Let’s start this one off on the right foot with a confession: the biopic is my least favorite genre. I know, some of film’s greatest performances are found here; no argument there. Actors climb over each other to see who will be Steve Jobs or Freddie Mercury or Margaret Thatcher. So why do I dread each casting announcement? It’s because of the hundreds of movies about politicians, heroes, villains, and entertainers, 95% of the films are cookie cutter style, concentrating on squeezing life events into a formulaic template and hoping that the audience concentrates on the usually brilliant – and sometimes ridiculous – performance that dominates nearly every scene. We are terrified of misrepresenting our public icons, so controversy is soft-lit and complexities ignored in favor straightedge(less) story telling that admirers will accept. Scan the buffet of film genre history and you will find biopics located between the gelatin salad and cottage cheese.
Another thing I wasn’t aware of until I researched for this installment – women have been given incredibly short shrift when it come to high quality, innovative ways of telling a famous person’s life story. For that reason, I’m listing five films where famous men are the subject and five where renowned women are portrayed. I had a difficult time winnowing the males down to five artistic achievements while for the ladies….Only one has the auteur style and passionate storytelling comparable to those vehicles for the dudes, and it stands out on the list like a sore thumb because it is a silent film.
For this exercise, I’m choosing films where the tone, pace and look are intended to enhance the spirit to the person being portrayed. They have the feel of a time or place as well as convey the essence the subject, be it crazy, pathetic, heroic, or creative. Based on artistic merit of the film and NOT the person portrayed –or doing the portraying, although most of these performances are career highs – here are ten biopics worthy of acclaim. Five for him and five for her. And filmmakers – please take a chance and give us another classic biopic of a woman. 1928 was oh-so-long ago. And make certain a woman will direct it, as well. Thanks.
First up, HIS…
Raging Bull – Martin Scorsese (1980)
As far as I’m concerned, this is Scorsese’s masterpiece. Everything is right with this film. Scorsese flexes his artistic muscles with every scene, evoking precisely a specific sense of time, place and mood. At times it’s almost too raw to watch, others, as romantic as a shimmering Bronx swimming pool in high summer. Augmenting Michael Chapman’s stunning B&W cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s quicksilver editing is a score handpicked from every corner of the musical lexicon – all with the common goal to convey character and mood. Even the three major boxing scenes are individually constructed and choreographed because every fight is NOT exactly like another. And, oh yes, there is that benchmark performance – DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta is the poster boy for true assholes – a borderline psychotic, jealous wife-beater, and fierce warrior in and out of the ring who steps off the precipice and plummets into reality like a meteor.
The Elephant Man – David Lynch (1980)
Ironically, 1980 gave us a second B&W classic biopic, this being David Lynch’s second feature and first major Hollywood effort. It’s based on the truly tragic John (Joseph) Merrick, whose extreme deformities confined him to a workhouses and freak shows until, towards the end of his life (at 27), he’s taken in by Dr Frederick Treves and London Hospital. For the first time, the good Victorian society begins to see the kind and intelligent human being underneath the horrific physical disorders. John Hurt somehow manages to pull at our heartstrings from underneath buckets of latex grotesquerie. Just as with Raging Bull, cinematographer Freddie Francis, editor Anne V Coates and composer John Morris – under Lynch’s nonconforming eye – conspire to provide us with a 19th Century Whitechapel experience unlike anything we have ever seen or even imagined.
Edvard Munch – Peter Watkins (1974)
Everybody is familiar with Norwegian artist Munch’s paintings, The Scream (there are four of them), and Peter Watkins sets out to ensure that we also understand both the artist and his process. Watkins is known primarily for his controversial documentaries, so he wisely selects a docudrama style here, complete with unknown performers and modern dialog to make the biographical exercise more immediate and personal. I saw the original 3-hour version back when it was released and it was a challenge – a welcomed challenge where we get an in-depth study of the father of German Expressionism by way of late 20th Century documentary-style.
Ed Wood – Tim Burton (1994)
As this biopic appears to mark the apex of Tim Burton’s filmography to date, as well as that of his leading man, one has to wonder how much admiration he had for the subject, considered to be the worst film director in the history of celluloid. The film is a lark because all of Ed Wood’s professional and personal proclivities are right up Burton’s alley – mohair sweaters and heels, confused and frustrated actors and technicians, no sense of logic or continuity, and a hysterical wrestling match between a horror movie legend and a rubber octopus leave us shaking our heads in disbelief. But Burton (and Depp) approach the matter with respect, replacing mockery with much affection that elevates the film to a level that is light years beyond your average biopic.
