Dramatised accounts of famous lives have held an allure for viewers since Corinne Griffith was Oscar-nominated in 1930 as Nelson’s mistress, Lady Hamilton, in silent The Divine Lady and George Arliss won for the title role later the same year in talkie Disraeli.
If anything, the biopic is more popular now than ever before. One of the most talked about films of the last few years was Selma, with Britain’s own David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. Controversially, it was overlooked for an Oscar, but at this year’s ceremony four of the nine best picture nominees (Hacksaw Ridge with Andrew Garfield, Hidden Figures with Octavia Spencer, Lion with Dev Patel and Moonlight with Naomie Harris) were explicitly biographical.
But which films really succeed in bringing a life story to life? Here are my all-time favourites:
1. Gandhi, 1982 (Saturday 3pm, Sony Channel)
Surely the grandaddy of the epic biopic from Richard Attenborough, who later reteamed with writer John Briley on the Steve Biko film Cry Freedom (1987). It boasts a cast of thousands, authentic locations, a three-hour-plus running time and Ben Kingsley in his mesmeric, career-defining role. No surprises that it won eight Oscars including best picture.
2. Erin Brockovich, 2000 (Now TV/Sky on Demand)
The real Erin Brockovich was a single mum and legal clerk without formal training who in 1993 ran a successful $333 million lawsuit against a polluting utility company. She became famous thanks to Julia Roberts’s engaging portrayal in Steven Soderbergh’s irresistible film of her remarkable achievement. And Roberts walked off with the Oscar.
3. Scott of the Antarctic, 1948 (BFI Player)
Charles Frend’s Technicolor landmark for Ealing makes superb use of studio sets to transport a ration-weary postwar audience to the South Pole to relive a truly heroic failure, but with stiff upper lip left intact. In a marvellous salute to Britishness, John Mills really is a man you would follow to the ends of the earth.