10 Biopics That Actually Worked, and Why

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Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover biopic J. Edgar is out on DVD today, following a fall theatrical run notable mostly for its lack of awards consideration; the film, and particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s leading role in it, had been the object of much presumptive Oscar buzz (hitting, as it does, multiple circles in the Oscar Venn diagram: slightly villainous, based on a real person, wide range of aging, secretly gay). But the film underwhelmed, for one very simple reason: we’re just getting tired of biopics.

The biographical film portrait has been a venerable institution since the early days of cinema; Georges Méliès made a Joan of Arc biopic clear back in 1900. And while there have been scores of great ones, the tropes of the form (the birth-to-death chronology, the trials and triumphs, the romantic struggles, etc.) are so firmly established that the only biographical films that really make an impression any more, it seems, are those that buck the trends and experiment, or at least futz with the form a bit. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten great biopics that made an impression, and float some theories as to why.

I’m Not There.

Few figures in American culture have tinkered with our perception of identity more frequently (or fascinatingly) than Bob Dylan, so when the great Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) took a crack at bringing Dylan’s life to the screen, he did so in the only way that made sense: by casting six different actors as Dylan — none of them actually playing the man. Instead, they took on different aspects of his persona, the characters he played in public life or on his records (rock star, cowboy, poet, troubadour, preacher, actor), which Haynes intermingled with appropriately varying film and narrative styles. The results were a bit befuddling to those unfamiliar with Zimmy, but for fans, it was an entirely appropriate way to approach a living enigma.

Greased Lightning

One frequent problem of the biographical movie is the audience’s hyper-awareness of the subject; the life of Muhammad Ali, for example, has been so painstakingly documented that even the stylistic virtues of Michael Mann’s Ali can’t diffuse the feeling that it’s all stuff we’ve seen and heard before (particularly since it ends with one of his most famous fights, the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” itself the subject of the documentary When We Were Kings). So there’s something to be said for the director that chooses a noteworthy subject whom we know very little about. That’s one of the primary virtues of Greased Lightning, Michael Schultz’s fast and funny 1977 biography of Wendell Scott, the first African-American stock car racing champ in America, who was winning Southern NASCAR races clear back in the 1950s. It’s a fascinating story (somewhat fictionalized, of course, in true biopic fashion), and Richard Pryor is electrifying in the leading role.

Raging Bull

Jake LaMotta wasn’t quite the unknown quantity that Scott was when Martin Scorsese adapted his biography Raging Bull: My Story back in 1980, but LaMotta was enough of blank slate to the public that Scorsese didn’t have to worry about his audience’s preconceived notions of the brawler. He also had the freedom to create a warts-and-all portrait of the abusive boxer, even though LaMotta was still alive and even served as a consultant on the picture (which often results in a sunny, whitewashed representation). The result was arguably Scorsese’s finest film, a relentlessly downbeat drama that explored the filmmaker’s pet themes (guilt, redemption, self-abuse, the Madonna-whore complex) with terrifying realism and an astonishingly assured cinematic style.

Lenny

Style was also the key to Bob Fosse’s masterful 1974 biography of Lenny Bruce — a film that doesn’t often get credit for its clear influence on Raging Bull (the look, feel, and structure of the two films are strikingly similar). Shot in stark black-and-white, utilizing a pseudo-documentary format and a non-linear chronology that hopscotches through Bruce’s short life, Lenny is a film as memorable for how it tells us as it is for what it tells us; Fosse brought a similarly sharp (and significantly more disturbing) eye to his final film, STAR 80, the story of slain Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten.

Che

Director Steven Soderbergh chose a decidedly unconventional approach to his two-part, four-and-a-half hour long biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Most biographical films (even one as long as this one) have to heavily condense events in order to smash everything in. Soderbergh instead chose to tell Guevara’s story by taking three key events in his life (the Cuban revolution, his 1964 address to the United Nations, and the failed Bolivian revolution that led to his death at 39) and blowing them up, in an attempt to make us understand Guevara purely through those particular moments. It is a unique way to make a film about the man, instead of the things that happen to him. The resulting films are certainly flawed (we get a little lost in all those jungle scenes, and focusing on these three events allows Soderbergh to get away with leaving out some of the more troublesome elements of Guevara’s biography), but also fascinating, intelligent, and appropriate to Soderbergh’s experimental tendencies.

Patton

This 1970 epic from director Franklin J. Schaffner (working from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North) faced an interesting dilemma: it was the story of a major American military figure, coming out a time when the Vietnam conflict had created a pop culture attitude toward the armed forces that was, to say the least, complicated. Their solution was to make a film that viewed its subject through that lens of complication — it was not, as many rationalizing writers insisted at the time, a secretly anti-war film, but it was one that saw its subject with a good deal more complexity and cynicism than had been the norm in Hollywood’s portrayals of World War II up to that time. Yet Schaffner and his writers also indulged the title character (magnificently played by George C. Scott), who engaged in the kind of fierce, near-jingoistic dialogue and attitudes — particularly in the iconic opening speech — that hawks in the audience could embrace. Thus, audiences could see the film through their own filters, and take from it what they chose.

Amadeus

Most biographical filmmakers view their subjects in the most straight-ahead manner possible — coming at them through the front door, if you will. Director Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer came at Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through the window. In spite of its title, Amadeus isn’t a biography of Mozart at all; it is the story of his rivalry with composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), and Mozart (Tom Hulce) is only seen through that character’s eyes. By focusing on the intricacies of that relationship (one that Shaffer highly fictionalized), the film becomes less a biopic than an absorbing drama all its own.

American Splendor

Writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini chose a decidedly inventive approach for their 2003 adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series: they made it into a meta-biopic, mixing documentary and dramatic elements, interweaving the real people involved (Pekar, his wife Joyce Brabner, his co-worker Toby Radloff) with the actors playing them (Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander, respectively). The picture’s skillful juxtaposition of styles and stream-of-consciousness configuration gives it an unpredictability decidedly — and regrettably — absent from the majority of biographical films.

Coal Miner’s Daughter/Walk the Line

Michael Apted’s 1980 biopic of Loretta Lynn and James Mangold’s 2005 bio of Johnny Cash are possibly the most conventional films on this list, but both of these profiles of country music legends are given additional weight by the relationships at their center. The infatuation that Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) harbors for June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) provides a romantic engine that powers the entirety of Walk the Line, which becomes less a biography than a love story; the sometimes stormy but mostly warm marriage of Lynn (Sissy Spacek) and husband “Doo” (Tommy Lee Jones) is the most compelling and memorable element of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Both films end up passing a litmus test that most biopics fail: we’d be interested in these relationships even if they didn’t involve famous people.

Those are a few of our favorite biopics; we’d love to hear yours in the comments.