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The best Biographical films

TheFlyingScotsman-ScotPress-Sm.jpgNot only is the excellent The Flying Scotsman (Filmstalker review) out this week in the UK but there are a few different Sammy Davis Jr. biographical films in development, the Edith Piaf film on release, Che Guevara biographical films in production, and there are many more on the way.

That got me thinking about all the biographies on screen over the years, what makes a good biographical film, and which are the best and worst. Which are yours, and what people would you like to see get their biographies on screen?

&Just released this weekend is the superb The Flying Scotsman, a film that you really should see, it's not a film just about cycling so much, it's more about triumph over adversity, and it's excellent for it.

It tells the story of Graeme Obree, the Scottish cycling hero who won medals and broke records time and time again using a hand built bike, part of which came from his washing machine drum. However every achievement riled the governing body of the sport and rules changed, exclusions were made, obstacles galore were put in his place and they weren't just all external. All the while he struggled with a deep depression.

After the recent Flying Scotsman I started thinking about other true stories, and as you start thinking of some, more and more pop out. The ones that came to mind for me, and in no particular order are:

Evita, Ali, Nixon, Shackleton, Thirteen Days, Ghandi, Alexander, Downfall, Reach for the Sky

Instantly there's something amiss with that list, the majority is about individuals, and yet films such as Thirteen Days, Downfall and Shackleton are about groups of individuals and specific events in their lives, and yet they reveal so much about one person and are tied with that name.

Thirteen Days is about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the many people involved, but I think it shows so much about John F. Kennedy and his relationship with his brother and country that it is more like a biography, albeit one with a shorter time frame.

Does that class as a biography then? I think it does. What other biographical films can you think of which aren't necessarily straight retellings of someone's life?

Although there is a Margaret Thatcher film coming, it is only focusing on the seventeen days lead up to the Falkands War. I do believe that she would make for a great, complete biography. She built herself up from the daughter of a Greengrocer to the leader of Britain as its first female Prime Mininister, and throughout her career she battled the male institution and came through several key historical moments.

Ronald Reagan would be another great biography. His time as US President saw many historical moments too, not least the signing of one of the most important documents of all time, the disarmament agreement with Russia.

Other people I'd like to see biographies of are Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, names in the entertainment spotlight. Then there are sporting icons such as Stirling Moss or Ayton Senna, or historical figures such as Barnes Wallis or Edmund Hilary.

There's an identifiable type of person that makes for a good biographical work, and if their life matches many of these elements then there is plenty of scope for a film about them. Here's what I think makes up that list.

People who have participated in shaping events as well as leading the way, people who have suffered adversity, failure and triumph. People who's lives give us something to aspire to, something to believe in while ours remain personally uninspiring and unfulfilling.

All that said they need to have had some form of tragedy, personal darkness and doubt, or controversy in their life. Once you have these a biography is not far away, and you can see them all in The Flying Scotsman and other films above.

Who do you think would be suited to a biography and why? Which biographies have you really enjoyed so far? Perhaps there are even some names that shouldn't have their stories told?



I would love to see an Orson Welles biography somewhere down the road. As a great hero of mine, I loved to see his story told on the big screen much like The Aviator, which at the moment is one of my favourite biographical films.

I believe Welles' struggle for artistic integrity in the ruthless Hollywood studio system is still a story that is relevant today (see Olivier Hirschbiegel's new flick) and his downfall from the top of the Hollywood ladder all the way to the gutter could make for some compelling viewiing given the right actor.

I'm actually surprised there hasn't been a movie made on his life yet.

My favourite biography movie is Lawrence of Arabia. Every biography movie made after this can´t ignore the achievement. It´s interesting that the movie is not too much literal.

Another amazing one is Lust for Life, about Van Gogh. Kirk Douglas made one of his best roles ever.

Patton is also amazing. It captures all the contradictions and geniality of the man.

I´d like to see one definite Lincoln movie (yes, Spielberg, do it!), and an european movie about the mysterious Cagliostro.

Edison The Man with Spencer Tracy, and Geordie (not real, but great none-the-less. And Lawrence of Arabia, of course.

Another brilliant topic once again Richard!

