But it's not as easy as it looks. The lives of human beings, even if they're great people and legendary figures, are kind of dull and uninteresting on the whole. I know that's hard to believe given how much we post about our meals on Facebook and Twitter, but even the best of us aren't ready-made movie material. If someone does something great, that doesn't mean they do it every day. Most times, they don't even do it more than once. So you need a good story, sure, but you also need to know how to spend two hours telling it and fudge it a little when the need arises.
The new Steve Jobs biopic "Jobs" has been receiving mixed reactions from critics, probably due to the inherent difficulty in telling a story as complex as his so soon after his untimely passing. It had high hopes and aspirations, and was hoping to join the exclusive company of films like those on this list of Blockbuster Hollywood Bios.
The life of the legendary Indian figure, whose policy of civil disobedience forever changed the socio-political landscape and turned the nature of revolution on its ear, was profiled in this 1982 film from director Richard Attenborough. In addition to being one of the top-grossing movies of the year, it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won eight, including one for Ben Kingsley in the role of Mahatma Gandhi, Best Director for Richard Attenborough, and Best Picture. What's especially impressive is that it serves its purpose as a broad historical epic while also taking an intimate and humanizing approach to the legendary spiritual leader. "Gandhi" is about the man himself, the events he set into motion, and the country he freed, yet somehow manages not to lose perspective on any of those aspects.
This isn't just one of the best biographies of all time, it's one of the best films ever made, period. It's also the one that made Scorcese and DeNiro household names. A big part of what makes this film so great is that it's unflinching in its portrayal of Jake LaMatta, which is rare when a film is made about a living person, especially one involved with the telling of the story (the movie was based on his memoir).
"The Pride of the Yankees" (1942)
"Pride of the Yankees" is the story of Lou Gehrig, whose Hall of Fame career was cut short at 37 when he was diagnosed with ALS (a disease that would later be named after him). Gehrig is played by screen legend Gary Cooper in a heartbreaking performance. The scene where he reenacts Gehrig's legendary retirement speech is almost as great as the speech itself.
Jamie Foxx had already proven himself as a credible dramatic actor in movies like "Any Given Sunday," but his spot-on performance as Ray Charles was the role that cemented him as a permanent star. It's hard to believe that this is the same guy that played "Wanda" in "In Living Colour."
"The Last Emperor" (1987)
How this film was made is as remarkable as the film itself. Controversial Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci managed to get the full cooperation of the Chinese government in telling the story of the final Emperor of China (Puyi) despite the fact that the film was somewhat critical of the Communist regime. Not only that, but he actually got cameras inside The Forbidden City, the seat of imperial dynasties for nearly seven centuries, for the first time in history. And the film itself is, of course, an epic piece of filmmaking.
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)
Making it through this classic can be a chore considering it has a runtime of over three and a half hours, but it's a fascinating story and required viewing for people anyone that loves film.
MISSING THE LIST BY A MILE
Of course, not every bio is a surefire hit. In fact, a lot of times it's a tragic misfire. For example…
"The Babe Ruth Story" (1948)
This was doomed from the beginning. Babe Ruth was still alive at the time, and the movie was made in an era where was a revered figure largely protected by the press and folklore. The movie is more about the Ruth myth than reality, showing him in an overly flattering light that would make even Ruth's mother embarrassed and skeptical. To make matters worse, word go to the studio that Ruth himself was in declining health, which meant production had to be rushed to get to print before he passed.
Originally this movie was supposed to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow, but she pulled out after a disagreement with producer and writer Luc Besson (first problem). The issue? Besson insisted that his wife at the time play the lead (second problem). By the way, his wife was Milla Jovovich (trifecta!). Jovovich is fine as an action heroine, but her playing a character like this was just too big of a hill for audiences to climb. Besson stepped into the director's chair himself, and as you can imagine, it was a total disaster. In hindsight it's hard to imagine the woman from the "Resident Evil" movies playing "Joan of Arc," but it was even more ludicrous at the time given her relative inexperience as a lead actress.
"Great Balls of Fire!" (1989)
Dennis Quaid worked really, really hard in the role of legendary rock artist Jerry Lee Lewis. Perhaps a bit too hard, because he's so over the top in this film that it's nearly impossible to take him seriously. The movie also seems to shift between satire and drama, making him look like a total fool in some scenes then trying to evoke genuine sympathy and awe for him in others. The biggest problem, though, is that there's just no getting around the fact that this guy dated and married his 13-year-old cousin. The movie sort of plays this up as a simple PR disaster from an eccentric, but there's no getting over the uncomfortable ickyness of it all.
A biopic about Genghis Khan with John Wayne in the lead role. Yes, John Wayne as Genghis Khan. It's every bit as stilted, awkward, and racially troubling as you can imagine. Look, I love John Wayne movies as much as the next guy, but there really isn't much more you can say about this film other than John freaking Wayne played Genghis freaking Kahn.
"Jobs" is in theaters now, so you can judge for yourself if it's worthy of being in the company of the best or the worst bios that Hollywood's produced.
In the meantime, check out our latest episode of All Access Weekly, featuring Seth Meyers and Aaron Eckhart: