“Biopic”: The word, a Newspeak-like contraction of “biography” and “picture”, suggests something cynically half-hearted. In critical circles, the term has become a groan-inducing byword for prestige-y, overwrought dramas that—despite each example’s unique subject—somehow always seem to follow the same trajectory. The by-the-numbers examples—Ray, Walk the Line, The Imitation Game—are unfortunately cited most frequently as exemplary selections of the biopic form. The truth, however, is there are a great deal of lesser-known biopics richer and far more fascinating than those that typically bait Oscar. For all the biopics that consider the recreation of a real life a reason to stick to a rigid format, other more daring titles have seen fit to experiment—and in the process are able to dig far deeper into the lives of the subjects they chronicle than typical awards season fare. Here are 10 such biopic classics.
Though Testimony is ostensibly a musical and biopic of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (Ben Kingsley), another figure in the film looms larger. As a gigantic Josef Stalin (Terence Rigby) commits to his 30-million-strong purge, Ben Kingsley’s castrated protagonist remains resolutely blank, revealing his true thoughts only in ironic voiceover. Complemented by documentary footage of the USSR through war, famine and an industrial boom, Tony Palmer’s Testimony is not just the story of a man precariously navigating the political minefield that was Soviet Russia, but of every Russian’s desperate bid to survive during the Stalin era.
As scenes occasionally transform into extended music videos, the monochromatic expressionist imagery—every shot a thing of beauty—is set to Shostakovich’s own chaotic, crashing scores. You’d think it would be those, the subject’s distinctly cinematic symphonies, on which music documentary specialist Palmer would be primarily focused. But the film is a sprawling spectacle, a two-and-a-half-hour, semi-surreal carnival epic of grandiose tracking shots and fiery monologues that above all else makes the case for the nourishing value of artistic freedom.
Revolutionary spirit fuels a woman wronged in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, as Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas) takes up with marauders following her violent rejection by a male-dominated society. This unstable India, the sun-baked landscape dreamy and untarnished even in the face of perpetual conflict, appears ancient, the archaic townships, rural expanses and prehistoric attitudes towards class and gender enough to make you forget the film actually takes place in a relatively recent timeline stretching from the late ’60s to the mid-1980s.
With brutal frankness, Kapur shows Devi going from sexual slavery as a child to being gang-raped as an adult by a village of “higher caste” males—in this way, Kapur encourages us to root for Devi even though her bloody rise as a Robin Hood-like leader is morally muddy. Though Bandit Queen is a biopic apparently not all that concerned with its subject, Kapur uses Devi’s story to highlight the harsh culture to which her story’s irrevocably tied. Her best line—“What was I born of? An act of love or violence?”—is a wake-up call for people everywhere to question how far back down the line subjugation can stretch.
Maurice Pialat takes an unsentimental approach to the final 67 days of Vincent van Gogh’s life, replacing the warm hagiographical embrace that mars far too many biopics with a hard, thorough sense of reality. Atmosphere and character details become more important than milestones or anecdotes in Van Gogh, the director neglecting the headline stories (he even omits the fatal gunshot) to focus on the tragedy of a poor working artist slowly fading from existence.
During his premature end, Vincent (Jacques Lutronc, playing van Gogh as a malnourished manic-depressive made cruel and sluggish by persistent disappointment) is just another painter in Paris. His paintings—few of which we see, for Pialat is more intrigued by the effects of failure on the artist than the art itself—are early shown being sold for cheap or simply given away. After this, the writing’s on the wall, and not a final tender romance nor a hazy carefree summer, gorgeously highlighted by Pialat’s trio of cinematographers, are enough to prevent the inevitable downbeat conclusion.
Francois Truffaut continues his career essay on adolescence in documenting the education of Victor of Aveyron, a boy found in 1798 after years spent living in isolation in a French woodland. It’s a story that both indulges Truffaut’s interest in any outsider’s uneasy path to redemption and finds the director another of his raw non-professional performers in Jean-Pierre Cargol, who plays the dirt-covered wildling to be molded into a “decent” citizen. Is Victor’s place is in the woods, or amongst the people who will accept him only under the proviso that he behave like them?
A fleet-footed and visually stimulating attempt to meld silent cinema with the self-referential French New Wave, Truffaut also near-enough doubles up The Wild Child as a biopic of his own life by casting himself as Victor’s tutor, Dr Jean Itard. (You have to imagine, as Truffaut did, that Itard is Truffaut and Victor is Jean-Pierre Léaud, the non-actor made into a star under Truffaut’s tutelage, starting with The 400 Blows.) With this film, the director made the story of another as much a meta-study of himself as a filmmaker.
Before the disaster of The Canyons, before the ignominious defeats of Dominion and Dying of the Light, there was Mishima. Paul Schrader’s fall from grace is itself almost mythical, a story the writer-director would perhaps take great interest in adapting for the screen based on the evidence of A Life in Four Chapters, his deliberately mythologizing take on troubled Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. It’s a film that skews the literal to create a kind of fantasist’s bio, set to both deconstruct the author and cast him into legend.
As Mishima simultaneously explores the artist through his work and speculates how his life influenced his literature, the film’s also a chance for Schrader, nominally a realist, to indulge his love of high film style. So a triumphant Philip Glass score blares over the black-and-white flashbacks of Mishima going from sickly, closeted teenager to award-winning writer obsessed with his own physical perfection, while gaudy, artificial recreations of Mishima’s novels intermittently puncture the author’s final day, shot almost documentary-style. Schrader finds not just a perfect subject, but a kindred spirit in Mishima, a fascinating mind equally driven and doomed by his own obsessions.
