The biopic is a staple in the film medium. There have been movies about historical and real life figures pretty much since the film medium was invented. There is an old adage which says that life is stranger than fiction, and as a lot of these movies can attest, sometimes that is absolutely the truth. There is something about the real lives, or at least what the movies portray as the real lives, of historical figures and celebrities that audiences can't seem to get enough of. So here are what I consider to be five of the best biopics I have seen. These are in no particular order.
Wyatt Earp (1994)
This film was being produced around the same time as another film about the life of the famous Old West lawman, Tombstone, and actually, the two films originally started as one production. Kevin Costner was originally cast as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, but ended up butting heads with the film's director over the focus of the film. Costner felt the movie should focus on Wyatt Earp, while Kevin Jarre (Tombstone director) felt it should focus on the events, most specifically the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Costner ended up leaving the project over creative differences and decided to produce his own film on the subject. Both films are actually extremely good, and both have their unique strengths that sets it apart from the other film. Wyatt Earp is, in my opinion, the better film simply because it does focus more on Wyatt Earp as a character and as a person, and not just as a player in an historical event. Wyatt Earp was the sum of his past, and taking one section of his life, the Gunfight at the O.K Corral and the subsequent Earp Revenge Ride, out of context of the rest of his life, it does a disservice to the man, as his actions and his decisions were influenced by events from his past that you just don't get in Tombstone. I think the perfect Wyatt Earp movie would actually be an amalgamation of both films, most notably in the mixing and matching of certain cast members, most notably Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. Kilmer, especially, played the part to such perfection that he is considered by some to be the high point of Tombstone.
Based on the cult independent comic book, American Splendor is a unique film. It is both a biopic of the comic book's author, as well as an adaptation of the comic book itself because the comic book was, in itself, autobiographical. The film is also unique in that it is both a scripted drama as well as a documentary, incorporating scripted scenes with actors playing the roles with interviews with the actual people the movie is about, most notably creator Harvey Pekar and his somewhat sidekick Toby Radloff, who had his own 15 minutes of fame as MTV's "Genuine Nerd" in the late 1980s. At first, Harvey comes off as just an unhappy, grumpy old man who hates the entire world and everyone in it. Pekar's disgust for humanity was actually what had prompted him to create the American Splendor comic book in the fist place, as it was an outlet for him to be able to complain about every day people and situations, and to be able to say things that he couldn't actually say in public.
Fear Strikes Out
Based on the autobiography of the same name by Boston Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall, Fear Strikes Out is different than your average baseball movie. Jimmy Piersall had an extremely domineering father, who forced him to do well in sports, and Jimmy himself suffered from bipolar disorder. In 1952, Piersall had the first of what would be a string of emotional outbursts when he got into a fist fight with Yankees outfielder Billy Martin. To be fair to Piersall, he wasn't the fist person to punch out Martin, and he wouldn't be the last. The fight might have been written off, especially given Martin's reputation as a loud mouth, except the behavior continued and eventually led to Piersall being sent back down to the minors. The movie chronicles Piersall's early life, his rise to the major leagues and his eventual tenure at a mental hospital after his on field outbursts. Piersall returned to the Red Sox for the 1953 season. The film stars Anthony Perkins, best known for his portrayal as Norman Bates in the original Psycho, and Perkins turns in a performace equal to the incredible job he would go on to do three years later with Norman Bates.
Directed by gothic movie auteur Tim Burton, Ed Wood tells the story of another filmmaker, B-movie director Edward D. Wood, Jr. Ed Wood's movies are often thought of as some of the worst movies ever made, though they have garnered a cult following. The film chronicles Wood's early film career, from his first film Glen or Glenda? to his meeting and befriending Hollywood has-been Bela Lugosi, all the way up to Lugosi's death and the making of what is considered Wood's seminal film, Plan 9 from Outer Space. As with most of Burton's films, Ed Wood is heavily stylized, making it more visually interesting than your average biopic. It tells an interesting story, includes an all-star cast, and has a great sense of humor. Johnny Depp is wonderful in this film, having been made back before he made the artistic choice to play every character as if he were still playing Jack Sparrow. One of the highlights of the film is the portrayal of Bela Lugosi by Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his performance in this film.
The Josephine Baker Story
Josphine Baker was in the 1920s what Marilyn Monroe was in the 1960s or Madonna was in the 1980s. She was a sexual pioneer, decades before the sexual revolution, questioning society's views on sexuality as well as on race relations. I first saw this movie when I was 11 or 12 years old, when it was brand new, and I have been enamored with Josephine Baker ever since. It is sad, really, that she doesn't have the legacy she really deserved, and is mostly forgotten by most modern Americans. Baker is the first African-American woman to have a starring role in a major motion picture, 1934's Zouzou. The film was made-for-tv - HBO, as a matter of fact - and it does suffer from some of the failings that made for television movies generally suffer from, but if you can get past the low budget feel and the occasional corny dialogue, it tells one of the most powerful stories of a strong woman willing to do whatever it takes, not just to survive but to have it all. Josphine Baker is probably most well known for her famous Banana Dance, which she performed wearing nothing but a skirt made of real bananas. Baker wasn't afraid to show off her body, and this film definitely explores that aspect of her. Despite it's flaws, The Josephine Baker Story is a powerful film and from what I understand a remake is currently being developed that is set to star Rhianna. One can only hope that if there does end up being a remake that it can improve upon this film, which really is a great watch.
Well, that's it. What are some of your favorite biographical films? Let us know in the comments below.