What Does Biopic Mean? Examples of Great Biographical Performances

February 12, 2024

Biopics, or biographical films, play a significant role in storytelling and cultural representation. From preserving historical events and figures to celebrating diverse stories, a well-executed biopic can capture the essence of complex, interesting individuals.   

What Does Biopic Mean?

“Biopic” combines the words “biographical” and “picture” and refers to a film that dramatizes the life of a real person. Biopics capture significant achievements, challenges, and personal aspects of political leaders, musicians, artists, athletes, and scientists. Biopics can be informative and entertaining, shedding light on the complexities of real-life personalities. Exceptional biopics have also earned accolades such as nominations and awards at film festivals and prestigious award shows.

A few examples of well-known biographical performances include:

Sofía Vergara, Griselda (2023)

Griselda, the latest biographical crime drama miniseries on Netflix, delves into the captivating life of Griselda Blanco, the notorious Colombian drug lord known as the “Godmother of Cocaine. Portrayed by Sofía Vergara, the miniseries directed by Andrés Baiz and written by Doug Miro and Ingrid Escajeda follows Blanco’s rise in the Miami drug scene, showcasing her relentless pursuit of power and wealth, which ultimately lead her to paranoia, betrayal, and tragic downfall.

Sofia Vergara, known for her comedic roles, delivers a career-defining performance as Griselda Blanco in her first Spanish-language project. Her portrayal highlights her versatility and depth as an actress, as she skillfully embodies the complexities of this compelling and multifaceted character, earning well-deserved acclaim. The main cast includes Matthew Bellows, a faculty member at NYFA Los Angeles, portraying DEA Special Agent Bob Palombo, NYFA Miami Acting for Film alum Sally Nieves, and Orlando Pineda, an NYFA Alum, who plays Dixon Blanco, Griselda’s eldest son.

In a recent Q&A with NYFA, Pineda described his experience preparing for his role in the film.

“I read absolutely everything there is on Griselda Blanco and her legacy, including family, business, and private life. I worked on my character’s intentions, motivations, obstacles to build an arc, I asked my dad (retired General in Colombia’s Military) so many questions about that world and all of that helped me find the essence of Dixon, who is a very different persona from myself.”

Header image via Netflix.

David Oyelowo, Selma (2014)

Directed by the iconic Ava DuVernay, Selma follows Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights. Following the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, this film is considered one of the best movies about Martin Luther King, Jr., offering a powerful and poignant portrayal of the civil rights movement and King’s pivotal role. The film won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song.

Kingsley Ben-Adir, Bob Marley: One Love (2024)

Bob Marley: One Love, hitting theaters on February 14, 2024, is a cinematic celebration of the reggae legend’s life. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film stars Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley and Lashana Lynch as his wife, Rita. The biopic traces Marley’s journey from overcoming adversity to becoming a trailblazer in reggae music. Ben-Adir, known for roles in One Night in Miami and The Comey Rule, masterfully embodies Marley’s persona, tackling the challenge of adopting Jamaican patois.

The film unfolds in 1976 Kingston as Marley plans a peace concert amid political turmoil. It follows his move to London after surviving an assassination attempt and recording the iconic “Exodus” album. Flashbacks provide glimpses into Marley’s formative years, capturing his Rastafarian beliefs reflected in influential songs like “Redemption Song.” The movie succinctly encapsulates Marley’s enduring influence and cultural impact through his timeless music. NYFA Filmmaking camp alum Michael Gandolfini stars in the film as Howard Bloom.

Natalie Portman, Jackie (2016)

In Jackie, May December, star Natalie Portman portrays Jacqueline Kennedy. The story follows the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and provides an intimate look at Jackie’s grief and strength. Portman’s compelling performance earned her critical acclaim, capturing the nuances of Jackie’s complex emotions and resilience during one of the nation’s most tragic moments. The film was nominated for three Oscars.

Bradley Cooper, Maestro (2023)

Maestro, a biographical romantic drama, explores the relationship between the American composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, the film is based on a screenplay co-written by Cooper and Josh Singer. NYFA Guest Speaker Carey Mulligan plays Montealegre. Image via People.

