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The Varied Face of the Biopic

The Varied Face of the Biopic

It seems that every award season cinemas big and small are assaulted by a glut of biopics. Whether they are a retelling of an inspirational personal triumph al a 127 Hours or whether they retell the stories of life’s heroes and characters. Already in the run-in to 2012’s Oscar Ceremony we have already had Phyllida Lloyd’s the iron lady which had a powerhouse of a performance from Meryl Streep, so at least there was some value if everything else was such a cataclysmic misfire. Other recent and forthcoming biopics include J.Edgar and Albert Nobbs. Instead of looking forward to those films, I will use this opportunity to list some examples of biopics that show how varied this mode of storytelling can be, without that reliance of awards baiting coming into view.



Once upon a time Robert De Niro was one of the best actors in the business and not a horrible reminder of glory days past thanks to a succession of abysmal roles, he was Scorsese’s go to guy. The Italian American boxer Jake La Motta, dubbed ‘the raging bull’ is one of the best performances from De Niro, disappearing entirely into his role. The film which Scorsese should have won an Oscar for best picture for (and not a problematic remake like the departed) is decidedly brutal in its treatment of the biopic. Pardon the pun, but no punches are pulled, everything is presented in gory detail from some of the bloodiest boxing matches committed to celluloid, a particularly unpleasant brotherly relationship with Joe Pesci and the cornerstone of bleak cinema, domestic abuse. An unpleasant film that you only ever need to watch once, Raging Bull is one of the best sport movies ever made.


In the eyes of many territories, the view of the English is a regal and upper class one, an image helped by the horrible yet globally loved Downton Abbey and its brethren. This entry follows the lead of the period piece in a way that bluntly refuses to embrace rose-tinted nostalgia. With a marvellous central performance from Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, Shekhar Kapur’s film has a tasteful line of juxtaposition tracing the coming of age of Elizabeth as a young, bright princess surrounded by the filth of medieval Britain’s architecture and political figures. Elizabeth grows into one of the Britain’s most well-known royal figureheads. Blanchett is supported by an array of excellent actors, including Richard Attenborough, Christopher Eccleston, Geoffrey Rush, Vincent Cassel and the bizarre casting decision to include enigmatic French footballer – Eric Cantona. Elizabeth pays little heed to the tropes of the biopic instead playing out like an epic coming of age story. An excellent historical romp, stay well away from its sequel – Elizabeth: The Golden Years.



Paul Giamatti stars as Harvey Pekar in a character archetype he has become well-regarded for – the middle aged, disenfranchised American everyman and he perfected this role in American Splendor. The film may well be an adaptation from comic books, but it couldn’t be further away from the traditional superheroes of the form. Shari Berman & Robert Pulcini trace his life as a file clerk and collector of Jazz records to the author of the cult hit American Splendor series with Pekar guesting on mainstream American talk shows. It also becomes quite moving through the incorporation of the comic book series ‘Our Cancer Year’, by then wife Joyce Brabner. Our Cancer year was another comic book which traced his first of three times to contract cancer, the third of which claimed his life in July 2010. The most distinctive feature of American Splendor is its half drama/half documentary structure. Bouncing between fiction and reality, sometimes with both the actor next to the real person, this fourth wall breaking technique makes the best possible use with its many unforgettable characters.



This one is another unlikely inclusion, this time it hails from Iran by way of France. Through the animated medium, author Marjane Satrapi directs her own biopic, an interesting fact on its own. Persepolis shows that animation has pertinent points to make without the aid of anthropomorphized animals, machines, robots (or cars!). Persepolis couldn’t be more different from western animations subversive tricks, being a black and white French cartoon. Sketching an image of Iran as a more complicated place than the media would have you believe, with its modern and forward thinking society that yearns to be free despite it being held back by centuries of religious rule overshadowing modernity and progression. It could be argued that Persepolis is a biopic of Iran as much as it is of Marjane. As a biopic of Marjane, Persepolis is a discussion on the outsider, no matter where you go in the world, everything is the same. This interesting and very often moving coming of age story has ideas that are accessible despite its clear political inclination.


