The best biopics ever made
As 12 Years a Slave wins rave reviews, Movie Critic Paul Whitington takes a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of biographical films
Steve McQueen's new film 12 Years a Slave, which opens here this Friday, has been getting rave reviews across the world and deservedly so. It's been called the greatest movie ever made about slavery, but is also a perfect example of how to make a biopic. Because 12 Years a Slave is based a true story.
English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who was abducted in 1841 and sold into slavery. McQueen's film follows Northup through the living hell of southern plantation life, and brilliantly exposes the insanity of slavery, but is also careful not to pollute its period story with the benefit of hindsight. Above all it's a supremely focused biopic that captures the essence of its subject's life, and Chiwetel Ejiofor seems bound for Oscar glory.
A great biopic gives us a real sense of a person by zoning in on a key event or period in their lives, but also has to get the period they lived in right, and cast the right actor. That last aspect is crucial, and as an example of what I mean, just imagine how Lawrence of Arabia might have turned out if Sam Spiegel had got his way and cast Marlon Brando in the lead role.
David Lean's desert epic is for me the best biopic ever made, but here are some of my other favourites, as well as a few that got it hopelessly wrong.
* Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean was a notorious perfectionist, and shooting on his ambitious biopic of T.E. Lawrence lasted a year-and-a-half and took a heavy toll on both cast and crew. But all the heartache was worth it: Peter O'Toole is astonishingly good as the classical scholar who became an unlikely hero when he led the desert Arabs' revolt against the Turks during World War I. Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn co-star in this near-perfect classic.
* The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Anthony Mann's charming and evocative drama stars James Stewart as Glenn Miller, the charismatic big band leader who brought jazz to a wider audience just as the storm clouds of World War II were gathering. The music of the era is lovingly recreated by Miller's original musicians, Stewart is wonderful in the lead role, June Allyson plays his wife, and the final scenes are sure to reduce you to tears.
* Lust for Life (1956)
This Hollywood film based on Vincent Van Gogh's life may be rather romanticised, and Kirk Douglas is probably not most people's idea of a great artist, but Vincente Minnelli gloriously adapts the painter's style into his sumptuous cinematography. After failing at a religious career, the young Van Gogh turns to painting and becomes part of the Montmartre impressionist movement. Anthony Quinn plays Van Gogh's friend and rival Paul Gauguin in this visually spectacular film.
* Raging Bull (1980)
It was Robert De Niro who persuaded Martin Scorsese to take on the story of Jake LaMotta, the 1940s middleweight boxing champion whose rage and sexual jealousy were his undoing. Scorsese shot in black and white and came up with the inspired idea of matching slowed down dramatisations of LaMotta's fights to the lyrical strains of Verdi, and De Niro gives possibly his greatest performance as the tormented pugilist.
* My Left Foot (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis delivered an astonishing and star-making performance in Jim Sheridan's film based on the life of Christy Brown, the working class Dubliner who overcame cerebral palsy to become a famous artist and writer. Brenda Fricker won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Christy's formidable mother, and Sheridan's film perfectly captures the salty atmosphere of 1950s' Dublin.
* Walk the Line (2005)
Johnny Cash's troubled middle years are memorably evoked in James Mangold's intelligent and entertaining drama. Joaquin Phoenix is Cash, who's about to play his famous concert at Folsom Prison when he thinks back on his marital problems and a childhood trauma that scarred him for life.
The music is great, Phoenix does his own singing and Reese Witherspoon is excellent as Cash's wife and muse, June Carter.
* Capote (2005)
Bennett Miller's Oscar-nominated film explores how Truman Capote's obsession with the murders of a Midwestern family ultimately destroyed his writing career. Philip Seymour Hoffman is very good as the effete author, whose New York ways horrify the inhabitants of a small Kansas town when Capote heads west to investigate with his close friend Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). A clever, witty and deeply moving film.
* La Vie en Rose (2007)
The tragic life of 1940s torch singer Edith Piaf was crying out to be dramatised, and Olivier Dahan did a wonderful job with the help of his leading lady, Marion Cotillard. She's exceptional as Piaf, an impoverished Parisian street kid who's singing for food in Belleville when she's spotted by an agent and becomes a much-loved star. A wonderful biopic that wears its heart on its sleeve.
* Il Divo (2008)
Paolo Sorrentino brings bristling intelligence, narrative energy and a healthy dose of humour to this enthralling biopic of three-time prime Minister Guilio Andreotti. Toni Servillo is Andreotti, who is jostling for the crowning achievement of the Italian presidency when a high-profile assassination in Sicily seems to confirm the accusations of mafia collusion that have long dogged him.
This is politics at its dirtiest, and Servillo is unforgettable as the dodgy leader.
* The Queen (2006)
In 1997, Queen Elizabeth's popularity hit new lows when she failed to react as the British public might have liked to Princess Diana sudden death. This delightful and ultimately sympathetic biopic from Stephen Frears goes behind the scenes to find out how HRH dealt with the PR disaster, and eventually turned to wily Prime Minister Tony Blair for help. Helen Mirren is magnificent as the queen, and Michael Sheen gives an uncanny Blair impression.
* Me and Orson Welles (2008)
Richard Linklater's clever biopic is set in New York in 1937, where Orson Welles is about to make his name in a legendary Mercury Theatre stage production of Julius Caesar. Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a 17-year-old would-be actor in 1930s New York who thinks all dreams have come true when he lands a part in the show, but soon discovers that Welles is as impossible as he is brilliant.Christian McKay is superb as Welles, and catches his fruity charm perfectly.
The worst biopics
* Copying Beethoven (2006)
Films based on composer's lives are almost invariably dodgy, but this is about the worst of them. Ed Harris plays an ageing Beethoven, who's going deaf and in a bad mood as he struggles to write his final symphony, the Ninth. Diane Kruger plays a fictional and unnecessarily beautiful copyist who comes to the great man's aid, but what should be moving and tragic is unintentionally hilarious, especially when Ed Harris overcooks the conducting.
* The Conqueror (1956)
Filmed downwind of a nuclear test site in Utah that's alleged to have caused a cancer epidemic among the cast, Howard Hughes' costume drama starred a hilariously miscast John Wayne as Tarter warrior Genghis Khan. The Duke sported a pudding bowl wig and a Fu Manchu moustache but otherwise swaggered and drawled as usual in this ridiculous but entertaining car crash.
* Diana (2013)
Despite a strong cast and a good director, Oliver Hirschbiegel's attempt to dramatise Diana Spencer's final days is nothing short of ridiculous. Naomi Watts plays the willowy princess, who's at a loose end after her divorce from Charles when she falls for a dashing Pakistani surgeon. Diana and her lover come across like refugees from a bad TV movie, and poor old Dodi is portrayed only dismissively in passing. A spectacular mess.