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Reality Bites: The 25 Best and Worst Biopics

From raging bulls to lizard kings, we look back at the great (and the grating) movies that took on true-life stories

raging bull the doors

TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection; Courtesy of United Artists

When they are done right, they can make you feel you know a famous — or infamous — person intimately, garner awards for their actors and creators, and remind you of what the movies can do best. When they’re done wrong, they can make you want to scream at the screen, slap your head with your palm and tempt you to throw away any beloved CDs, books, DVDS, etc., that you may associate with the subject at hand. We’re talking about biopics: those films that take the real-life stories of musicians, politicians, artists, athletes and other famous folks, and mine them for reel-life fodder.

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We wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, everyone will be the subject of a biopic for 15 minutes. But for now, it’s still the domain of artists like Jimi Hendrix, whose own long-awaited biopic — Jimi: All Is By My Side, starring André 3000 and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) —  makes it’s U.S. premiere at SXSW. Time will tell whether this entry enters the pantheon or its Hall of Shame, but until then, we’ve got 25 of the best and worst the genre has to offer.


lawrence of arabia peter o'toole

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

BEST: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962)

David Lean's three-and-a-half hour historical epic dazzles with desert vistas, massive battle sequences and practical stunts that rival today's effects (there's nothing quite like derailing a train with explosives). None of it would play, however, without an equally grand subject. Peter O'Toole's piercing eyes empower T.E. Lawrence's ambitions — he's a megalomaniac that gambles on "ends justify the means" logic, and strides across Middle Eastern sands knowing he's a hero. We see him at his highs, pulling strings and galvanizing Arab tribes into guerrilla battalions; and we see him at his lows,as he's defeated, tortured, and depleted of his rebellious behavior. Most importantly, we walk away seeing the man in all his ragged glory, captured majestically on immaculate 70mm film yet carefully unwoven by O'Toole's gravitas. MATT PATCHES

The Doors

TriStar Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

WORST: ‘The Doors’ (1991)

Let the record show that we have no beef with Val Kilmer's take on Jim Morrison, which persuasively intermingles the eyelids-at-half-mast preening of the Lizard King with the actor's own insouciant self-regard. (He's also no slouch behind the mike.) The problem here is with director Oliver Stone's jaw-droppingly overwrought storytelling, which affirms and inflates the already hysterical Morrison mythology. It's not enough for the leather-panted drunkard to claim he's a golden god — Stone must shoot him like one too. The deceased pin-up is even made to serve as a conduit for Native American spirituality, which rather perfectly encapsulates an entire generation's worth of shallow misappropriation. Blaming the peyote can only forgive so much. ERIC HYNES

capote Philip Seymour Hoffman

Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘Capote’ (2005)

When it comes to biopic acting, there's imitation, there's inhabitance, and then there's possession. For his buddy Bennett Miller's feature debut, Philip Seymour Hoffman picked up the mannerisms of Truman Capote, nailed the author's high-pitched affectation, and then kept digging. His Capote is at once affable and cold, fluent in social scenes and a hard-nosed interrogator when situations begin to sour. Miller's film radiants from Hoffman's performance, even with all its doom and gloom atmosphere. Capote finds himself in deep —too deep, perhaps — while investigating Perry Smith and the crimes of In Cold Blood, and neither the movie nor its star are afraid to paint their subject as a bit of a sociopath. They knew what the author knew: that morals can sometimes stand in the way of great writing. MATT PATCHES

greetings from tim buckley

Courtesy of Focus World

WORST: ‘Greetings From Tim Buckley’ (2012)

Second only to Jim Morrison in the Sexy Dead Rocker category, Jeff Buckley had put out one brilliant record before accidentally drowning; his father, Tim, was a sixties folksinger and restless spirit who took off before Jeff was born and accidentally died of an overdose. Dan Algrant's biopic zeroes in on the moment the son first impressed the public by singing several of his dad's songs at a tribute concert. For good measure, the director also threads in flashbacks of the AWOL Age of Aquarius musician driving across America, which allows the movie to distinguish itself — by besmirching not one but two Buckleys in one fell swoop. Casting Gossip Girl's Penn Badgely as the younger troubadour meant we got an actor who was as brooding and handsome as the real thing, but he's no more capable of channeling the trilling singer's undeniable charisma than he is transcending a landmine of music-movie clichés. A brief jam session-scene gives us the raw materials of what would become the title track to Grace, but the vibrant artist who gave us the album Grace is completely MIA. DAVID FEAR

