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.
4. The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933 (Available on DVD)
A huge hit across the pond when British films rarely troubled the rest of the world, Alexander Korda’s bawdy Tudor romp defined the enduring image of the gluttonous monarch, played with gusto but also pathos by Charles Laughton.
Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are ignored, as the story kicks off with his third wife Jane Seymour and runs through to Catherine Parr. But the voters didn’t care – it became the first non-Hollywood film to win an Oscar.
5. The Queen, 2006 (BFI Player)
Uniquely among royal biopics, writer Peter Morgan (The Crown) and director Stephen Frears dared to depict a living monarch in their focused slice of palace life. It takes in Tony Blair’s election and the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, when the Oscar-winning Helen Mirren’s wily Queen must save the out-of-step monarchy from oblivion. It also works as a biopic of Blair, forever imprinted on our minds as a much more sympathetic Michael Sheen.
6. Selma, 2014 (9pm Good Friday, BBC2)
David Oyelowo was robbed of the best actor Oscar in 2015, not even getting a nomination, for his stoutly convincing and multilayered turn as civil rights legend Martin Luther King. Director Ava DuVernay’s heartfelt tribute concentrates on Dr King’s marches in Alabama in 1965, with Tom Wilkinson anything but a caricature as President Johnson.
7. Lincoln, 2012 (iTunes)
Daniel Day-Lewis is incapable of phoning it in, but he truly inhabits the president to the tip of his stovepipe hat. Focusing on the days leading up to a decision on the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment, Tony Kushner’s script does not shy away from complex political dialogue, and Steven Spielberg pulls another impressive slice of history out of his hat.
8. Steve Jobs, 2015 (Monday Sky Drama/Romance)
Writer Aaron Sorkin can make anything interesting, even the life of a computer genius. He did it with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and he does it here with Apple’s Steve Jobs, played by a much-too-handsome Michael Fassbender. Three product launches illustrate his bumpy career and latter psychological decline, and it’s all directed with operatic showmanship by Danny Boyle.
9. Amadeus, 1984 (iTunes)
Arguably the greatest movie about classical music ever made, thanks to director Milos Forman’s playfulness on a grand scale and the bottomless, helium-laugh energy of Tom Hulce as Mozart. Peter Shaffer’s stage play gets an $18 million facelift for the big screen and Oscars were handed round like crackers. The music’s pretty good, too.
10. Lust for Life, 1956 (iTunes)
Biopics of painters often struggle to capture their subject’s genius (see Mr Turner), but Kirk Douglas gives such an immersive performance in Vincente Minnelli’s gorgeous film, he makes you believe those canvases are all his own work.
AND THE WILDCARD… Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, 1987
Bizarre, eerily kitsch student-film debut of the subsequently Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol). He charts how the tragic, middle-of-the-road singer succumbed to anorexia using a cast of hand-held Barbie dolls on scale-model sets.
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