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Weekend Roundtable: Best & Worst Movie Bio-Pics

The bio-pic genre is a reliable Hollywood staple. After all, when you run out of original stories to tell, why not just base a movie on a real person’s life and let history write the script for you? The success of a bio-pic usually comes down to casting. At their best, an actor will deliver a powerhouse performance in a real-life role, like George C. Scott in ‘Patton’. Other times, Ashton Kutcher will attempt to play… well, anyone, really. In this week’s Roundtable, we evaluate both some of the best and some of the worst bio-pics that Hollywood has churned out over the years.

Shannon Nutt

Best: There are so many great bio-pics out there that it’s hard to pick just one. ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘Raging Bull’ would all make outstanding choices. I decided to go with my personal favorite, a movie I can watch over and over again without ever getting bored: ‘Goodfellas‘. Directed by Martin Scorsese and detailing the rise and fall of Henry Hill through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, it still amazes me that this outstanding film didn’t bring home the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Worst: I would have liked to have been in the meeting where execs thought it was a good idea to cast Colin Farrell in the lead of ‘Alexander‘. Although this big budget epic made reasonable coin overseas, it was a bomb here in the States, and for good reason. It’s overlong, over-produced, over-narrated (by Anthony Hopkins) and horribly acted. Oliver Stone has directed some great movies in his career. This is not one of them.

Mike Attebery

Best: I’ve always been fascinated with Howard Hughes. I have an idea for an action/adventure novel that will probably get me sued by the Hughes estate one day, but I think it could be a lot of fun. As a result, I’ve read a lot of biographies about the man. When I heard that Martin Scorsese was helming a bio-pic, I was a bit wary. As I’ve said in previous Roundtables, while Scorsese is a great filmmaker, I find that I either love or hate his movies. Fortunately, ‘The Aviator‘ is terrific. It’s also a beautiful Blu-ray that’s an absolute steal.

Aaron Peck

Best: Still to this day, Martin Scorsese’s black-and-white chronicle of the life of boxer Jake LaMotta remains one of the best bio-pics ever filmed. ‘Raging Bull‘ is one of the main reasons, up until now, that Robert De Niro has largely gotten a pass for taking terrible role after terrible role. Go ahead, watch ‘Raging Bull’ again. It’s more than enough to forget about those deplorable ‘Focker’ movies.

Worst: I remember seeing ‘Patch Adams‘ in the theater. I also remember never wanting to see another movie starring Robin Williams ever again when I walked out. To be fair, it wasn’t totally Williams’ fault that the movie was so terribly cloying and utterly devoid of charm. It was because the filmmakers decided to focus Williams’ more annoying tendencies, specifically the endless oddball hysteria he uses in his stand-up routine. This caused the movie, which was a dour attempt at heartfelt emotion, to be punctuated by off-the-wall humor that never fit with the theme. They might as well have painted Williams blue and called him Genie Patch Adams, because that’s exactly how he acts. It might be fine for a cartoon, but it’s wrong for a movie that wants to be all gushy and sentimental.

Luke Hickman

My choices follow a theme: Musical bio-pics.

Best: I love how director James Mangold challenges himself with a new genre in each movie he makes. ‘Walk the Line‘ is such a great bio-pic that it would be just as great even if it wasn’t based on/inspired by the life of a lovable American icon. More than just telling the story of the music, the film tells the story of the man and his first priority in life – no, not music, but June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are brilliant. Masked as a musical bio-pic, ‘Walk the Line’ is more like a nonfiction romance about two forbidden lovers and their angst – and it just-so-happens to have a lot of great music that you’ll never believe wasn’t really Johnny Cash singing.

Worst: I have no understanding of why ‘Ray‘ earned as much critical acclaim as it did. Aside from his talents as a singing and piano-playing musician, Jamie Foxx coasted through the movie by basing his character on gestures that every child mimics upon seeing Ray Charles for the first time. In ‘Walk the Line’, Phoenix became the face and voice of Johnny Cash. In ‘Ray’, Fox plays a caricature of Charles. The screenplay is generic, predictable and manipulative. It’s embarrassing to me that ‘Ray’ is an Academy Award-winning film.

Michael Spike Steinbacher

Best: While I hate to reference ‘Citizen Kane‘, since it’s probably the most over-referenced movie in the history of movies, I kind of feel that I have to reference it. Sure, it’s fictionalized, but the disguise is extremely thinly veiled.

After that, I’d say ‘Bonnie and Clyde‘. This is a movie I’ve loved immensely since I first saw it on the Late Late Movie at midnight when I was a kid (probably around 1979).

Erroll Morris consistently makes the best biographical documentaries. Among them, his best is ‘The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara‘. It’s shocking, profoundly unsettling and disturbing, and just brilliant.

