This is a tough, tough category. Some biographies are just glossy PR, a warts removed and holds-barred overview of some noted person’s whitewashed life. Others — like Goodfellas, or Schindler’s List — branch out into other areas of import (the crime saga, the Holocaust, respectively) while dealing with the travails of its main subject. So some of the choices below will probably seem suspect. After all, how can you ignore the hundreds of movies made about celebrated individuals over the years, parsing through the personalities you discovered while ignoring the “classics” that most clamor for. No matter the debate, here are our choices for the top 10 biopics of all time. Some are certainly personal history lessons. Others highlight someone, perhaps on the fringes of fame (or infamy) that deserve your cinematic attention.
Most baseball fans don’t remember Jimmy Piersall. A mainstay throughout the ’50s, his antics both on and off the field were misread as signs of insubordination, or a serious mental illness. Turns out, he was suffering from bipolar disorder, which was not widely understood back them. As played by Anthony Perkins in the film, we witness a young man overwhelmed by family pressures (especially from dad Karl Malden) and an inability to understand what is going on in his “crazy,” cockeyed brain.
Perhaps the best of Oliver Stone’s many politically motivated movies, this overview of the only president to resign the office is both biting and a bit sentimental. We learn that our 37th Commander in Chief (flawlessly realized by Anthony Hopkins) was desperate to be loved… or at the very least, popular, and he spent the rest of his career courting favor by whatever means was necessary. Sure, he was a shrewd politician, but at his core, he was a lonely man who was insanely jealous of his peers.
Now here’s an interesting entry. Few probably know the story of infamous con man Steven Jay Russell. During the ’80s and ’90s, he was in and out of get rich quick schemes and, as a result, in and out of jail, where he fell in love with the inmate in the title. Jim Carrey deserved an Oscar for his work here, making us believe in both Russell’s rotten demeanor and his devotion to Morris. Even the ending stays in sync with what this larger than life huckster stood for.
Janet Frame is one of New Zealand’s most beloved poets and authors. Her sheltered life, on the other hand, was the stuff of high drama. Leave it to Jane Campion, another down under dynamo, to bring this amazing woman’s story to life. Plain, dumpy, and stricken with a shocking mop of curly red hair, Frame overcame bullying and her own deteriorating mindset to succeed as a legitimate lady of letters. Played by three different actresses, the end result is stirring personal portrait.
Poor Dorothy Stratten. Just as it seemed her fame would rise above the otherwise suspect notoriety of appearing in Playboy (as the Playmate of the Year, 1980), her sick suitcase pimp of a husband, Paul Snider, raped and murdered her. As assayed by Mariel Hemingway and a fantastic Eric Roberts, the story of this doomed couple became a symbol for the ever-present sleazy underbelly of the sex trade. With the help of Bob Fosse’s incredible direction, it all plays like the Great American Tragedy.
Yes, he is the mastermind behind the “bare it all” brazenness of Hustler magazine and he’s made a career out of being pop culture’s afterthought agent provocateur, but thanks to his crusade in the name of the First Amendment, Larry Flynt (a terrific Woody Harrelson) is also one of the most important figures in the clarification of Constitutional Law. While the movie manages to show us his childhood and his undying love for fourth wife Althea (Courtney Love), it’s his legal battles which illustrate who Flynt really is/was.
Born with a horrible, disfiguring disease, John Merrick (John Hurt in heavy make-up) was marginalized throughout his life. Sold to a Victorian England circus, he was sideshow fodder before Dr. Fredrick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins) discovered there was an intelligent and thoughtful human being inside this so-called “animal.” David Lynch, handpicked by producer Mel Brooks to bring this material to life, shows his softer side, creating a tale that highlights the horrors of the man’s life as well as the small victories he eventually achieved.
Employing an unusual approach that mixes animation, documentary, and fictionalized feature filmmaking, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini pulled off the impossible — they managed to make curmudgeonly comic book creator Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti, as well as the man himself) seem somewhat loveable. Centering on his dead-end job with the VA, his need for expression, and the difficulties within the underground art world, it’s more than a biography. In fact, it plays like a vindication of everything Pekar and his work stood for.
Leave it to Spike Lee and Denzel Washington to take the life story of one of America’s most important and controversial Civil Rights figures and find the horror, the honor, and the humor within. With a timeline that moves from his days as a criminal to his conversion to Islam in prison to, finally, his challenge to Dr. Martin Luther King as the voice of the African-American community, this film both legitimizes the man as well as explaining away some of his more unsavory elements and social missteps.
Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) was a brute. He was like a caged animal in the ring, thus his provocative pugilistic nickname. But it was his equally abusive home life that argued that this was one man who couldn’t contain his anger within the squared circle of the sweet science. With help from Joe Pesci (as his put-upon brother) and Kathy Moriarty (as his challenging child bride), De Niro never denies LaMotta’s menace. Instead, he and director Martin Scorsese strive to understand his anger, be it from professional vanity or personal jealousy.