Lex Scott Davis, Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart (2016)

Based on Braxton’s book Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart a Memoir and her hit song, this biopic stars NYFA alum Lex Scott Davis as Toni Braxton. Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall, the film shows the life of the famous singer. Using the book as source material, the biopic has Braxton’s own spin on it, providing a raw and in-depth view of her life.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells the untold story of three African-American women mathematicians—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—who played pivotal roles at NASA during the Space Race. The film sheds light on their remarkable contributions, breaking barriers of both race and gender, and celebrates their resilience and brilliance in the face of adversity. Their achievements, crucial to the success of historic space missions, are finally brought to the forefront in this inspiring narrative. The film was nominated for three Oscars.

Austin Butler, Elvis (2022)

Austin Butler, recipient of a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama award for his role in Elvis, brought the famous singer’s legacy to life. The movie was filmed in Gold Coast, Australia, with the assistance of some hardworking NYFA Australia students. The film itself garnered eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The nominations carried a bittersweet tone for the Elvis team, as Lisa Marie Presley, the real-life daughter of the legendary singer, tragically passed away shortly after the Golden Globes ceremony that year. Image via IMDB.

Ana de Armas, Blonde (2022)

Directed by Andrew Dominik, Blonde stars Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. The film, which received an NC-17 rating, delves into the complexities of Monroe’s life, examining both her public persona and private struggles. Per Variety magazine, Ana De Armas received a standing ovation for her performance. The film received one Oscar nomination.

Salma Hayek, Frida (2002)

Directed by Julie Taymor, Frida stars Salma Hayek as the iconic artist Frida Kahlo. The film explores Kahlo’s tumultuous life, art, and relationships. Hayek’s compelling performance captures Kahlo’s passion, pain, and unapologetic spirit, offering a visually stunning and emotionally resonant portrayal of the celebrated Mexican painter. The film won two Oscars for Best Music, Original Score, and Best Music, Original Song. Image via IMDB.

Jennifer Lopez, Selena (1997)

Selena is a biographical musical drama film directed by Gregory Nava. The movie chronicles the life and career of Tejano music superstar Selena Quintanilla, played by Jennifer Lopez, showcasing her rise to fame, cultural impact, and tragic death at a young age. The film received critical acclaim for Lopez’s performance and portrayal of Selena’s legacy. It remains a poignant tribute to the iconic singer, capturing the essence of her spirit and her lasting influence. Lopez was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical.

RBG (2018)

A documentary rather than a traditional biopic, RBG focuses on the life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film highlights her impact on gender equality and the law. Through interviews, archival footage, and a nuanced portrayal of her legal battles, RBG offers a comprehensive and inspiring look at Justice Ginsburg’s enduring legacy as a trailblazer for women’s rights and a champion for justice. RBG was shot by director of photography and NYFA Documentary and cinematography instructor Claudia Raschke. The film was nominated for two Oscars.

Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (2019)

Bohemian Rhapsody depicts the journey of the rock band Queen and their legendary frontman, Freddie Mercury. This film joins a rich tradition of biopics centered on renowned musicians, such as Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, Get on Up, and Straight Outta Compton. Starring Oppenheimer actor Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, the film won four Oscars, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Malek, who is the son of Egyptian immigrants, beat out several other established actors for his first Oscar.

Madina Nalwanga, Queen of Katwe (2016)

Queen of Katwe follows Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl from a slum who becomes a chess prodigy. Lupita Nyong’o stars as Phiona’s mother. The film highlights Phiona’s remarkable journey in chess and explores her family’s resilience, determination, and unwavering support, making it a heartwarming and inspiring tale. Image via Business Standard.

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, a mathematician who played a crucial role in breaking the Enigma code during World War II. The film, titled The Imitation Game, delves into Turing’s genius, personal struggles, and the impact of his groundbreaking work on modern computing, offering a poignant tribute to his legacy. The film won an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

Additional Biopic Films 

  • Erin Brockovich (2000)
  • Ray (2004)
  • Cesar Chavez (2014)
  • Wild (2014)
  • Get on Up (2014)
  • 42 (2013)
  • Malcolm X (1992)
  • The Iron Lady (2011)
  • The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

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