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By Daniel Lammin
18th January 2015

You may have noticed a particular genre of late really kicking into gear - that of the biopic, a film recreation of the life and times of a particular historical figure or event. Biopics have been to this awards season what superhero films have been to the summer blockbuster season – off the top of my head I can think of nine either having just come out or coming out in the next few weeks, including 'American Sniper' and 'The Theory Of Everything'. So SWITCH asked me to come up with a list of some of the best classic biopics I’d recommend checking out. Obviously there are a lot of great ones I’ve left off, but these are the ones I would definitely start with…

Let’s start with the big one, David Lean’s gargantuan epic on the legendary T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who, during the First World War, led the Middle Eastern campaign against the Turks to victory. Unlike most standard biopics of great heroes though, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is one of the most intense and detailed examinations of a single character, charting Lawrence’s ascent from lowly officer to war hero, and descent into maniacal madness. Easily one of the greatest films ever made, and featuring a jaw-dropping debut performance by a young Peter O’Toole, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is a rare miracle, an enormous work of visual scope that still manages to capture the soul and complexity of its central figure.
When this biopic on Edith Piaf was released, it was in the wake of a number of forgettable films about famous music artists. Most of them were weak, dull and more interested in being romantic than honest. So when ‘La Vie en Rose’ turned up, it was a seismic shock to the system. Olivier Dahan’s film is one of the most unforgiving portraits of an artist you’ll ever see, tackling both the glories and the tragedies in the life of Piaf without flinching. The film itself is a beautiful creation, dripping with period detail and shot with tremendous daring and intelligence, but its greatest achievement is the central performance by Marion Cotillard. She inhabits the role utterly, unafraid to chart the dangerous emotional darkness of Piaf and delivering a performance that hits you like a sledgehammer. Rarely has there been a performance that deserved its acclaim or that captured the soul of a human being.
Personally, at a pinch, I’d say that Spielberg’s masterpiece is the best film I’ve ever seen, but as a biopic, it not only functions as a portrait of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who used his business influence in Nazi Germany to save a small group of his Jewish employees, but a potent portrait of the Holocaust itself. Everything about the film is executed with frightening precision, concocting images of absolute horror but always allowing the audience respite and access to its powerful emotional core. It is impossible for any single work to truly capture the enormity of the Holocaust, but ‘Schindler’s List’, by focusing on one story, somehow captures the soul, inhumanity and importance of probably the darkest period in human history. Being a perfect film doesn’t hurt either.
AMADEUS (1984)
There’s always a lot of discussion about "historical accuracy" with biopics, about what license filmmakers have to imagine or alter historical fact. If fidelity was the primary criteria, Milos Forman’s ‘Amadeus’, built around the artistic feud between Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), would fail miserably, but that isn’t the point of this absolutely sublime creation. Adapting Peter Schaffer’s play of the same name, the film is a giddy portrait of the souls of two very different artists, one a traditionalist and the other a radical, a glorious symphony of music and sumptuous visuals, written and directed with cracking wit and tremendous heart. You might not learn many accurate snappy facts about Mozart by watching ‘Amadeus’, but you’ll learn far more about the music and the madness at the heart of a great artist and his jealous rival.
GANDHI (1982)
Sir Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning and blockbusting portrait of Mohandas K. Gandhi is probably the ultimate biopic - enormous in scope and running time, built around a mighty historical figure and heavy with the weight of history. What makes ‘Gandhi’ so extraordinary is that Attenborough never forgets his audience, crafting a film that is as entertaining and thrilling as it is gargantuan. The film somehow covers the entire breadth of what made the Mahatma such an incredible figure for tolerance and equality as he guided India towards independence from the British Empire. The luscious visual scope and exacting detail is built around an incredible performance from Ben Kingsley, who somehow achieves the miracle of capturing the heart of this extraordinary man. One of the last great widescreen epics, ‘Gandhi’ is everything a great biopic should be.
FRIDA (2002)
Cinema loves films about famous artists, but few capture the lightning in a bottle that ‘Frida’ does. The remarkable combination of visually arresting director Julie Taymor and actress Salma Hayek are unleashed on Frida Kahlo’s powerful artwork, demonstrating with fierce imagination and respect what made Kahlo such an important figure. Hayek takes no prisoners in her performance, inhabiting Kahlo and all her misgivings, with bolts of electricity going off between her and co-star Alfred Molina as her lover, artist Diego Rivera. Taymor can sometimes become hampered by her emphasis on visuals, but this is easily her best work, revelling in the textures of both Kahlo’s work and the Mexican culture. ‘Frida’ is a film pumping with blood and passion and life.