Denzel Washington Malcolm X

Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

BEST: ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

Spike Lee had been trying for years to film the life story of the controversial activist, spokesman, ideologue, hero, scapegoat and martyr Malcolm X for years; this epic he eventually produced burned with a rightetous anger that would have made its subject proud. All the major points on the timeline are hit: the Harlem street hustling years, the education behind bars, the emergence from the cocoon of a leader of men and, finally, a seeker who started to see the world in colors other than black and white. And like the autobiography that's become a staple on school curriculae, Lee's film charts how the cause and effect of all of those sides led to Malcolm X becoming an icon. Denzel Washington claimed that he could feel the spirit of the late Nation of Islam minister moving through him as he played certain scenes, a comment that only seems outrageous if you haven't seen his incendiary turn. DAVID FEAR

sid and nancy


BEST: ‘Sid and Nancy’ (1986)

You couldn't make a clean, tidy biopic of the Sex Pistols bassist and posterboy for punk nihilism Sid Vicious; it had to be ragged, unkempt, as filthy as lucre and spat gobs. Alex Cox certainly delivered a film that met that criteria, one that captures the early spirit-of-77 punk vibe in London that produced a star like El Sid. He was also smart enough to cast someone like a young, hungry Gary Oldman as the feral musician, a move which made all the difference — the actor throws himself into the part with an all-or-nothing gusto that shows the bright flame and the burning out all at once. (Pity poor Chloe Webb, who gives a great parasitic performance as Nancy Spungen then virtually disappeared for a long while.) Johnny Rotten thought the movie was "the lowest form of life," saying the film glorified heroin usage (well, no) and that the ride-into-the-heavens ending was truly phony (okay, we'll give you that). But before that false final note, Cox's movie hits its notes far more than the often-unplugged bassist ever did. DAVID FEAR

what we do is secret

Courtesy of Peace Arch Entertainment

WORST: ‘What We Do Is Secret’ (2007)

There was more — much more — to the Germs' frontman Darby Crash than him being a 22-year-old Angeleno version of uncut Sid Vicousness, but you wouldn't know it from watching Rodger Grossman's diluted portrait of Crash as an live-fast-die-young LA scenester. He was that, of course, as well as a kid who was, by many accounts, a fierce, funny prankster and the kind of guy who'd command a cult of followers. (See the Germs footage in The Decline of Western Civilization for proof.) Here, Crash is just a careerist and an excuse for Shane West, trying to shed his squeaky-clean image, to try on some prosthethic teeth and act "edgy." The film needs a Lexicon Devil, and instead, it gets a li'l devil. Nope. DAVID FEAR

cate blanchett I'm not there

Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘I’m Not There’ (2007)

The truth is that lives are not single stories, but towers of conflicting versions and identities. So what better embodiment for that thesis than Bob Dylan, whose entire career has been defined by reinvention, myth-making and cultural appropriation? Todd Haynes' multifaceted, intently uneven portrait of the artist sees him as six distinct characters, among them a young African American runaway (Marcus Carl Franklin), a camera-ready crypto-aesthete (Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett), and an aging drifter (Richard Gere) whose fleeting visions of an old, weird America uncannily evoke the evolving landscape of Dylan's lyrics. The gambit gives you the sense that he's somehow everywhere and nowhere at once. By detonating the very foundational assumptions of biography, I'm Not There actually comes closest to getting it right. ERIC HYNES

24 Hour Party People


BEST: ’24 Hour Party People’ (2002)

Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) is front and center in Michael Winterbottom's film, directly addressing the audience to narrate his eclectic journey from English TV personality to Factory Records honcho to nightclub owner. But he's less a scene-hogging star than a cheeky, motor-mouthed travel guide through the Manchester music scene of the 1980s. Considering the celestial personalities he encounters—Joy Division's Ian Curtis (Sean Harris); volatile producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis)—it's a wise and inspired bit of bait and switch. Yet perhaps not as inspired as Coogan's bone-dry performance, in which he cedes the spotlight but still steals every scene. ERIC HYNES         

