Five Great Biopics: When Oscar-bait actually results in good movies!

Posted on 29 June 2009 by ShepRamsey

Last week’s premiere of the trailer for the Amelia Earhart biopic, Amelia, got me all raging and cynical about my intense hatred of biopics.  It looks like such a standard, easy, and thoroughly agonizing movie. Everything about it screams obviousness—from the casting (Hilary Swank?? Really???) to the dialogue (Q. Why do you want to fly? A. I want to be free), everything just looks spectacularly awful.  And yet it’s also quite clear that it’s most certainly going to be one of the films to keep an eye on as the roaring waves of Oscar season start splashing up against the shores.  It reminds me of all the rest—the Rays and the Walk the Lines and the rest of all that kind of crap–big messy movies about lives of famous people who didn’t really lead particularly interesting lives aside from the fact that they were famous. 

It’s enough to make you forget that there are actually a few of them—the ones that aren’t made solely as Oscar-bait—that are exceptions to the rule.  I was going to make a “five biopics I can’t stand” list, but I figure my reasons for all of them would have been the same (making for a pretty boring read), and after all the Transformers cynicism from last week, maybe we just need something positive to cling to.  So here you go: five really damn good biopics.  Enjoy.

Amadeus (1984, dir: Milos Forman)

As the kid from Last Action Hero can attest, this film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham.  amadeus-752457But here’s the crafty part: Abraham wasn’t playing the title role—that of famous classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  No, he was playing Antonio Salieri, the man who hated Mozart with a furious jealous rage.  Amadeus is a great film not just because it approaches the biopic from someone else’s point of view, but because it’s about such a frustratingly understandable aspect of humanity.  It’s not just about the art or the man, it’s about people and characters, and it’s an innovative and beautiful movie—one of the very best films of the 1980s and certainly the best of the Best Picture winners of the decade. But I’d reccomend sticking with the theatrical cut of the film.  The director’s cut is out there in a big way–it’s the only version currently available on Blu-Ray–but its extra twenty minutes add nothing to the film except…an extra twenty minutes.

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

This biopic about Bob Dylan is genius because it’s not really about Bob Dylan at all.  At least not on the im not theresurface.  Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Wishaw, and even Cate Blanchett all play different incarnations of Dylan’s persona—all of the lies and contradictions that have made up his long and fascinating career.  The final film is ultimately more accurate than just about any other biographical film ever made because it knows the power of finding the truth inside of lies.  Performances are fantastic all around, not because they convincingly evoke Bob Dylan, but because they create real and believable characters. Existing on their own, they are fascinating enough, but as a part of the wondrous whole of this film, it really is something else.

Good Night and Good Luck (2005, dir: George Clooney)

goodnightandgoodluckGood Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s film about Edward R. Murrow and his fight against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts, uses perhaps the best formula for a straight-forward biopic that I’ve ever seen used.  Instead of chronicling the life of the character that it is depicting, it trains its focus on one story in particular—one small segment of his life—and it stands alone to say so much more about the man than any other means could have accomplished.  At a shockingly quick 93 minutes, this film is a taut little picture that goes in, gets the job done, and gets out.  But damned if it doesn’t stick with you.

The Aviator (2004, dir: Martin Scorsese)

Here’s one movie that I feel inclined to give a free pass to.  The overall arc of the movie plays out in the same way aviator2_h2as something like Ray or Walk the Line or this upcoming Amelia picture.  But here’s the thing about what makes this movie work so damn well: its subject, Howard Hughes, was a really damn interesting son of a bitch.  This guy would have inevitably had a movie made about him, whether biopics were an Oscar-bait trend or not.  And who could possibly not find themselves completely engrossed in Scorsese’s grand portrait of the man?  It’s a spectacular film—big, sweeping, and glossy, evoking all of the best that old-timey Hollywood has to offer us.  I normally accuse other biopics of trying to cover too much territory, weakening the overalll film.  The Aviator is what happens when a movie tries to cover too much territory, and it’s all fascinating enough to actually work.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974, dir: Werner Herzog)

enigma of kaspar hauserAs with all Herzog films, this one isn’t so much about one man as it is about all of us, but it’s certainly one of the most compelling stories that he’s ever brought to film.  The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser stars Bruno S. as a young man raised for the first seventeen years of his life chained in a cellar by himself, with no human contact.  When he is set free, he becomes a popular attraction in a nearby town and slowly learns how to live among people, having a wholly different perspective on life than everyone else.  I hate to overuse the word fascinating, but every Herzog film is always exactly that.  Kaspar Hauser is the most fascinating of his films…and perhaps his best.  I’m not sure what he’s up to with this whole Bad Lieutenant not-a-remake, but it’s because of films like this that I trust he knows what he’s doing.                           

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. Quaid Says:

    Biopics are an inherently flawed genre as they focus on an entire life instead of the elements of a story that are most interesting. For instance…the most interesting part of Amelia Earhart’s life is obvious, but we’ll be treated to the totality of her existence because, you know, it’s a biopic.

  2. country population Says:

    I haven’t seen walk the line yet, but I guess I will have to see it. Most of the reviews I read say it is really great.

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  4. LH Says:

    A sign of a good biopic is always when the lead star embodies that particular character and actually convinces the viewer he/she is that character.For instance,I remember watching Malcolm X many years ago at the theater and the entire time forgot he was being played by Denzel Washington.Hollywood has been wishy-washy with biopics over the years,with some being good while others stink.

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