I recently watched an interesting pair of biopics that make for companion pieces of sorts. The first, Unbroken, a 2014 WWII drama directed by Angelina Jolie and taken from the book by Lauren Hillenbrand, reintroduces the world to Louis “Louie” Zamperini, the Torrance, CA-born long distance runner who made a splash at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 before joining the war effort, crashing into the Pacific, and spending two years in a Japanese POW camp. The second film, 2016’s Race, details the struggles of Ohio State graduate and African American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at those same Berlin Olympics – a new world record that made one Adolf Hitler none too pleased.
The two films complement each other in several ways. First, in Unbroken, we see a brief glance at the face of a black athlete in Berlin, and are supposed to assume that this is Owens. Second, both films depict, in that timeless sports drama tradition, the triumph over adversity and the struggle against impossible odds. Third – and a detriment to both films – they “whitewash” later aspects of their characters’ lives. The takeaway from Hillenbrand’s book was that Zamperini dedicated his post-WWII life to God. This fact earns barely a mention at the end of Jolie’s film. As for Owens, he battled the IRS for much of his post-Olympics life, but that subplot didn’t make the final cut of Race. If that small detail doesn’t make for the most exciting of dramas, it at least grounds the athlete in Everyman reality. Zamperini and Owens were just people, same as the rest of us.
A good sports drama will show us what made its subject such a remarkable athlete. A great sports drama will complement – or at least counter – the character’s physical accomplishments with humanizing (or, in the case of Raging Bull, the best sports biography, dehumanizing) subplots. Only boxing films seem to get it right.
My work was cut out for me last month when I came up with a top ten list of biopics – movies about the lives of real people. How do you depict a life on screen? And who is to say what makes a life worthy of having a movie made about it? Several of the films I came up were larger-than-life epics. Adventure films like Lawrence of Arabia and Patton earned a few places on the list. Others, like Frida and The Imitation Game, revolved around artists and inventors. One, the aforementioned Raging Bull, focused on a truly gifted – but truly monstrous – human being.
But there are more than just ten good stories out there. Here are ten more great screen biopics:
11. Into the Wild (2007): In May of 1990, Christopher McCandless graduated with honors from Emory University. His parents and sister attended the ceremony. Soon afterwards, McCandless changed his name to Alexander Supertramp, donated his life savings to Oxfam, and drove west in his trusty Datsun car to experience life off the grid. His goal: Alaska. Two years later, he finally arrived, and set up camp in what became known as “Magic Bus,” an abandoned Fairbanks city bus rusting away on the wrong side of a raging river. He would never leave. Into the Wild, adapted from Jon Krakauer’s bestseller, in turn pieced together from journal entries discovered after McCandless’s untimely death, is a remarkable and frustrating film about the young man’s journey. Remarkable for its vistas of Alaska, the Grand Canyon, and Slab City, California. Frustrating because its protagonist is as naïve as he is brave, as insensitive as he is humane. Is McCandless to be commended for taking life by the horns and rejecting consumerism? Should he be chastised for abandoning his family with nary a word of where he was off too? The movie doesn’t offer any answers, but raises many valid questions. Two-and-one-half hours long and with what is rumored to be an another hour of footage left on the cutting room floor, Into the Wild was clearly a labor of love director Sean Penn. His passion for the material appears to have been contagious for the film’s cast members as well. Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener shine in supporting roles, while lead Emile Hirsch, as McCandless, isn’t so much acting in the role as he is just being. A sad and wonderful film simultaneously, and something of a cinematic miracle.
12. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942): If you have ever been to Times Square, you may recall a modest statue at Broadway and 42nd Street in honor of George M. Cohan, “the man who owned Broadway.” You may have paused for a moment to look at the placard, said to yourself “Who’s that?” and moved on. Yankee Doodle Dandy is his story. Like Ron Kovic, whose story was the subject of #10, Born on the Fourth of July, on my initial list, Cohan was born on Independence Day. He spent his entire life traveling around the country, singing show tunes about America, first as the spotlight-hogging, prodigal son of his family’s quartet, later as a writer, producer, singer and dancer. The movie opens and closes with Cohan (James Cagney, phenomenal) meeting with FDR to accept a Congressional medal, and covers all of the expected biographical beats in between those bookends – his precocious childhood, his first producing partnership, his father’s passing, his courtship of dancer Mary (Joan Leslie), etc. But Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of the first films of its kind, and it remains a breath of fresh air 74 years later. Cagney, tired of being typecast as a gangster, stated late in life that this was his favorite role to play. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for the part, and his performance, largely physical in nature (that tap dancing!) is as accomplished as the film’s direction, by Michael “Casablanca” Curtiz.
