Biopics: The Best, and the Can’t Misses No One’s Made

My Saturday links post will take a break, since on Monday I’ll be giving a “best of 2012” version of it. Instead, let me know what you think about a couple of film-related questions on my mind the last few days…

Poster for Lincoln (2012)My wife and I finally had a chance to watch Lincoln earlier in the week. While it’s not a filmed biography in the conventional sense — it covers only a few weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s life, though earlier events and relationships are invoked so often it feels like you know much of his story — it did capture its subject about as well as any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s been said by many reviewers, but I’ll be uncreative: Daniel Day-Lewis gives a deeply empathetic, nuanced portrait of a famous American you only thought you knew.

So I was already wondering to myself: what’s the best biopic in film history? Then I read something on Efrem Smith’s Facebook account Thursday night: noting that Spike Lee wasn’t a fan of another recent movie set during the Civil War era, Efrem urged the director to stop complaining about Quentin Tarantino and instead make a new movie as good as Malcolm X. He suggested that both Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois would make great fodder for such a biography…

So, two questions:

1. What’s the best film biography you’ve ever seen? (here’s a seemingly comprehensive list to jog your memory)

2. Whose life story has yet to be made into a movie, but would be a can’t miss?

I’ve got a few thoughts on each, but would love to hear suggestions from history/biography/film buff readers…

Some great biopics off the top of my head…

  • Since I mentioned it already, Malcolm X is probably my favorite recent film biography — sweeping in scope, but intensely personal.
  • Even more sweeping is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and while I’m never sure of the veracity of the film, that goes with the territory of telling the story of a storyteller like T.E. Lawrence.
  • Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon
    French actor Albert Dieudonné as Napoléon Bonaparte – Wikimedia

    But the grandest biopic ever made is still Abel Gance’s Napoléon, which premiered in 1927 at over three hours — leaving six hours on the cutting room floor. (Its original American release was a mere seventy minutes. Read the tortured history of this silent epic in a New York Times story from earlier this year.)

  • Do versions of Shakespeare’s history plays count? If so, it’s (amazingly) hard to pick between Laurence Olivier’s or Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V
  • Much as I loved what Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis did with Lincoln, I suspect that — after a month or two of reflection — I’ll still prefer John Ford directing Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln.
  • Then from a couple of sub-genres… There are lots of good movies about moviemakers, but for all the film’s flaws, I’ll take Chaplin simply for Robert Downey, Jr.’s bravura performance… And there are almost no good biopics that star the actual subject of the biography (see The Jackie Robinson Story), but Audie Murphy doesn’t embarrass himself in To Hell and Back — having already demonstrated surprising ability in John Huston’s minimalist masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage, a few years before.

And then life stories that are too good to fail… but haven’t yet been filmed? My list feels incredibly random, but again, a few that came to mind:

  • I’ll start early in history, which means that I already need to cheat a bit to include Augustine of Hippo, since he was the focus of Augustine: The Decline of the Roman Empire just two years ago. But (a) that was a TV miniseries, not a feature film; and (b) it starred the nearly seventy-year old Franco Nero. No, I’m talking about a film version of Confessions, Augustine’s memoir of his early life and conversionthough I have a bad feeling that whoever would make this would draw heavily on James O’Donnell’s revisionist biography
  • Let’s stick with spiritual autobiographies… John Wesley was featured in an independent film bio in 2009 (and earlier in the 1950s), but how about a parallel biography of Wesley and his up-and-down relationship with the other great British evangelist of the 18th century, George Whitefield?
  • Winner, Girl Meets GodAnd one more… I have to confess to having had zero interest in seeing the film version of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, but I would pay good money to see Lauren Winner‘s Girl Meets God done well. Or, for a slightly riskier but even more complex movie, combine GMG‘s fascinating conversion story (Orthodox Judaism to evangelical Anglicanism) with the “mid-faith crisis” of Still (just given a Christianity Today Book Award and blogged about earlier this year right here).
  • Moving past spiritual biographies… Ely Parker — the Seneca attorney who served as an aide to Gen. Ulysses Grant (he shows up in Lincoln, but has no lines) and then as Commissioner of Indian Affairs a few years later under Pres. Ulysses Grant.
  • At one point in graduate school, I actually started work on a script about Minneapolis singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg and his band, The Replacements. (Look for their 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me to show up if and when my “Albums A to Z” series ever continues…) Fortunately, better job options came along, but I still think this — in more capable hands (Cameron Crowe? Nick Hornby?) — has the makings of a wonderfully messy musical biography. (Kind of like the anti-Walk the Line.)
  • And my favorite sports bio yet to be made… The Josh Gibson Story would tell of perhaps the greatest slugger in baseball history. Tragically, he lived the last years of his life with a brain tumor and died of a stroke at age 35 — just three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

4 thoughts on “Biopics: The Best, and the Can’t Misses No One’s Made

  1. How about the epic TV mini-series, “I, Claudius” by the BBC in the 60’s (,_Claudius)?Not sure if it falls in the realm of movie, but because it’s a mini-series it is able to follow the future Roman emperor from childhood to death highlighting his predecessors such as Augustus and Tiberius and the events of the greater Roman empire during that time. It’s probably the most comprehensive bio-epic I have seen. I also really enjoyed “The Aviator’s” portrayal of Howard Hughes but I am a bit biased to favor it since I am an aerospace enthusiast.

      1. Yikes! I am also scared now! I can only imagine they’ll try and turn it into “Rome” or “Tutors” with displaced drama and overt eroticism with negligence for real events and historically accurate characters. Alas, I will still probably watch it as the disgusting consumer of garbage TV that I am. At worst, I count my blessings it’s not another reality TV series.

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