One of Tim Burton’s best films before his career started its downward spiral was a bio to one of cinema’s most notoriously bad film makers – Ed Wood. A director played by a young Johnny Depp who cast his friends and unprofessional actors in his work, which bizarrely included one of the godfather’s of horror cinema, Bela Lugosi. Martin Landau is immense in his portrayal of Lugosi and was rightly awarded for his hard work. Of all the things to praise it has to be Burton’s affection for the subject. Transporting the viewer to the 1950s at the peak of the monster movie, he perfectly captures the mood of the era. Even better, there is no sign of Helena Bonham Carter. Ed Wood is not one of the great directors of all time, yet his name continues to be known when so many other directors of his calibre are but whimpers in the history of cinema. Depp and Burton go some way to explain why in this unlikely biopic, capturing a blind optimism despite clearly being inept. It’s quite inspirational in a peculiar way.


Following on from the Truman Show, The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine…, Jim Carrey also has Man on the Moon in his stable of films where he does ‘the acting’. This is perhaps his best performance too as the anti-comedian and one of the many stars of TV’s Taxi, Andy Kaufman. Following Kaufman through his conflicts with Jerry Lawler, his agent and girlfriend Milos Forman film allows Carrey to express himself as a character and not a riff on the rubber faced goon he has made his name with. Forman places more value on the tragedy of his personality as one of America’s most iconic comedians. Carrey has never been so magnificent. I really wish he would become Jim Carrey the actor more often, he is still funny but in playing the confrontational comedian straight he disappears into his role. More of a character study than a story; Forman’s Man on the Moon is up there with his best work on American shores.


Even before looking at Downfall, the way the public perception evolved from the outrage of global news broadcasts to a playful internet meme, there’s a thesis in there somewhere. From his underappreciated début Das Experiment, Oliver Hirschbiegel, showed his remarkable nerve and ability as a director with a biopic of one of the 20th century’s biggest monsters – Adolf Hitler. Leave it to an actor as seasoned as Bruno Ganz to give the figurehead of the Third Reich a conflicted persona. Hirschbiegel uses the weak and enfeebled version of Hitler which much more slight and nuanced, seeing glimpses of the xenophobic, racist and – most importantly on a dramatic angle – powerful man he once was. Counter balancing a shocking depiction of a real life monster with realism and dramatic heft not only makes it one of the best biopics ever made, it’s one of those increasingly rare occasions of “once seen, never forgotten” in cinema.


Javier Bardem stars along with Johnny Depp in Julian Schnabel’s powerful biopic of poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. Bardem is as excellent as one would expect, he really is a bulletproof actor, the remarkable point when discussing before night falls is the dual performance of Johnny Depp as Bon-Bon and a prison overseer Lieutenant Victor, two hugely different roles. Another early Depp film in which he showed how talented an actor he is, without playing the broad ‘grotesque’s’ he is now celebrated for. Before Night Falls is a movie that values stark realism and given what happened to Arenas in his lifetime it makes for an unpleasant, hard watch. Stay on board, however, and the poignancy of the message hits home – to find the beauty in everything that life throws at you. In its purest distillation Before Night Falls encapsulates what the biopic has the potential to be, a life changing story about the men and women who have seen the worst life offers and come out the other end as better people. Schnabel’s film is inspirational in all the right ways.


Milos Forman is back again for this final entry which is worthy in the way that so many biopics are these days, only Amadeus is worthy for all the right reasons being one of the best films to win big at the Oscars over the past 30 years. Using its platform to paint a portrait of Wolfgang Mozart as a precursor to the tortured genius that rock music has an obsession with. Studying how character can be manipulated by external influences and the all-consuming truth of envy and competition in such a magnificent designed opus, it’s hard not to be swept up in it. Especially when the film looks as good as it does, with production design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein and magnificently moody cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek. The romance of the era, the tragedy of its characters and the way it was shot makes Amadeus a masterpiece. To call a film Milos Forman’s masterpiece is far from a small statement.

Honorary mentions go out to the legend of Bruce Lee (TV), Dragon: the Bruce Lee story and the Young Bruce Lee. An icon of mine and millions of other people’s childhoods, Bruce Lee deserves the recognition for having two biopics (three if you include the legend of Bruce Lee TV series, which was chopped down into movie format), an honour shared by very few if any fellow movie stars.

– Robert Simpson