13. Amadeus (1984): “Why him?” asks Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), the former court composer for Austrian royalty, to the priest who consoles him at the Salzburg insane asylum in which Salieri spends his final days. The “him” in question is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), the impish, giddy heir apparent to symphonic legend – and Salieri’s compositional superior in every way. The two first meet in the presence of Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones), when Mozart is invited as a guest of the court. Salieri, who has been giving lessons to the emperor, composes a minute-long ditty in Mozart’s honor. The emperor plays it and then turns the piano over to Mozart himself, who ad libs a piece that is much more brilliant. And so we have Amadeus, part biopic, part psychological drama, about the genius of Mozart and the torment of Salieri. The first half of Milo Forman’s rich period piece is rife with life, humor, and color. The second half, which begins with Mozart’s emotional meltdown after his father’s (Roy Dotrice) passing and ends with Salieri’s cruel revenge, is dark, like another movie altogether. The two halves don’t always gel – and it is said that some creative liberty has been taken with Salieri’s role during the final months of Mozart’s life – but they combine for a full look at an artist’s torment, and at his tormentor. Most creative geniuses are, after all, emotionally-stunted and psychologically unstable.
14. Gorillas in the Mist (1988): Here is another stellar biopic from the 1980’s, directed by genre master Michael Apted, who helmed Coal Miner’s Daughter eight years earlier. But this 1988 Apted film is a personal favorite of mine, given the setting: gorilla-filled, East African highland rainforest. I have already written extensively about my travels to Uganda; Gorillas in the Mist takes place in Rwanda and the Congo but is the same place in many ways. In the film, wannabe anthropologist Dian Fossey, inspired by the work of the legendary Louis Leakey, dedicates her life to researching and communing with a family of endangered mountain gorillas. As played by an excellent, Oscar-nominated Sigourney Weaver, in the best performance of her career, Fossey transforms from a hair dryer-lugging, high maintenance diva (a late 80’s film cliché, perhaps) to a lovelorn naturalist to an embittered battler of poachers and corrupt Rwandan government officials. Without intentionally dismissing Weaver, though, the real stars are the gorillas – sometimes real apes and sometimes humans in gorilla suits with astonishing makeup by Rick Baker. Guaranteed: you won’t be able to tell the difference.
15. 12 Years a Slave (2013): It is 1841 in New York State. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man, happily married and respected in high society as an accomplished violinist. After he accepts an invitation to perform in Washington, DC, he is duped by his “benefactors” and sold into 12 years of indentured servitude. The conspirers were never brought to justice. This harrowing tale really happened, and was adapted from Northup’s own 1843 memoirs for the screen in 2013, winning three Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film’s three leads, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, Michael Fassbender as abusive slave owner Edwin Epps, and Lupita Nyong’o as tormented slave Patsy, won numerous prizes on the 2013-14 awards circuit, with Nyong’o winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar also. She is heartbreaking in the role, and her fragile character is a counterpart to that of Epps, a hard-drinking, evangelical, sexually-depraved master. Fassbender is unforgettable. Good though they are, and memorable though their characters may be, this is Northup’s story. Chiwetel, a long-time supporting player in films like Inside Man and Love Actually, gets the role of a lifetime, and he owns it. His Northup is patient, determined, introspective, desperate…sometimes all in a single scene. If you can make it through the scene in which he surrenders to his fate by joining his fellow slave hands in singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” without breaking into tears, you are a stronger person than I am.
16. American Splendor (2003): The most imaginative entry on this list, American Splendor is a part live-action, part-animated, part-narrative feature, part-documentary tribute to the thoroughly unremarkable life of Harvey Pekar, the cranky Cleveland denizen and author of the underground American Splendor comic book series. The casting of Paul Giamatti was an inspired touch. Giamatti, who has made a career playing short-tempered grumps, seems born to play Harvey Pekar…but then again, so was the real-life Harvey Pekar himself, who also shows up in some creative meta sequences. Not a whole lot actually happens in the movie; we just watch and laugh as Harvey navigates married life, appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, a health scare, friendship with fellow comic Robert Crumb, a mundane day job as a file clerk, and trips to the grocery store. My favorite scene: Harvey approaches the supermarket checkout aisle with a small armful of items, and has an internal monologue over which line to get in. The line with a lot of other customers, or the shorter line headed up by an old lady with a pocketbook filled with coupons? Which line do you think he chose, and how do you think that worked out for him?
