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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.