Brian Hoss

Worst: I really have a hard time connecting with bio-pics. The dry medium of biographical storytelling is lost on me. As a result, not only don’t I care for most bio-pics, but I tend to avoid them almost entirely. Forcing the lead actor or actress to wear a series of groan-worthy prosthetics and age-inducing makeup, while at the same time the director flounders to find one profound thing to say about a well-known figure, doesn’t make for cinema achievement, no matter how many awards are automatically queued up for such films. This is true for bio-pics like ‘J. Edgar‘ and pseudo-bio-pics like ‘American Gangster‘.

Best: With that said, I have to highlight ‘Patton‘ as an enduring film that transcends the normal bio-pic pitfalls. As for ‘Punk’d featuring Steve Jobs’, I would much prefer to rewatch ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’.

M. Enois Duarte

Best: With so many great bio-pics to choose from, this topic is a bit of a challenge. I’m going with a favorite I love teaching and discussing: Martin Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull‘. The sad and terribly pathetic story of Jake LaMotta is considered Scorsese’s finest work, and rightfully so. The director tells the rise and fall of the former boxing champion in explosively dramatic fashion thanks to the remarkable editing of Thelma Schoonmaker and, of course, the stunning performance by Robert De Niro.

Worst: As for the worst, I’m choosing something recent only because it’s still fresh in my mind: ‘The Iron Lady‘. In spite of Meryl Streep’s absolutely outstanding performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the film itself, which follows a very elderly Thatcher struggling with the grief of losing her husband, is an absolute chore to sit through. I’ll admit that I liked the start, but after a while, it’s one boring, uneventful conversation after another, told in the most undramatic, workmanlike fashion. It’s not so much a terrible or badly made film; it’s just not a well-told biographical adaptation of an important historical figure.

Josh Zyber

Best: It doesn’t surprise me to see someone above pick ‘Alexander’ for the “worst” category here. I’ve defended the movie before and will continue to do so. Yes, it suffers some serious casting issues, but I still find it to be a literate, worthy historical epic. That aside, my pick here is another Oliver Stone film: ‘Nixon‘. Whereas you might expect the most politically controversial Lefty filmmaker in Hollywood to throw together a hatchet-job diatribe about the most politically controversial Republican President of the 20th Century, Stone instead crafted a remarkably restrained, even sympathetic portrait of a man that he sees as a Shakespearian tragic figure undone by the fatal flaws in his character. Anthony Hopkins gives a tremendous performance in the role, and even over three-and-a-half hours long, the Director’s Cut never feels padded or dull. ‘Nixon’ is one of Stone’s very best films.

Worst: I’ve taken a lot of grief over my hatred for ‘The Fighter‘, director David O. Russell’s inexplicably popular and acclaimed bio-pic about has-been boxer Micky Ward. I ranted about this before, but, sorry, have to do so again. As much as it wants to be another ‘Raging Bull’, the movie plays more like ‘Rocky 19′. Painfully formulaic, it cycles through every cliché of both the sports movie and bio-pic genres by rote, from the initial success followed by heartbreaking failure, to the triumphant comeback as an underdog hero. Every single moment is entirely predictable. The only thing of interest is the glee in which Russell portrays the town of Lowell, MA as a massive shithole, populated almost exclusively by some of the ugliest and dumbest people on Earth. (You know you’re supposed to root for Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams because they’re so much more attractive than anyone else in the film.) I can’t comprehend how either Christian Bale (as Ward’s crackhead brother) or Melissa Leo (as his overbearing shrew mother) won Oscars for their flagrantly over-the-top, showboating performances. There is literally nothing about this movie that I liked.

Do you have any favorite bio-pics? Tell us about them in the Comments.

22 comments

  1. Totally agree with JZ about The Fighter. Horrible movie.
    I also agree that Lawerence Of Arabia and Raging Bull are probably the best. I’d like to mention a couple of more recent films: Milk, with Sean Penn and Into The Wild-written and directed by Penn. Both carried by brilliant lead performances.

  2. Kevin

    “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”. Sure, it’s a biopic about a singer who never actually existed, but it’s awesome.

    As for an actual biopic, I’ve always had a soft spot for “La Bamba”.

  3. I don’t know if it can be considered a biopic in the traditional sense, but The Passion of Joan of Arc may very well be the greatest film ever made. I guess it’s as much a biopic as Lincoln would be. It isn’t about her life so much as a short (albeit important) portion of it.

    • EM

      While The Passion of Joan of Arc is set during a short period (albeit one many months longer than the film would have one believe), in title dialogue it covers her the story of her short life substantially. If all you knew about Jeanne came from this film, you’d have a pretty good (if basic) understanding.