17. The Last Emperor (1987): There are two back-to-back scenes in The Last Emperor that I will never forget. In the first, the title character, a teenager, is enjoying a three-way under the covers with his wife and his concubine. Just when we think the scene is dragging on, we see flames. Is this some kind of symbolism, or has the storeroom been set ablaze? In the following scene, the Eunuch arsonists have been sent packing, and leave the Forbidden City, carrying their genitalia in jars so that they can be buried whole. The movie, a long but fascinating look into the tumultuous life of China’s last emperor, Pu Yi, was nominated for nine Oscars in 1988…and won all nine. The Last Emperor was the first western production to be filmed almost entirely in Beijing’s Forbidden City, which contains 9,999 rooms (it was said that only Heaven had 10,000). How many people in history lived through Feudalism as puppet child rulers, were still breast-fed at age seven, lost their mothers to opium addiction, lived as a playboy during their twenties, fell on the wrong side of history by siding with the Japanese in WWII, survived five years in a Russian prison, and another decade of subsequent reeducation as a Maoist Communist, only to spend their twilight years as a peasant gardener? For all of the film’s opulence and intrigue, however, The Last Emperor is a cold film, emotionally remote. In Gandhi, Lincoln, and other classic films about the lives of the ruling elite, we see these characters play decisive roles in politics and in deciding how they will be remembered in history books. In The Last Emperor, the main character is as much a victim of circumstance as the subjects he mistakenly believes that he actually rules over.
18. The Danish Girl (2015): British star Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should; Redmayne’s performance is one of the best acting jobs from the last decade. But his next role, Danish painter Einar Wegener/model Lili Elbe, in the following year’s The Danish Girl, required the actor to be more subtle, and the movie itself remains a bright spot from 2015 cinema. Wegener was an acclaimed landscape painter who, despite being in a loving, sexually-charged marriage, came to believe that he was a woman living in a man’s body, and became the first person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. His self-discovery begins almost as a lark, when his wife, portrait artist Gerda (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander), asks him to model one of her dresses after her model fails to show up. They have a good laugh about it, and together conspire to have Einar show up at a society ball wearing his wife’s clothes. It would even seem that Gerda is turned on by this…for a while. What follows is a touching, ultimately tragic tale of sexual freedom and spousal support, as much a story of a marriage as it is of an artist’s torture.
19. Walk the Line (2005): The musician biopic genre is a crowded one. Just in the sub-category of southern musicians, we have at least three worthy films. The year 1980 saw the release of Coal Miner’s Daughter, about the rags-to-riches life of country singer Loretta Lynn; the movie is one of very few to have a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. In 2004, Jamie Foxx won the Best Actor Oscar as Ray Charles, for Taylor Hackford’s aptly-named Ray. For my money, though, Walk the Line, which came out later that same year, is the best of the three films – and the most enduring. They all follow the same formula, which seems inescapable: a poverty-stricken childhood, marital strife, sexual indiscretions and/or substance abuse problems, and finally, a return to the top of the charts. Okay, so Walk the Line is conventional in terms of script and structure…but damn it, it is phenomenal with regards to performances and music. In fact, both leads sing their own music – a rarity in screen biopics. Joaquin Phoenix, prior to disappearing for several years to become a rapper (a lark that turned out to not be what it first sounded like), delivered a manic performance that highlighted his Method commitment, while costar Reese Witherspoon, who played the wholesome, equally famous June Carter, sang her way to a Best Actress Oscar!
20. Before Night Falls (2000): This is an important film about freedom of expression and of sexuality, and a true cradle-to-grave biopic as well. I hadn’t actually seen Before Night Falls since its release in 2000, and had all but forgotten about it until I came upon it on Indieplex, an Encore-affiliated cable network, a few weeks ago. Time has been kind to the film – or it could just be that it takes place in Havana, an ageless city that I long to visit, and was filmed in Veracruz, in my beloved Mexico. The title is taken from the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, the persecuted Cuban poet and novelist who was born and died in poverty, but knew, for a time, a vibrant life as a young man whose homosexuality was as much a part of his identity as his writing talent. Julian Schnabel, a Brooklyn-born painter, directed Before Night Falls with passion and imagination. He peppered the film with dream sequences, threw in cameos by Johnny Depp (playing two roles) and Sean Penn, and cast Spaniard Javier Bardem, relatively unknown at that time outside of Pedro Almodóvar films, in the role that would ultimately make him a star.
Between this list and the previous, have I covered the biopic bases?