The Runaways Kristen Stewart Dakota Fanning

Courtesy of Apparition/David Moir

WORST: ‘The Runaways’ (2010)

Joan Jett was an executive producer on this retelling of her first band's rise and fall — so how could bad it be, right? The result was not a ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb so much as a plain old bomb, one that not even Michael Shannon as sleazy Sunset Strip Svengali Kim Fowley could save from sheer ineptitude. Director Floria Sigismondi has made some incredible music videos, but shooting musicians and working with actors playing musicians are two different things; Kristen Stewart may give good sneer, but her young Jett is eventually reduced to a lot of poses and pouts. (Ditto Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, whose autobiography formed the basis for the film.) This is a glam band's story retold not as feminist rocudrama but as a kiddie's karaoke night out. DAVID FEAR

robert de niro raging bull

Courtesy of United Artists

BEST: ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

He could have been a somebody, a contender…instead of the former Boxing Middleweight Champion of the World and a broken man. Martin Scorsese's scorched-earth portrait of professional puglist Jake LaMotta makes a compelling case for the notion that the same demons that made him a champ in the ring turned him into a rabid beast outside of it. The fact that he screams 'I am not an animal" as he beats his fists against a wall is telling; this is the story of an athelete who once said he "fought like [he] didn't deserve to live" trying to punch his way back to humanity. Robert De Niro deservedly won an Oscar for his unsparing portrayal of LaMotta, taking his Method-madness acting to its endpoint by gaining 60 lbs in order to play the fighter as a swollen wreck. It's not the weight that makes the performance such a stunner; it's the pain De Niro shows you, in no uncertain terms, that drove LaMotta to self-destructive extremes. DAVID FEAR

kevin spacey beyond the sea

Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Collection

WORST: ‘Beyond the Sea’ (2004)

He looks like Bobby Darin and he sounds like Bobby Darin — so why shouldn't superfan Kevin Spacey play Bobby Darin? And direct the movie as well, why he's at it? Never mind that the 45-year-old Usual Suspects actor was a little on the older side when it came to portraying the "Mack the Knife" singer as a teen idol and a twentysomething crooner; this was his pet project and hey, there's movie magic to smooth over the rough edges, right? Once again, the factor that has sunk many a biopic rears its ugly head: ego. Even if the pacing didn't seem several beats off and you could suspend your disbelief over the age factor, the movie ultimately ends up being little more than a vanity project. Roger Ebert said it best: "[It's] as much about Spacey playing Darin as Darin himself."—David Fear

michael douglas Behind the Candelabra

Claudette Barius/HBO

BEST: ‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013)

According to director Steven Soderbergh, his Liberace biopic was deemed "too gay" for a theatrical release. While Europeans were lucky enough to catch it on the big screen, domestic audiences witnessed the soap opera of fame, fortune, closeted legacies, and bad hair pieces play out on HBO. Soderbergh wisely avoids totality — Liberace's days as a classical pianist and his appearance on Kojak don't make the cut. Instead, Behind the Candelabra finds room for two stories: Michael Douglas as the extravagant piano player and his long-time romantic interest, Scott Thorson (played innocently by Matt Damon). Soderbergh unravels their tale, full of steamy romance, hateful bickering, and tragic surgical enhancements. It was a life lived behind a facade grandmothers across the globe could adore. Behind the Candelabra brings the man back to Earth. MATT PATCHES


Taurus Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection

WORST: ‘Wired’ (1989)

Imagine the pitch session for Wired: "Let's make a biopic of John Belushi!" says one executive. Not a bad plan — the actor's short existence was a dense speedball of drugs and ludicrous, era-defining comedy. "Let's adapt Bob Woodward's biography — and write him into the script too!" OK, I guess that makes sense; it worked for All the President's Men, right? "Let's cast Michael Chiklis!" The guy from that one episode of Miami Vice? Perfect. "Let's add another character that families will enjoy. How about a guardian angel?" Er, kids will love it. Somehow, despite all the creatively-inspired choices, Wired arrived a jumbled mess, weaving together Belushi's rise to stardom and his chemical-induced downward spiral with the grace of Samurai Futaba. MATT PATCHES

american splendor

Fine Line/courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘American Splendor’ (2003)

