Become A Biopics Expert In Ten Easy Steps

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This is the time of year when Hollywood seems to stock up on biopics like a squirrel gathering nuts, hoarding nuggets of factual goodness to get them through awards season. Peer inside this year’s hollowed-out tree stump and you’ll spot polarising figures like J. Edgar Hoover or Maggie Thatcher, as well as an entirely unpolarising one (unless you’re a member of a Burmese junta) in The Lady’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Technically biopics don’t qualify as a genre, but their sheer diversity warrants a closer look. There have been bio-movies full of insights and elemental drama (Raging Bull), some that have had fun with the facts in pursuit of a good yarn (Amadeus), and a few that have just bored our pants off (Miss Potter). And also Patch Adams. From the first biopic, George Melies’s Joan Of Arc in 1899, to this week’s J. Edgar, there’s been hundreds. Here’s Empire’s guide to ten to track down. Squirrels not included.

Director: Franklin Schaffner

If you locked the director of Apocalypse Now in a room with the writer of Sink The Bismark!, you’d expect the result to look something like Patton, a mash-up of the Vietnam-era madness and conventional war bio. (That, or a movie about a giant battleship on acid.) And so it turned out. War leaders have offered rich pickings for biopics, but even James Mason’s measured Desert Fox and Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence would struggle to live with bucketheaded battle genius George Patton as played by George C. Scott. He’s breathtaking in the role that won him his only Oscar: an award he flatly rejected, refusing to compete with other actors. Patton, a man who was in competition with the entire world at one point or other, might have sneered at that, but then this is a man who liked to polish his helmet with his enemies’ faces.

Iconic moment: The amazing opening monologue, growled out against a ginormous Stars and Stripes: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country, he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

What to quote: “God help me I love it so,” Patton sighs amid the blazing wreckage of another battlefield. “I love it more than my life.”

Pub trivia: The tanks used to stand in for German panzers in the film were post-war US M48s - better known as the ‘Patton’. This makes them meta-panzers.

Oscars bait? Hell yes. Seven Oscar wins, including Best Picture, Best Director (Franklin Schaffner), Best Actor (Scott) and Best Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola/Edmund North).

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

It’s no surprise that early French cinema picked two great Gallic heroes, Napoleon and Joan of Arc, to bring to the screen – and it wasn’t just because both would later appear in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Their iconic status and epic life stories were manna for moviemakers like Abel Gance, whose great Napoleon came to life in 1927, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, who made this proto-courtroom drama a year later. The Dane had nearly picked a third, Marie Antoinette, to adapt instead, until, legend has it, a matchstick draw helped him settle on Joan Of Arc. It was a good choice. Dreyer picked Renée Falconetti as the woman Ted Theodore Logan once mistook for Noah’s wife, a role since played by actresses including Milla Jovovich, Jane Birkin and Ingrid Bergman, but none can compare to this. Dreyer demanded that Falconetti “abstract from reality in order to reinforce [the film’s] spiritual content” – a clever way of suggesting that it’d basically be Joan and God against the world, and God was taking the day off. This central conceit, of a protagonist standing alone in the face of violent attack, has juiced big biopics from Alexander Nevsky (1938) to Marie Antoinette (2006), but this is the greatest of its kind. There’s so much suffering in Joan’s eyes as she makes her way to – spoiler! – her death. Unfortunately, the tagline wasn't: ‘The stakes have never been higher’.

Iconic moment: Clutching a cross, tears pouring from her eyes, the doomed Joan asks God, “Will I be with you tonight in Paradise?” Dreyer cross-cuts her Gethsemane moment with shots of a baby nursing – life and death in perfect juxtaposition.

What to quote: Don’t quote anything, just Tebow.

Pub trivia: The authentic print of Dreyer’s masterpiece was believed to have been destroyed – coincidentally, by fire – until an original version was found in the cupboard of a Norwegian mental institute in 1981. Presumably next to an original print of Zookeeper.