I don't recall having seen too many biopics but the ff. are the ones I thoroughly enjoyed:

Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O' Toole as T.E. Lawrence)
Braveheart (Mel Gibson as William Wallace)
Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice)
Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth)
Raging Bull (Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta)
The Aviator (Leonardo Di Caprio as Howard Hughes)
Beyond the Sea (Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin)
A Beautiful Mind (Russell Crowe as John Nash)
The Last Emperor (John Lone as Emperor Pu Yi)
Schindler's List (Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler)
The Insider (Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigand)
Shattered Glass (Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass)
Bugsy (Warren Beatty as Bugsy Malone)
Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash)
American Splendor (Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar)
The Pursuit of Happyness (Will Smith as Chris Gardner)
La Vie en Rose (Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf)

The ff. are on my to-watch list:

Gods and Monsters (Sir Ian McKellen as James Whale)
Kinsey (Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey)
Shine (Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott)
Iris (Dame Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch)
The Sea Inside (Javier Bardem as Ramon Sampedro)
Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath)
Cinderella Man (Russell Crowe as Jim Braddock)
Immortal Beloved (Gary Oldman as Ludwig van Beethoven)

Biopics still in the can:

I am looking forward to of course, the Burns biopic, if they ever get around to finally doing it, Baz Luhrmann's version of Alexander the Great with Di Caprio cast in the title role, Mary Queen of Scots with Scarlett Johannson as Queen Mary, and Steven Spielberg's take on another Abraham Lincoln biopic with Liam Neeson cast to play Abe.

Did you mean Gandhi .. tt0083987 rather than some comedy sci-fi spoof? ;-)

As well Gandhi, father of the Indian nation my favourites would be:

Chaplin (*ing Robert Downey Jr.) & Ed Wood (*ing Johnny Depp) .. funnily both about film directors.

Aha! People do click on the links - you know I never thought people did and I've snuck in a few odd ones now and again.

However that one was totally by accident, I can't get used to the new IMDB search results just yet.

Oh boy there are some great choices in there. Welles would make a brilliant film, and although historically flawed, Edison is a good film. I believe there's some debate there about stolen ideas etc.

Patton is superb, George C. Scott is a cinematic might.

Oooh Braveheart...Mmm...I struggle with accepting that film. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

How could I have forgotten Walk the Line though? I love that film. I so enjoyed watching that, and I think I might buy it on Blu-ray.

Chaplin is a cracker as well, another good choice.

I'm looking forward to Lincoln too. However to scupper some hopes, I think the Burns film is dead...and I kind of wish that Mary Queen of Scots film was as well. Cast some Scottish actress please!

i 100% agree with matt holmes up there. Orson Wells is my all time favorite director and I'm really amazed at how little I know about his actual life. I've no idea how the man worked, thought, and organized his life.

come to think of it, the same would go for my other B&W god, Hitchcock

I probably use the links more with the starcast when I'm not certain I know who they are or what else they have been in, or films I haven't heard of, this time it was merely due to the incorrect spelling :)

Ooh Hitchcock, I would want to see, maybe also Kubrick

The Sea Inside is a fantastic film. Definitely recommended.

I'd like to see a film about the science fiction author Philip K. Dick.

Hey TheSnowLeopard, thanks for the recommendation re: The Sea Inside.

All great choices. I was coming here to express my love for Chaplin because it's often overlooked... but I'm glad somebody beat me to it. Downey Jr. is phenomenal in it.

Ed Wood and Downfall are amazing as well. So are many of the others mentioned.

Another severely overlooked one is Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey about Andy Kaufman. He's performance is spot on and Oscar worthy. He WON the Golden Globe, but wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. Talk about robbed.

I'm really surprised Good Night and Good Luck hasn't been mentioned yet.

young churchill.

With so many of my favourite superheroes from childhood making the transition to film, I'd love to see a biopic about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Those two revolutionized superhero comics in the sixties and as far as I'm concerned they deserve the recognition. All my other suggestions are musicians. I won't bore you with my enormous wish list in that category.

Favourite biopics so far:
Schindler's List
Ed Wood
Good Night and Good Luck

I know the last one was centered around a specific incident in Ed Murrow's career, but it spoke volumes about his character and conviction. Therefore I think it still qualifies.

I also submit for your consideration, the entire Band of Brothers miniseries. If you haven't seen it yet, you really should.

It seems the Guardian have had the same idea for a story and are asking a very similar question...

And it only took the guardian a couple of weeks to see your story, it could also just be a coincidence?

Walk the Line and Capote are the more recent obvious ones, what about films in the past though?

I know its sad, but Evil Knievel really sticks in my head. I guess i was young and easily impressed.

I'd love to see an Evil film. There's a 1971 version starring George Hamilton, a 2004 TV Movie starring George Eads, from CSI Las Vegas, as the main man, Jaime Pressly and Lance Henriksen, there's a 1977 film with Evel himself and also Gene Kelly, Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons and Leslie Nielson, in fact there's quite a few out there!

Thats because he rocks! When i was younger and watching an evil movie in a cinema, I apparently stood up on my seat and shouted "GO EVIL KNIEVEL GO" as he was about to do his final jump.

heheheehe, and nowdays i moan about people talking in cinemas! How thing have changed.


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