, social problem film, documentary, and so on. The biopic distinguishes itself by emphasizing the person rather than a history of an era, at least in its title. The genre is not static, but rather sensitive to cultural and social transformations involving nation and community, and its form and discourse alters over time. Biopics can be allegories of power, tributes to genius and talent, paradigms of economic success, or celebrations of nation formation and patriotism, or they can capitalize on transgressions of prescribed standards of social behavior (as in gangster films, social problem films, and docudramas). Biopics present their historical subjects by means of textual and intertextual strategies that draw on the predilections of the producer, the technological and economic resources of a studio, the likelihood of profitability, the style of a director, and the personae of stars, as well as on existing versions of social history, propaganda, or a particular ideology. The biopic bases its claims to authenticity on research—written histories of a period, biographies, diaries, journals, paintings, architecture, fashion—often relying on and crediting the work of historical advisers.
The classic form of the biopic is sensitive to direct and indirect forms of censorship, and the elimination or reworking of pertinent and sensitive data about the personal life of the biographical subject is a common feature of the genre that elicits criticism about its historical legitimacy. The biopic has been a catapult to stardom for some actors because it creates the illusion of a fit between the physical appearances, mannerisms, modes of speaking, and temperaments of the actor and the famous subject. Yet the use of a star can create a tension between the famous biographical subject and the fame of the star, contributing to the complexity of the portrait or creating problems of credibility. The style can follow the model of established generic formulas, veer in an avant-garde experimental direction, or assume an investigative and reflexive mode.