      Excellent choice—possibly the most emotionally involving film ever made. I feel blessed (not in a Joan of Arc way) to have seen it in a theater, projected large for full effect.

  4. Ryan M

    Underrated in name only, Stand and Deliver is one biopic I loved and EJO’s performance is one for the ages.

    As for worst, I hate that all sports biopics have to have some “inspirational” angle. One recent example is 42. Don’t get me wrong, this story should be and is inspirational for so many reasons. But at times it comes off as preachy and pandering. With such a compelling back story as those of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, there was enough good material for two movies. Unfortunately, 42 was a mere surface treatment of an historic moment in American history.

    • ’42′ is actually my favorite movie (so far) of 2013 – much of that is due to what seems like a bombardment of mediocre to bad films getting released this year, but I do think it’s a great baseball movie (and Ford’s best performance in about 20 years).

  5. Dan

    Good:
    127 Hours
    Auto Focus
    Baadasssss!
    A Beautiful Mind
    Boys Don’t Cry

    The not so great:
    Casino Jack

  6. Lord Bowler

    I agree with much here.

    My all-time favorite has to be Patton!

    Honorable Mentions:
    Wyatt Earp
    Braveheart

    Other favorites (although may not fall quite in this category) have to be:
    The Alamo & The Untouchables.

    Another great film is Catch Me if You Can about Frank Abignale, Jr., starring Hanks and DiCaprio.

    I hated The Fighter also.

    • Timcharger

      Braveheart?!

      I enjoyed the hell out of Braveheart, but no, it doesn’t belong in this category. When things go into the legend/myth/folktale/historical fiction arena, that’s too much.

      Are Robin Hood, biblical characters, Homeric heroes, gonna count as bio-pics, too?

        • Timcharger

          I think time matters. When you go too far back, sources of info are polluted with political or religious agendas, so No, those films should not be considered “bio-pics” in the same sense like the films named in this Weekend Roundtable.

          Let’s use the example of a “safe” biblical character: Samson. Would a film about him and his fear of haircuts be in the same category as Jobs or 42? We would put that film in the same arena with Achilles, Perseus, and the apt Hercules films, no?

          And looking at the names listed in this Roundtable discussion, with the sole exception of Shannon’s Alexander, all the films cited above are in the modern history time frame.

  7. shawn

    Best: Lawrence of Arabia, JFK, Apollo 13, Milk, Life of Emile Zola, The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Wild Child, Social Network, Carlos

    Worst: Vincent and Theo, Story of Adele H, Funny Girl, Gandhi, King’s Speech, Invictus, The Blind Side

    • shawn

      I completely forgot about that definitely one of my favorites. I love the scene where he reveals that he likes to dress in women’s clothing.

  8. A lot of mentions for ‘Patton’, which I have never seen. Sounds like a must.

    As for me: ‘Walk The Line’, ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and ‘Ed Wood’.

  9. Thulsadoom

    I’m glad somebody mentioned Ed Wood. Great film. :-)

    I’m sort of with Duarte about The Iron Lady. It’s actually quit good, but it’s more disappointing than anything, because it could have been SO much more. His description of it as ‘workmanlike’ is perfect.

    And it spends too much time on the elderly slightly ‘losing-it’ Thatcher. It’s annoying because so much is known about the real events and drama of her life, but here we get long sections that are pure fiction (or at least conjecture) that detract from the real story.

  10. DBduece

    ummm…Malcolm X? Anybody???
    To Luke Hickman..you’re nuts. “Ray” failed on many levels in many different ways not the least of them was that it was a Oscar nominated film which only carried TV movie gravitas. Say whatever else you want, Jamie Foxx was Ray Charles and the least of reasons why “Ray” did not work. If any actor needs a do-over with a role with better material, its Foxx and Charles….

  11. William Henley

    Do stories wrapped around real-life events count? Not like Titanic, but like Battle of the Buldge and Gettysburg?

    Good:
    Schindler’s List
    Patton
    Battle of the Buldge
    Saving Private Ryan
    King’s Speech
    Social Network
    The Right Stuff
    Apollo 13
    The Passion of the Christ
    Braveheart
    The Patriot (I realize that the protagonist is actually a composite figure based on several real-life people)
    Gettysburg
    Gods and Generals
    Glory
    Little House on the Prairie (the made for TV movie that predated the show)

    Bad:
    J Edger (man, was that BAD)
    Lincoln (boaring)
    Amistad
    Red Tails
    JFK (zzzzz)

  12. The best bio-pic i’ve ever seen is bingo long traveling all-stars and motor kings. It has plenty of sports action as well as historically facts.