Again, Shekhar Kapur’s pulsating biopic of Queen Elizabeth I doesn’t win points for accuracy, but that doesn’t matter when the film is as sexy or as spine-tingling as this. Charting Elizabeth’s rise from threatened young princess to the Virgin Queen, the film stands in stark contrast to the usual costume drama, carved with a wickedly sharp knife into a world of intrigue, betrayal, danger and sexual manipulation. And again, as with most films on this list, it is built around a phenomenal central performance, in this instance Cate Blanchett in her legendary breakout role. In what would become her trademark, Blanchett balances Elizabeth’s vulnerability and power in spectacular fashion. You’ll be in no doubt by the end why Elizabeth I is one of the most enigmatic monarchs in history.
I’M NOT THERE (2007)
Of all the films on this list, Todd Haynes’ remarkable ‘I’m Not There’ is probably the oddest. Taking as its subject the great singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, Haynes throws all the conventional rules of storytelling out the window, presenting his subject in a series of unconnected vignettes covering the breadth of Dylan’s life. The thing is, Dylan is never named, called something different in every story, and is always played by a different actor each capturing a different facet of the man. Gender and culture fall away in the casting, our protagonist being played, not only by traditional choices like Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, but young African-American actor Marcus Carl Franklin and even Cate Blanchett in a staggering turn that has to be seen to be believed. You’ll probably walk out not knowing any more about Dylan than you did when you walked in, but you’ll certainly be hit by the power of the man and his influence on the 20th century.
Usually a biopic has a person as its central subject, but in an unusual way, David Fincher’s masterpiece is itself a biopic, albeit one of an idea rather than just a person. There are strong traditional biographical elements to the film - an imagined recreation of the formative years of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the creation of Facebook, but Facebook itself is moreso the central character. We chart its conception, birth, growth and rise to power, we witness the casualties it leaves behind it, and leave with a sense of what this creation actually is. Of course we learn a lot about Mark and his associates along the way, but as a biography of an idea, ‘The Social Network’ works on a Shakespearean level in charting the emergence of one of the most powerful creations of this century. Oh, and it’s a perfect film in every way.
There are some important and ground-breaking films on this list, but none of them have quite the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s overwhelming masterpiece. Working from the actual transcripts of the trials that sentences Jeanne d’Arc to death in 1431, the film is silent in the purest sense, presented without any sound or music whatsoever. Dreyer employs the camera to create some of the most extraordinary close-ups you’ll ever see, both of Jeanne and her accusers, shot almost entirely in the abstract interior spaces of her cell and the court rooms. All the performances I’ve highlighted in this list are extraordinary, but Maria Falconetti conjures up something beautiful and horrifying as Jeanne, delivering something that can hardly be called a "performance" as much as a "becoming". The pain, devotion and insanity in her eyes are almost impossible to comprehend. This extraordinary film is very hard to find in Australia, and will test even the most hardened film buffs, but if you find yourself swept up in it, you’ll certainly have never seen anything like it before.

Lastly, I thought I’d just highlight another kind of biopic you should hunt around for, albeit a very unusual one – that of the autobiopic. These are films where the filmmaker has turned to themselves as the subject rather than another person, event or object. A lot of the time, there can turn into indulgent garbage (like Olivier Assayas’ deplorable ‘After May’), but occasionally they can create absolute magic. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s wonderful ‘Adaptation’ (2002) turns the lens back on himself as he tries to adapt Susan Orlean’s ‘The Orchid Thief’, presenting an unforgiving portrait of the writer, and thrillingly directed by Spike Jonze. Acclaimed director and choreographer Bob Fosse does the same with ‘All That Jazz’ (1979), Roy Schneider’s Joe Gideon essentially an unsympathetic version of Fosse himself. It’s a rollercoaster of a film, mixing reality with fantasy as Gideon spirals out of control, and delivering a sledgehammer of an ending that actually predicts Fosse’s own death. Probably the greatest autobiopic though is Federico Fellini’s phenomenal ‘8 ½’ (1963), a film born out of Fellini’s inability to write his next project, about a director Guido Anselmi’s (Marcello Mastroianni) inability to write his next project. It might be the greatest film about the struggles of the creative process, executed with Fellini’s magical style and wit.

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