Oscars bait? The Academy Awards arrived a year later.

Director: John Ford

Henry Fonda played Dwight D. Eisenhower, Admiral Nimitz and Brig. General Theodore Roosevelt on the big screen, so basically he’s responsible for winning World War II all on his own. Less famously, he also defeated the Confederacy of the US Civil War in the fictionalised Abraham Lincoln biopic he made in his pre-stardom days. John Ford’s film is the first of a subgenre of ‘Young’ biopics (see also: ‘Churchill’, ‘Victoria’, ‘Guns’) and it’s as glorious a piece of mythmaking as Hollywood produced at the time. It doesn’t much matter that Fonda’s Young Abe makes his name in a court case that never happened, because the essence of the man tallies, even when the facts don’t. In that sense, it’s a forebear of other baby-bios – stories of historic figures’ lesser-documented days that play a little faster and looser than their grown-up equivalents. We’d be seriously surprised if, for instance, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln deviates from the history books in the same way that Ford’s did. Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter may have similar departures from fact, however.

Iconic moment: With his chimney-pot hat on and the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing, Lincoln stands silhouetted against the horizon on a hill preparing for a glorious future.

What to quote: “By jing, that's all there is to it: right and wrong.” And remember the "by jing" bit.

Pub trivia: Henry Fonda wore platform shoes to make up the two-and-a-half inches he gave away to the 6” 4’ Lincoln.

Oscars bait? Just a nod for Lamar Trotti’s screenplay. He lost out to Lewis Foster’s script for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

Director: Tim Burton

To misquote Norma Desmond: the movies didn’t get smaller, the directors just got less silly. Which is why Ed Wood, the man behind such unclassics as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Jail Bait, and the lovable subject of Tim Burton’s affectionate bio-homage, remains unique. Alongside Edward Scissorhands, it’s Burton’s best film to date and, to this day, the funniest biopic you’ll ever see – if not necessarily the most accurate. Amid some of the daftest moments in filmmaking history – hello giant rubber octopus! – there’s the poignant tale of a endlessly hopeful man striving for the unattainable, surrounded by a mishmash of has-beens and never-will-be’s – a sort of Anvil! for filmmakers. But it’s mostly about the daftness, provided in spades by cross-dressing, angora sweaters and Blue Peter-grade flying saucers; three things you won’t see in J. Edgar. Sorry, one thing you won’t see in J. Edgar.

Iconic moment: Ed’s pep talk from Orson Welles (played by an uncanny Vincent D’Onofrio) in an end-of-the-line bar that we’re pretty sure never happened. “Visions are worth fighting for,” Welles tells an awestruck Wood. “Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

What to quote: “Ok, and CUT! Perfect! Print it!” Yup, an extra has just crashed into the wall.

Pub trivia: Depp says his performance was based in equal parts on “the blind optimism” of Ronald Reagan, and the enthusiasm of the Tin Man and American radio personality Casey Kasem.

Oscars bait? Martin Landau scooped up a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Rick Baker and his team also won Best Makeup.

Director: Bob Fosse

There are musical biopics that stick largely to the facts, like Gary Busey’s Oscar-nominated The Buddy Holly Story or Clint Eastwood’s Bird. Then there are those, like Crazy Heart or Dreamgirls, which follow the format but insert fictional characters – and extra booze and pills – into the equation. Then there’s Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, which sits somewhere, though we’re not sure where, between the two. It’s the closest thing on this list to an auto-biopic, although where the line between the real and the imaginary lies is as blurry as the feet of the dancers who spin through the life of genius choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Schieder). Gideon is plagued by premonitions of death, as he struggles to balance his creative visions with a train wreck love-life and a cigarette habit that would fell the Laramie moose. Somewhere in the character is Fosse himself, although probably only the man himself could say exactly how much. As he put it: “Sometimes I don't know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.”

Iconic moment: Gideon’s final reel meltdown, typically played out in a grandstand song-and-dance number.

