The Best Bio-Pics Ever Made

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, in “Raging Bull

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Illustration Credit:  Bettmann / Getty 


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The genre presents very particular artistic challenges, but here are thirty-three films that transcend them.
The bio-pic is a genre of extremes. The best ones share a uniquely powerful artistic authority, but merely ordinary ones are truly disheartening. The trouble isn’t only that of inflated prestige; bio-pics are disproportionately prominent during awards season and therefore ballyhooed nearly to oblivion. The form’s peculiar place in the art of movies is inseparable from the reasons for its exceptional prominence in the business. For producers and studios considering which projects to green-light, bio-pics check a lot of boxes. The protagonists are people who audiences are already familiar with and interested in. (J. Robert Oppenheimer may be the exception that proves the rule; he’s less famous than Freddie Mercury, but the atomic bomb is more so.) And the illustrious people who inspire bio-pics offer great showcases for actors. That attracts stars, which in turn attracts audiences. Bio-pics bathe the producers, the studios, and the filmmakers in the reflected renown of their protagonists’ achievements, and, because the enterprise inherently involves a good deal of research, it also conveys an air of studious seriousness. Presenting real-life stories as extraordinary adventures, bio-pics embody the axiom that truth is stranger than fiction. (Fear not: by the time Hollywood gets done with these lives, they’re rarely any stranger than the usual fictions, and may not even be that true.)


Nonetheless, the connection of bio-pics to ostensible reality is the hidden power of their success. If the makers of bio-pics freely elaborate (i.e., distort, bowdlerize, even falsify) the facts of their heroes’ lives, they don’t do so any more than the average Hollywood movie falsifies human experience at large, but they do so with an imprimatur of authenticity. With all the overt and tacit calculation that goes into the production of bio-pics, it’s something of a miracle that any of them are any good at all, yet indeed some of them are even great.


Perhaps the hardest thing about making bio-pics, at least ones regarding figures of actual greatness, is the inability of most directors to consider such heroes face to face, to share in the grandeur or the enormity of these protagonists’ inner lives. I’m reminded of an aphorism that I have long recalled as being written or said by Norman Mailer—please crowdsource me—to the effect that the one kind of character that no novelist can successfully imagine is a better novelist. I suspect that this inability, for novelists (and for filmmakers), goes beyond the limits of the artistic sphere to extend, over all, to exemplary achievers in any field. Most directors, like most people, have interesting observations about their daily lives, their communities, their fields of endeavor—and plenty of directors have, as artists, the practical skill to convey such observations. Part of the long-standing collective lament for the demise of the mid-budget dramatic movie—essentially, realistic movies featuring movie stars—is that it’s a form that even middling directors, writers, and actors have always done well. But bio-pics are different, because they are about extraordinary people, and fewer directors, writers, and actors are able to successfully imagine their way into this level of extraordinariness. The genre poses challenges of scope and psychology akin to the stringent visual challenges posed by musicals. Unlike with melodramas or comedies, it takes greatness to advance the art of bio-pics. The list that follows is thus also a parade of great directors.


It’s fascinating to see which great directors have chosen to make bio-pics (whether one as an exception or many as a habit) and what that choice reveals of their art. For instance, it’s no surprise that the history-obsessed John Ford made a bunch of excellent ones and that the extravagantly inventive Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock did hardly any. It’s similarly logical that Kenji Mizoguchi, a relentless analyst of Japanese history, would make several, and that Yasujirō Ozu, mainly a storyteller of modern family lives, would make none. But it’s surprising that Satyajit Ray, whose films ranged widely through Indian history and society, didn’t make any, and equally surprising that Max Ophüls, an artist of ironic spectacle, did so to great effect; fascinatingly, in Ophüls’s vision of life as inherently a matter of theatrical pretense, the gap between fact (theatricalized) and fiction (exposed) closes. For Abbas Kiarostami, a real life based on falsehood proves an ideal laboratory for the fusion of fact and fiction. For urban folklorists and analysts (such as Spike LeeMartin Scorsese, and Raoul Walsh) and for autobiographical portraitists and historians of style (such as Terence Davies and Sofia Coppola), the lives of others are naturally linked to first-person observations and modes of expression. For all these filmmakers, the project of bringing to life a person who has already lived means a confrontation not just with the particularities of that one individual but with the nature of personality—of character and human behavior—itself.


In compiling the list, I’ve set a few ground rules for myself: first, no approximations, only characters bearing the names of people who existed and did pretty much what’s seen in the movie. (In other words, no 1932 “Scarface,” however closely the character of Tony Camonte is based on Al Capone, and no “Citizen Kane,” which owes much to the life of William Randolph Hearst.) Also, I’ve avoided movies that are not centered on the life of a single character, even if they are based on true stories, such as “Zodiac”; there’s a difference, imprecise but meaningful, between a bio-pic and a historical drama. Moreover, no more than one film per director. I’m presenting these titles in chronological order, and, though I hope that you’ll get to see all of them in some way or another, I’ve selected them without regard to their current availability, whether streaming or on physical media.


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Here is a direct  link to the complete article.


Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999 and has contributed articles about the directors François TruffautJean-Luc Godard, and Wes Anderson. Since 2005, he has been the movie-listings editor at the magazine; he writes film reviews and a blog about movies. He is the author of the book “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard” and is at work on a book about the lasting influence of the French New Wave.



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