Harvey Pekar's thoroughly documented his life, warts and all (especially the warts), in his autobiographical comic books. So who better to guide us through his blue collar existence than the curmudgeonly storyteller himself? Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini rely on their real-life subject to set the stage: One minute, Pekar avatar Paul Giamatti's Pekar struggles in the neurotic gauntlet that is a super market checkout line. A few seconds later, he's alongside the actual Pekar, dialoguing on a white stage that might be the inside of the writer's brain. American Splendor comics were pure Harvey — observational, opinionated, whimsical, caustic. Blending fiction and reality was the perfect, and only, way to go. MATT PATCHES

my left foot

Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘My Left Foot’ (1989)

It's unsurprising that Daniel Day-Lewis would appear twice on this list, given how he turns every character, famous or not, into someone you've never encountered before. As Christy Brown, an Irish quadriplegic with severe cerebral palsy who becomes an accomplished writer thanks to one controllable extremity, Day-Lewis not only contorts and spasms and utters unintelligibly — inviting the audience to feel the frustrations of both Christy and those trying to understand him — he also gives Christy an indelible personality. No tragic flower, he's instead a spoiled, impetuous, sexually improper pain in the ass. His greatness emerges not from fighting disability, but from his assertion of undeniable humanity. ERIC HYNES

J.Edgar Leonardo Dicaprio

Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures

WORST: ‘J. Edgar’ (2011)

It's hard to remain neutral on J. Edgar Hoover: He was a devout protector of America, yet morally comprised in his pursuits. Social norms suppressed him from fully exploring aspects of his life, making him wholly sympathetic — but his vicious retaliation makes everything else hard to swallow. So Clint Eastwood takes on the dramatic challenge of saying nothing, pitching his drab biopic of the former FBI ringleader straight down the middle. Leonardo DiCaprio aches to explore the psychoanalytical oddities of Hoover, only to have 18 pounds of makeup bury his ambition. Eastwood's living, breathing wax mannequin tries to take us back through the history books, but only succeeds in burning a nightmare image burned into those unlucky enough to survive it. MATT PATCHES

Lincoln Daniel Day Lewis

Courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘Lincoln’ (2012)

Biopics often fall into the trap of trying to superficially span a person's entire life in a two or three-hour swoop, lily-padding between historic highlights and aging actors with decreasingly persuasive prosthetics. But Steven Spielberg's Lincoln takes an opposite tack, limiting action to a few months in 1865 when the President persuaded Congress to abolish slavery and effectively end the Civil War. It's biography as seen through a single crucial snapshot, made all the more vivid by Daniel Day-Louis' daring, and Oscar-winning, portrayal of Lincoln as a reedy-voiced, professorial piece of work. ERIC HYNES

ashton kutcher steve jobs

Glen Wilson/Sundance

WORST: ‘Jobs’ (2013)

The only thing worse than exalting a biographical subject is clinically adapting his or her life into the live-action equivalent of a Wikipedia page. That's the experience one gets watching this Ashton Kutcher-led biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, as the film egregiously jump from one timeline marker to the next — cramming in famous "ah ha!" moments with little time devoted to how one stumbles upon such innovations.  Jobs was an LSD-fueled hippie who disavowed his pregnant wife before battling corporate tycoons over the future of personal computing. He was the crazy person who thought a giant leap in PC technology was tricking monitors out with colorful shells. Where is this vibrant individual? He's been sucked into the black hole of absolute veracity, apparently, along with any hints of friction-filled drama. MATT PATCHES

milk sean penn


BEST: ‘Milk’ (2008)

Taken out of context, Gus van Sant's portrait of Harvey Milk might be considered a by-the-books biopic, showcasing Sean Penn's transformative abilities. Certainly, thanks to the actor's extraordinary mimicry of behavior, articulation, and language, Penn turned himself a ringer for the gay activist and politician. But Milk arrived in the throes of the same-sex marriage debate, with California's Proposition 8 passing into law just weeks before its release. Milk's battles from the '70s mirrored the ones going on outside the theater; his death wasn't in vein, but we hadn't come that far either. And here was Milk, revived by Penn's tender ferocity, standing up for human rights, jumping through hoops to become part of the political system, and still managing a tender life at home. Many biopics have to explain why their subjects are heroes. Milk shows us. MATT PATCHES


Hilary Swank Amelia Earhart

Ken Woroner/©Fox Searchlight/courtesy Everett Collection

WORST: ‘Amelia’ (2009)

In the face of gender prejudice and technological deterrents, aviator Amelia Earhart told off opponents who questioned her ability to fly across the Atlantic with exclamations like "I WILL!" At least, that's what the overblown dialogue of the pilot's 2009 biopic suggests. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and Rain Man writer Ron Bass melt down Earhart's legacy and recast it in the Oscar-bait mold. There's nothing reflective of Earhart's personality here; in fact, there's no evidence in the film that she even had a personality. Amelia tries to make up for it with sweeping landscapes, period costumes, golden age romance, and actory moments aplenty for star Hilary Swank, all peppered within framework built around Earhart's mysterious disappearance. Without any identifiable hook, the movie took off  — and promptly vanished from the awards-season conversation it was prepared to dominate. MATT PATCHES

johnny depp ed wood

Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘Ed Wood’ (1994)

One of the best biopics of the last 20 years is about one of the worst filmmakers ever to yell "Action"; this is what folks call irony. Tim Burton's film does not come to bury Caesar, if by "Caesar" one means the director responsible for Plan 9 From Outer Space. Nor does it necessarily come to praise him, as Ed Wood really was a terrible director. But what Burton admires is the sheer exuberance with which Wood threw himself into his projects: He was not going to let a little thing like talent stop him from realizing his moviemaking dreams. Already fully into his weirdo phase, Johnny Depp embraces both the personal aspects of Wood's life (like his struggle to deal with the "shame" of being a cross-dresser) and the professional endeavors that the filmmaker treated with an amateur's zeal. Watching Wood gleefully putting the finish touches on a movie with paper-plate UFOs, you can't help but find yourself admiring the guy. He made horrible,  cheapie flicks — but he always put 100% of himself into it. DAVID FEAR

coal miner's daughter

Universal Studios/Getty Images

BEST: ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980)

Before she was the Queen of Country Music, Loretta Lynn was just another young woman growing up hard in Kentucky's Butcher Hollow. (Unlike everybody else, Lynn apparently had a dad who looked like Levon Helm from The Band.) Then Loretta married and got a guitar as a gift from her husband. She taught herself to play, befriended Patsy Cline and the rest, as they say, is history. We've seen the rise-and-fall, rags-to-riches, it's-lonely-at-the-top music biopic a gajillion times, but no matter how many times you watch Michael Apted's solid retelling of Lynn's story, it still feels utterly compelling. There's a beauty and a simplicity to the movie that almost feels comparable to the country singer's songs, as well as the ache you associate with tunes like "I Fall to Pieces." Spacek's open-book performance, of course, is anything but simplistic, and more than earns the Oscar she won for playing Lynn from fragile girl to "Fist City" survivor. DAVID FEAR   

a beautiful mind russell crowe

Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

WORST: ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (2001)

Yes, it won the Best Picture Oscar, but Oscar has been wrong before — and this could be used as Exhibit B, right behind Crash. It's fine that Ron Howard's look at math whiz and mad genius John Forbes Nash Jr. selectively fudged on a few facts —hey, poetic license! — and to be fair, Russell Crowe's performance is only slightly tic-ish when it could have been over the top. But drowning the triumph-of-the-human-spirit in syrup and playing tug of war so violently with our heartstrings…that's tougher to forgive. And by the time half the cast shows up in slapdash old-person make-up for one last geriatric victory lap, you feel like you could safely answer Johnny Rotten's eternal question: Yes, in fact, I do get the felling that I've been cheated. DAVID FEAR

the elephant man

Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

BEST: ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980)

The notion of assigning David Lynch (on the basis of Eraserhead, mind you) to what, on the surface, seemed to be a Oscarbait-y adaptation of Bernard Pomerance's play about a deformed young man exhibited as a 19th-century sideshow freak would not have struck a lot of people as a wise decision. Thank god the producers trusted their instincts: This is one of those films where the strengths of an artist matches up perfectly with the material. The black-and-white cinematography evokes the place and period beautifully, the odd touches lend just the right sense of unease without delving into body-horror territory and John Hurt's performance as Joseph "John" Merrick brings the humanity despite the pounds of prosthetics.  Everything clicks. DAVID FEAR

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