I’m Not There – Todd Haynes (2007)
Bob Dylan underwent many metamorphoses in his musical evolution and the brilliant Todd Haynes seizes on this fact and structures his film to reflect the same. Dylan is portrayed as seven entities played by six different actors (Bale, Ledger, Gere, Whishaw, Blanchett, and Marcus Franklin). The gimmick is extremely effective as it eliminates the need for tiresome transitional dialog between life phases. This is one of the century’s most enigmatic talents as reimagined by a most original artist.
Isadora – Karel Reisz (1968)
You would think that a film about the Earth Mother of the peace and love movement would have been more successful, financially. Redgrave’s positively luminous performance won the Best Actress award at Cannes as well as a couple of critics’ prizes. Isadora Duncan’s life philosophy evolved entirely about freedom – to move, love and live exactly the way you wanted. She had no problem having a spontaneous fling with an attractive poet or marrying for money to pursue her school for dance. She was also comfortable in her own body and thought nothing of popping her top during a performance, often clearing-out concert halls. Redgrave’s unique skills allow her to play the character from the naïve “Peppy Dora” dancehall gal, through her career and the tragic loss of her children, to the broken delusional recluse she became in her forties. Not many actors can convincingly play “older” while rasping broken French with an American accent thru an apparent alcohol-induced fog of desperation. The film’s original 168 minutes was hacked down by over half an hour and then the mainstream release title changed to The Loves of Isadora. But the original is out there somewhere – the UK had a complete DVD release five or six years ago, but it never made it over to the other side of the pond. Find it!
La Vie En Rose – Olivier Dahan (2007)
Another biopic told in memory recall flashbacks – seems to be the mode for films about artists – this one is the tragic tale of singer Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard gives a skyrocket of a performance that instantly made her the sweetheart of the international film world. Dahan’s direction is fittingly moody but the true highlights are the performances recreated where his atmospheric sets and lighting underscore some of the most iconic songs ever written. Hearing the “little sparrow” sing those words in the glare of the spotlight as if she’s beseeching the dark to lighten her load. “Non, je ne regretted rien.” Chills….
Elizabeth – Shekhar Kapur (1999)
How many movies do we need about Elizabeth I? If they could all be as inventive as this one, I’ll take one every couple of years. Kapur turned a tired – really tired – biopic subject inside out with his very modern style storytelling, outrageously inventive costumes, and feminist sensibilities. And then you have the full blown emergence of Cate Blanchett taking the character from young princess to white-powdered dowager, ducking, dodging and maneuvering her way through deadly 13th Century politics to become, arguably, the most powerful woman in history, all the while sacrificing her own happiness seemingly at every turn. The sequel was a bit of a disappointment, but this film is very much alive and a sumptuous view every time.
Silkwood – Mike Nichols (1983)
Mike Nichols does his take on the smartass, whistle-blowing nuclear plant worker who ends up dead when she begins to expose conditions. This is glow-in-the-dark Norma Rae, and la Streep finds that perfect blue collar register that is at once annoying and endearing as she takes us further into the paranoia that ends in tragic reality. Cher, as her lesbian pal, Dolly, does a great job suffering from unrequited love that soon turns to fear for her beloved Karen. Nichols effectively ramps up the tension every time one of those damn contamination sirens goes off. Strong, positive and totally focused on the determination of one woman to call out deadly dangerous practices, the devil be damned.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Passion of Joan of Arc) – Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928)
Even if you, like me, don’t subscribe to the Judeo/Christian/Islamic doctrine of Paradise or Punishment, this film will hit you in parts you never knew you had. Yes, Joan of Arc was probably a little “off”, but after serving – commanding, even – for her country and her God, she did not deserve what the patriarchal hierarchy delivered to her. Wisely, Dreyer’s stark photography, inspired close-ups and naked set pieces concentrate on the woman, her mission, and her reactions to her ultimate betrayal. Maria Falconetti made only two films and a short, which is a shame. There has never been and likely will never be a more expressive face that convinces you that what she believes is as real as the chair in which you are sitting. The film is nearly 90 years old, but it plays fresh and involving to this day, cementing its place permanently in the classics.
Sorry for the ramble and extra long post, but a gender-equality dig and equal play is overdue for this genre. The films above are all presented in the spirit of their subjects, showing us that film is the most effective way to explain what inspired a historical figure and archive their legacy. That’s what all biopics should sttrive for, understanding the person, not just a scrapbook of events.