These biopics offer epic portrayals
By Bill Goodykoontz
Published: Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” is a gripping portrait of —⅛ well, Lincoln, sort of. But it's more about the struggle to get the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives than it is about the 16th president.
But it does bring to mind some of the great biographical films, and there have been many. Too many, in fact, to include all the good ones here. But these 10 give you a good start.
“Coal Miner's Daughter” (1980): Sissy Spacek didn't necessarily seem like the perfect choice to play country-music legend Loretta Lynn, but boy did she turn out to be. The movie follows Lynn's path from poverty to riches and fame, and Spacek is amazing, picking up a best actress Oscar for her efforts. With Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle.
“The King's Speech” (2010): Tom Hooper's film tells the story of King George VI of England, who suddenly found himself on the throne after his brother abdicated, terrified, in part, because he suffers from a pronounced stammer. Colin Firth is Oscar-winning good as King George; Geoffrey Rush is Oscar-nominated good as the speech therapist who helps him. The film also won for best picture, director and screenplay.
“Schindler's List” (1993): Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who eventually turns his factory into a safe haven for Jews. Clearly a personal work for director Spielberg, and one of his best. He won his first Oscar for directing it; the film picked up seven others, including best picture.
“Amadeus” (1984): The real history behind the story may differ significantly, but it's so much fun to watch the insanely jealous composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) fume while boy terror Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) tosses off masterpiece after masterpiece. Abraham won a best actor Oscar, one of eight Academy Awards the film won, including best director for Milos Forman and best picture.
“Malcolm X” (1992): Spike Lee was hitting on all cylinders when he tackled his dream project, a three-hour-plus film about the controversial leader. Denzel Washington is superb as Malcolm; he and Lee have been plenty good in other projects, but rarely as good as they are here. Lee's passion is evident, and hasn't been seen to this extent since.
“Raging Bull” (1980): Martin Scorsese's brutal masterpiece tells the sad, frustrating story of boxer Jake LaMotta, showing how his unconquerable rage fueled him inside the ring and nearly destroyed him outside it. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta, famously gaining 60 pounds to play the later version of him.
“Patton” (1970): Was ever an actor born to a role more perfectly than George C. Scott as Gen. George S. Patton Jr.? Another epic, nearly three hours long, the film never loses steam, thanks to Scott's titanic performance as the hot-headed World War II general. The movie won seven Oscars, including best picture and best actor for Scott (who famously refused it), in addition to best screenplay, shared by a guy named Francis Ford Coppola.
“I'm Not There” (2007): Todd Haynes' genuinely weird film about Bob Dylan uses six actors, including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and, of all people, Cate Blanchett, to tell the story. Dylan is never named but his presence is all-encompassing; they all play Dylan-like characters at various points of his career. Blanchett got a supporting-actress nomination for it.
“Milk” (2008): Gus Van Sant's biography of Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official, is helped tremendously by an Oscar-winning performance by Sean Penn in the title role. (Dustin Lance Black also won for best screenplay.). Nearly as good is Josh Brolin, as Dan White, the fellow elected official who would kill Milk.
“Brian's Song” (1971):OK, it's a TV movie, but the story of Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears running back who formed an unlikely friendship with the great Gayle Sayers, is outstanding, and guaranteed to make the strongest man or woman cry. James Caan has rarely been better as Piccolo, and Billy Dee Williams is also excellent as Sayers, delivering one of the great tear-jerking speeches (“I love Brian Piccolo”) in any film shown on any-size screen.
Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.
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