What to quote: “It’s showtime, folks!”

Pub trivia: This film offers empirical proof that Jessica Lange is a much sexier Death than William Sadler.

Oscars bait? Nine nominations and four wins (Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing and Best Score).

Director: Michael Apted

We’re not going to lie: there are bits of this film that feel like the coal-mining bit in Zoolander have been re-edited by Cletus from The Simpsons. The story of Loretta Lynn, it’s the essence of Country and Westernness. Leave your preconceptions at the door, though, because Michael Apted’s hillbilly heartbreaker is one of the finest music biopics in a genre that’s pretty much packed with them. Tommy Lee Jones’s performance provides plenty of spark in the Best Unsupporting Husband role as the man who inspired such songs as ‘Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)’, but it’s Spacek’s movie. Twenty-nine at the time of filming, she’s convincing as the teenage Lynn, raised in poverty in Kentucky and married at only 13, as well as the older, more world-weary superstar. The rags-to-riches tale unfolds at nosebleed speed, like Lynn’s life, and captivated audiences and critics alike. If C&W all sounds like aural terror, you might want to approach with caution. For everyone else, this is well worth tracking down.

Iconic moment: Lynn plays ‘There He Goes’ to an increasingly rapt crowd in a Kentucky bar. And she didn’t even have to play ‘Rawhide’.

What to quote: “I may be ignorant, but I ain't stupid!”

Pub trivia: Like Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Spacek performed all the songs herself at the behest of director Apted.

Oscars bait? Yup. Sissy Spacek won that Best Actress gong. It also picked up six other nominations including Best Film, which ultimately went to Ordinary People.

Director: William Dieterle

The DiCaprio of his day, Paul Muni was the face of history’s good and great in Warner Bros.’ ‘prestige biopic’ franchise in the 1930s. Needed someone to cure anthrax? Rashly invade Russia? Liberate Mexico? Teach Chopin to write nocturnes? Muni was your man, boasting more faces than the Bride of Wildenstein. He added another one here – French literary great Émile Zola – to a list that includes Louis Pasteur, Napoleon, Benito Juarez and Joseph Elsner, among others. Jack Warner had sneered at his star’s turn as Louis Pasteur (“Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks through a microscope, we lose a million dollars,” he grumbled), but it made him money and this slice of Gallic grandeur won him awards too. Sticking to the biopic convention, The Life of Émile Zola spans the novelist’s penniless Parisian days, as well as the feted middle years that saw him embroiled in France’s murky Dreyfus Affair. It’s aged well, an unhysterical portrayal of a great man which, like all successful biographies, doesn’t overdo the theatricality but lets the story tell itself.

Iconic moment: The courtroom scenes give Muni plenty of chance to storm some serious barn. Add Spencer Tracey in Judgment At Nuremberg to Orson Welles in Compulsion and multiply it by the square root of Erin Brockovich and you’d be close.

What to quote: Zola’s famous ‘J’Accuse’ letter, read aloud by Muni: “I shall tell the truth. Because if I did not, my nights would be haunted by the spectre of an innocent man expiating under the most frightful torture a crime he never committed.”

Pub trivia: The film was shot in reverse chronological order, enabling Muni to gradually trim his beard as he went along.

Oscar bait? Oui! Zola was the second biopic, after The Ziegfeld Follies, to win Best Picture. It also won Best Supporting Actor for Joseph Schildkraut’s portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus, a Best Writing gong and snagged seven other nominations.

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Before Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff served up another bile-filled beauty in the shape of this docu-biopic of comic-book artist Robert Crumb. Like his pal Harvey Pekar, Crumb, the creator of feline trickster Fritz the Cat, is a cranky but mesmerising jumping-off point for a broader look at America’s fringes. There are no furious dwarfs or drunken Santas here, but at times it feels like a dry run to Zwigoff’s pitch black Christmas-com, with Crumb’s misanthropic side never far from an airing. The blues LP-collecting, weird fetishes (do not accept a piggyback from this man), cartoon-creating alt.genius shares the screen with his two deeply troubled brothers, Max and Charles: one medicated, one meditating; both talented but burnt out. Like the subjects of other great bio-docs Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man) and Glenn Gould (Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), the Crumb family doesn’t always offer cheery viewing, but, then, that’s not really what Zwigoff was going for. Near-universally positive reviews are a clue to how well he nailed it.