Werner Herzog’s fifth feature is predicated on a lie. The real Kaspar Hauser was not, as Herzog’s film suggests, a 19th-century boy who had never seen the outside of a filthy cellar until he was 17, but likely a charlatan who tricked the world into believing his fantasy. Herzog’s biopic prefers the fictional take, and in ignoring the subsequent repudiation, takes on a unique magic. In a time obsessed with eliminating mystery, Herzog made a film that attempted to reinforce a (debunked) myth.
Herzog shoots The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, then, as if Hauser (Bruno S., clearly too ripe to play Hauser, but spot-on in his puzzled naïveté) were truly seeing the world—a quaint, verdant Bavaria circa 1828—for the first time. Eschewing the elemental madness that marks out so many Herzog movies, Kaspar Hauser is infused with an odd melancholy, and is gently observant. The director prefers instead to act as curious spectator of this most Herzogian figure, a man at war with his innate animalism.
Mike Leigh’s ode to creation purports to be a double bio of theatrical titans Gilbert (Allan Corduner) and Sullivan (Jim Broadbent)—but it’s not quite that. Topsy-Turvy’s a biopic more accurately of the Savoy Theatre Company as a single organism, thrashing out seminal comic opera The Mikado in 1884-85 just as Gilbert and Sullivan had hit a creative slump. Infectiously buoyant where so few Leigh films are, Topsy-Turvy skirts over the oftentimes tragic lives of the company players and creatives (including character types like Timothy Spall, Andy Serkis and Dorothy Atkinson) to become about nothing more than the all-encompassing joy of artistic collaboration.
Rehearsal sequences appear as Leigh’s own films behind-the-scenes must, only with more sumptuous decoration. It’s 19th century Britain, where—outside the doors of the Savoy at least—life is socially stifling and grey. Inside that dazzling theatre-cum-shelter, though, life is sweating, clashing and chiseling musical numbers into items built to endure for centuries. As for the two apparent “main subjects”, they’re individually mundane but together incomparable, with Corduner’s polite, workmanlike Sullivan portrayed as the antidote to Broadbent’s cantankerous Gilbert.
The loneliest of biopics is also one of the most radical, with 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould precisely as the title promises. Tasked with recreating the life of a genius classical pianist over 90 minutes, director Francois Girard instead goes for an evocative summary of Glenn Gould’s fruitful-yet-solitary existence through vignettes covering everything from his medication habits to his shock retirement from concert performing at the age of 31. In these scenes, Gould is played by Colm Feore with the quiet dedication of a monk, convincingly morphing from handsome youth to eccentric middle-ager.
The film isn’t all reconstruction: Interspersed with the shorts starring Feore are documentary testimonials from Gould acquaintances, and even a wordless, avant-garde animation sequence. Not all the “Short Films” depict momentous occasions, but what they reveal about Gould, in Girard’s carefully considered non-linear arrangement, is enlightening. The film—woven together via the relentless string of Gould recordings—mixes the tedious with the spectacular, and creates a complex portrait of a man so obsessed with his art it left no room for company.
Cut against the director’s wishes in 1955 and restored in 2008, Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes is now finally available as intended: a progressive technicolor fantasia. Lola (Martine Carol), a 19th-century professional celebrity, is the star of a grand circus show in which Peter Ustinov’s ringmaster regales an audience with tales of a “femme fatale” countess scandalously defying the social norms of her time. Essentially, the act is reinforcing the Lola Montes myth; meanwhile, Ophuls gives us the messy reality.
Flashbacks reveal the younger Montes as the gradually declining toast of Europe’s dance halls and palaces, often at the mercy of powerful men. In middle age, tortured thoughts of glories past and being paraded nightly for a physically demanding act are steadily killing Montes off. But, in an early example of selling the soul in order to retain some semblance of cultural relevance, Lola holds her health and private life cheap in order to sustain her celebrity. In that sense, Lola Montes belongs more now than it did in its own time. Visually, though, it remains very much part of a bygone period when serious cinema could reap all the lavish benefits of big funding.
Peter Watkins brings his inimitable faux-doc style to the biopic, and—with expressionist painter Edvard Munch (Geir Westby) as his subject—produces four of the most invigorating hours in biographical cinema in Edvard Munch. Perambulating through Munch’s childhood in rural Norway, his time as a young bohemian in Oslo, and on to his developing a new artistic style in Paris and Berlin, this is not a mere retelling. Rather, the film gives the sensation of a filmmaker who’s time-traveled in order to offer his audience the total verite experience.
Period trappings seem lived-in and the non-actors are thoroughly assured, naturalistic even as they answer questions from the director, the direct-to-camera interview carried over to a historical context to startling effect. Edvard Munch is more than style and form, though: The collection of ideas explored covers the (dys)function of censorship, the purpose of marriage, the purpose of family, of art, of sex, of love, of friendship. From the story of Edvard Munch comes all that, captured by Watkins’ probing lens. Anyone unaware of when the camera was invented might be convinced it’s the greatest documentary ever made.
Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, and editor of online film/TV magazine Screen Robot. Opinions on film range from the pretentious to the frankly laughable. Find him on Twitter.