Iconic moment: Zwigoff and his crew go through the rabbit hole and into the Crumb family home where the artist’s disapproving mum and two brothers await.

What (not) to quote: “When I was about five or six, I was sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny. I cut out this Bugs Bunny off the cover of a comic book and carried it around with me.”

Pub trivia: Zwigoff spent six years filming Crumb and longer still trying get the film made. At one point, the stress of trying to finance it left him bedridden with depression.

Oscar bait? Nope, but Zwigoff’s film did pick up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Director: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

Unless, like us, you believe that Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was based on real-life events, you’d know that the animated biopic is a relatively recent development. Alongside Ari Folman’s majestic Waltz With Bashir, a trippier-than-your-average hayride through the brutal experiences of an Israeli soldier in early ’80s Lebanon, Persepolis is another foreign-language film to splice together an old genre and even older storytelling format in a completely fresh way. It’s adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel and tells her own story, from her days growing up in Shia-ruled Iran through an adolescence spent securing Iron Maiden records and new pumps while the Iran/Iraq war is rumbling on and the Ayatollah is chucking all-comers in jail. The film was a family affair, with the Bruce Lee-loving Marji voiced by Chiara ‘daughter of Marcello’ Mastroianni, and Mama Satrapi voiced by Chiara’s own mum, Catherine Deneuve.

Iconic moment: The bit where Marji proudly tells her French taxi driver where she’s from still gives us the chills…

What to quote: ... not least because of her father’s moving words to her before she leaves Tehran: “Never forget who you are and where you're from.”

Pub trivia: The Iranian government protested to the French embassy about the film and petitioned against it at the Bangkok and Wellington film festivals. File this under: ‘How you know that you’re getting things right’.

Oscars bait? It was nominated for Best Animated Feature but was pipped by Ratatouille. Someone should have smelled a rat. (Yes, we went there.)

Director: Warren Beatty

Nowadays the chances of Warren Beatty’s Communist bio-epic getting past the “email us the script” stage would be pretty slim. “A 194 minute, big budget saga about a Bolshe-what? Called what? Fuggedaboutit.” It says plenty about Beatty’s clout post-Shampoo, Bonnie & Clyde and Heaven Can Wait that he made it happen, especially since America was hardly going through an hug-a-Commie phase at the time. Beatty, with typical modesty, opted to play the central character, left-wing journo John ‘Jack’ Reed, as well as bringing the whole shebang together behind the camera with the help of legendary Apocalypse Now DoP Vittorio Storaro. The process – even with the help of Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton and J. Emmit Walsh – left him suffering with laryngitis and 30lbs lighter, but with a cerebral, challenging biopic in the can. We’d like to say it was worth all the agony –Roger Ebert generously described it as “a thinking man’s Doctor Zhivago” – but we’ve never had laryngitis so it’s hard to judge.

Iconic moment: Louise Bryant’s (Diane Keaton) discovery that Reed has been cheating on her. See! Never trust a communist.

What to quote: “Something in me says: watch it, a new version of Irish Catholicism is being born.” Jack Nicholson’s melancholy playwright Eugene O'Neill sums up the new civil war.

Pub trivia: At one point, the uncredited Gene Hackman refused to do a 101st take of a scene. He’s since described Beatty’s directorial style, with some understatement, as “tough”.

Oscars bait? The Academy, still acutely conscious of the bitter legacy of the witchhunting ‘50s in Hollywood, loved it. It picked up 12 nominations and won three Oscars: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (for Maureen Stapleton) and Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro).