If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a moving picture has got to be at least a lifetime’s worth. And for these 10 movies, that happens to be the case. Biographical Pictures – or Biopics, for short – have become all the craze of late, with Ashton Kutcher gaining fame for his performance as Steve Jobs in the movie, Jobs (2013), or Jesse Eisenberg’s awkward yet appealing role as Mark Zuckerberg in the Social Network (2010). Ben Kingsley’s stunning portrayal of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in the Biopic Gandhi (1982), was one among many that would light the runway for historical biographical movies. So without any further fanfare (cue the 20th Century Fox opening sequence), here are our 10 picks for great biopics that you must give a watch!
This movie is about the Austrian Musician Falco, who gained fame for his hit single, “Rock Me Amadeus”.
Okay, I’m just kidding. This incredible movie is, however, about another famed Austrian musician, the same one that Falco’s song was about, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composer of several of the greatest operas and symphonies in history. My personal favorite is The Marriage of Figaro, give it a listen if you’re so inclined. The movie was released in 1984, the year before the song hit the market.
Adapted from the stage play Amadeus (created by Peter Schaffer), Milos Forman directs this period picture about the life and times of Mozart. It will have you feeling every range of emotions as you watch the descent into madness so commonly associated with artistic genius. More than anything, this film gives you a play-by-play of the rapidly developed jealousy that surrounds those with talent and the bad attitude that goes with that talent, as displayed in fellow composer, Antonio Salieri.
While many experts who have studied this amazing artist have differing views on the level of accuracy, it is important to note that this story is largely a fictionalized biography, with intense exaggerations in the portrayal of the main characters and a few important facts (like how Mozart died) heavily tweaked.
My take-away of the movie is that it was an amazing experience to watch stunning and brightly colored performances of the music created by a man that dominated the genre of classical music (you just do not hear enough Mozart on the radio), and if it piques your curiosity about the musician himself, the internet has a plethora of accurate biographical facts about him.
2. Hotel Rwanda
Hotel Rwanda is the heart-wrenching story of the refugees of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.
As all movies require a strong and bold leading man, Don Cheadle, playing the owner of the hotel mentioned in the title, played the role of hero in this movie, and did an amazing job. However, recent allegations have arisen questioning the nobility and intentions of the actual Paul Rusesabagina, the character he plays. Claims have been raised that he was, in fact, a supporter of the Hutu Extremists who were responsible for the genocide, despite his previous statements.
This is one of those rare movies you don’t watch for the typical hero. You watch it for the nameless ones. Each and every survivor of these atrocities, a hero to all the rest.
Forced to flee from their homes in order to save their lives and their families, the Tutsi people had no choice but to find sanctuary in the hotel of one Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle.
This movie truly gives you a look through the window into the damage that war and hatred can cause. It depicts the struggles of the refugees, and real and true hardships that they were forced to face, denied of food, water, and spending their days and nights in fear of the worst possible horrors. All triggered by the death of the President, a Hutu. In the words of Robert F Kennedy, “Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence”. And with that, countries, homelands, families are all torn apart.
After watching this movie, if you’re really in the mood for taking an inward journey, I would recommend taking a look at Inside The Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising Story… and Why It Matters Today, by survivors of the Rwandan Genocide, Edouard Kayihura, and Kerry Zukus.
Another book, which has been adapted for the screen as well, entitled Shake Hands With The Devil, also follows the tragedies that occurred during this Civil War in Africa and is written by General Romeo Dallaire, another witness to the events. He is mildly depicted in the movie as Colonel Oliver.
3. The Aviator
Leonardo Di Caprio hits the big screen in this 2004 motion picture, about a man who was a great influence on Hollywood, aviation technology and philanderers everywhere, Howard Hughes. Raised as the son of a wealthy business tycoon, the movie begins with a young Howard inheriting his families estate.
He starts running, funneling the money into his pet project, a movie called Hell’s Angels, that gained most of its notoriety for being so over-budget and over-the-top. It left the rest of Hollywood wondering if Hughes would have any fortune left after it. Don’t worry, he did. Wouldn't have been much of a movie otherwise.
He went on to make several more films and fought staunchly against the censorship of films, aspects of his life well documented by the film.
This picture captured the life of the Texas billionaire between 1927, on his arrival in Los Angeles, and 1947, when his descent into madness steepened. In the middle, Cate Blanchett steals the show, playing the role of the lovely and charismatic Katherine Hepburn, long-time love of Howard Hughes.
Kate Beckinsale also stuns you with her presence (read in all senses of the word), as the beautiful Ava Gardner, another woman of screen and stage that played a great role in Hughes’ life. What the movie missed out was his hundreds of other conquests, as well as two wives the Texan also had briefly during this period.
Over the course of this period, he changes aviation history by founding new developments to streamline air travel and even goes on to become a heavy stakeholder for a well-known airline company. In real life, Hughes eventually went on to create the Hughes Aircraft Company. An incredible event from his life depicted in the movie is Hughes’ journey around the world in four days, beating the time of the then record-holder, Charles Lindbergh. The movie is, after all, called “The Aviator”.
A major aspect of Howard Hughes’ reality that the movie focuses on is his agoraphobia, an extreme fear of germs and disease. Manifesting in the form of extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the film follows not only the progress of the young Tycoon as he grows, but the progression of his mental disorder as he takes on more and more projects, be it in film-making, aviation or his own personal endeavors. The great thing about this movie is that it still manages to keep a light tone here and there, so as to not overwhelm.
Hughes spent the last few years of his life as a recluse, locked away in his Las Vegas home, as his body and mind slowly gave up, though the movie only depicted what would be the beginning of this terrible fate. It has been theorized that Hughes contracted some form of syphilis, no doubt due to his earlier promiscuity, which increased the rate at which his mind suffered degeneration.
This is one movie I would definitely recommend watching.
4. Remember The Titans
Ah, Denzel, you beautiful God of Thunder and Wonder. This movie is an absolute MUST WATCH on my list. It is depicted in 1971 Virginia, at T.C. Williams High School, which is about to enter a racially integrated world, introducing African American students to a school that was, prior to this, predominantly Caucasian.
The story itself focuses on the partnership between the existing (American) Football coach, Bill Yoast, played by Will Patton, and the new coach joining him, Coach Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington, as well as between the newly integrated football players being instructed by them.
The struggles of the students and the coaches to be accepted as an integrated team are highlighted, as well as many of the internal battles between players, who were less than adjusting. But together, through sheer hard work, determination and good old fashioned sportsmanship, the Titans would come to dominate the field. And the players would become family.
As always, the director of this movie made a few embellishments, emphasizing the difficulties of racial integration at the time, and the dividedness amongst students who were born and bred with a certain mindset. While it may not have been the story of the members of the Titans, chances are, they were someone else's.
The real Titans, however, recount fewer difficulties in adjusting, and more focus on the game and teamwork. Further, the movie depicts the Titans to be the first integrated team in 1971, when in reality, most schools integrated by 1965, and in many states, it occurred simultaneously.
Nonetheless, I would watch it just for the friendships, the story, and the inspiring speeches of Denzel, based on inspiring speeches that were apparently frequently given by Coach Herman Boone.
Following the theme of historical battles for basic human rights and dignities, let’s move on to the film Milk. This is the amazing story of one man who spent a solid portion of his life defying the odds, at a time when freedom of choice was constrained by social acceptance, and in many situations, the law.
It follows bittersweet triumph of Harvey Milk, played by Academy Award Winner Sean Penn, who, in 1977, became the first openly gay man to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This victory earned Harvey his place in history as not only the first openly gay man to hold any political post in California but the third in the entire country.
However, no victory is earned with ease, or without fuel. In this case that fuel was anger and a demand for fairness.
Enraged by the treatment of homosexuals in San Francisco, watching kids thrown out on the streets by homophobic parents, teachers, and friends, and abandoned by the police when crimes were committed against them, Harvey begins his journey as a gay rights activist, before taking the plunge into politics. But the road to power is paved with loss, madness, and jealousy.
Fired up by rage, he buried all his focus and devotion into his political campaign, even at the very high cost of his loved ones.
This is one of the few Bio-Pics that is largely accurate in terms of factual characterizations and historical events, depicting the people that brought these events to life as close as humanly possible to the reality. However, some people say that they missed out one crucial detail in the portrayal of Harvey Milk himself.
There are some who claim that Gus Van Sant, the director of the film, left out Harvey’s natural tendencies toward promiscuity, though he definitely brought to life his penchant for younger men. Some even say that the film downplayed the real rage felt by this man who would forever leave an impact on the rights of Gays in politics.
The way I see it, this movie gives you a small taste of the discrimination, cruelty, hatred, and violence that was inflicted upon homosexuals, and free thinkers in general, for nearly a century. My guess is Van Sant wanted to keep it at least the minimum levels of clean to avoid troubles with Howard Hughes’ greatest enemies, the Censorship board. But I could be wrong. You’d have to watch to find out.
Speaking of rage-fueled madness, this Academy Award-winning performance by Charlize Theron puts this movie on my definitely must watch list as well. It is the (relatively) true story of Aileen Wuornos, one of the rare few female Serial Killers to emerge in the United States.
This story is just riddled with tragedy, the biggest being the life of Aileen herself. Now I know what you’re thinking. I know what runs through everyone’s mind when they hear the phrase “serial killer”, which is fair. But the poor woman never had a chance.
Sexually assaulted as a child by the people who were supposed to protect her, confused, hurt and abandoned at the age of 15, Aileen turned to prostitution to keep herself fed. She also was briefly married at some point, to a man 50 years older than her, but that ended when she assaulted him with his own cane. True story. Unfortunately not in the movie. But still, an interesting tidbit, not to mention a very clear look into the deranged, disturbed and hurt mind of the struggling Wuornos.
The movie itself is set in 1989, when a suicidal 30-something Aileen strikes up an unconventional friendship with a woman named Selby Wall (a real woman, fake name) in Daytona, Florida, that she finds herself oddly protective of. The two eventually fall in love and move in together, but her luck doesn’t last long.
One night she is brutally assaulted by one of her Johns, whom she then kills in an act of self-defense. She tries, in vain, to stay off the streets, but unable to make a living to support the both of them, she finds herself returning to the only two things she knew how to do to survive, prostitution and murder. She is eventually caught in the car of one of the men she murdered, and Selby goes on to testify against her in her trial, with Aileen’s consent.
Aileen Wuornos killed 7 men over a span of 12 months. While her initial claim was that they all raped her and she killed them in self-defense, she later recanted, wanting to “get right with God”, stating that only the first man truly raped her and the rest only started to. She reacted preemptively.
She was convicted and sentenced to death row (thrice) and died from lethal injection in 2002. Till her last day, she continued to profess her love for the woman she met in Daytona.
The story of a man after my own heart, the true king of the tortured artists, Capote, is the story of American story writer, screenwriter, actor and brilliant novelist, Truman Garcia Capote. You might remember him for his literary contribution, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But what really brought him the most fame was his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood was about the gruesome murder of a family of four in Kansas. On reading the news of this tragic bloodshed that had occurred, Capote, armed with his good friend Nellie Harper Lee, famed author of the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus Finch, you will always be my hero), heads to Kansas to sniff out the truth.
The film Capote, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award, is centered around the challenges faced by the Novelist as he works to uncover what drove the two men caught and convicted of this horrific crime to commit such a terrible act.
He found himself getting attached to one of the murderers, and despite his best efforts to avoid the same, finds himself coming back over years, collecting more and more information of the man and the crime he committed with his friend.
He eventually finds his own mind reach depths unfathomable, not because it is too far down, but simply because of what is waiting down there. What was it that Nietzsche said? “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.”.
The movie itself ends on a rather ominous note, pointing out that In Cold Blood was the last novel to be completed by the author before his death in 1984.
On a more upbeat pace, Gerald Clarke, who wrote the biography “Capote” that the movie was based on, said that he once saw the real Truman Capote playing a Capote-like character in the film Murder by Death, and couldn't help but note that Hoffman played a much better Capote on screen than the man himself.
8. A Beautiful Mind
Directed by Ron Howard in 2001, this movie is based on the book of the same name, an unauthorized biography of John Forbes Nash Jr., written by Sylvia Nasar, a journalism professor. John Forbes Nash Jr., is a Princeton University Graduate (and later a professor), an Award-winning Mathematician and would one day come to earn a Nobel Prize in Economics. A very beautiful mind indeed.
The movie largely follows the story of Nash, played by Russell Crowe, whose journey begins in Princeton University, where he would one day become a professor in mathematics. He is socially awkward, arrogant and childish (aren’t all geniuses?), and lost in the world of mathematics. But empowered by the company of his roommate and good friend, he makes his way through the labyrinth that is the social hierarchy of any institution, particularly the prestigious ones.
Along the way, he meets the woman he wants to spend his life with. But as they begin to get closer, Nash becomes forced to accept a painful reality; that he suffers from a mental disorder that causes him to hallucinate and truly believe in the reality of his delusions.
It begins to affect his day-to-day life and finally, he is committed to a hospital where he is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a life-long ailment that would affect his mental stability permanently. Fighting his internal demons, Nash still goes on to revolutionize game theory in mathematics, making him a Nobel Laureate.
While Nasar, the author of the biography herself says the narrative of the story holds firm the spirit of the man and what he represented, she (and readers of her novel) can’t help but notice that they missed out some rather interesting details about the infamous mathematician that were there in the book, such as earlier instances of one-sided homosexual attractions (the one side being his), and even an illegitimate child he had with another woman, whom he barely maintained a relationship with.
In fact, his relationship with his own wife and child (who also developed paranoid schizophrenia) was rather estranged, given his mental instability. While Nash did eventually learn to control his psychological episodes, I think conventional was always something beyond his grasp. That was how he could do the incredible things he did. Sometimes the most incredible gift can be the greatest curse.
9. The Girl with A Pearl Earring
So this isn’t a Bio-pic relative to facts. But it is still absolutely captivating. It is what many have deemed as an interesting work of fiction tempered with historical facts around the edges. The film is based on a novel written by Tracy Chevalier, which was based on a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, all with the same name.
The painting depicts a young woman, in most notably, a scarf and pearl earrings (though rumor has it they might have been made of tin!), with a sad tinge in her eyes and a gentle face. Tracy Chevalier brings this painting to life in his novel, with the story of Griet, a young girl employed by the Vermeer family as a live-in servant, to make enough money to support her struggling family.
Played by Scarlett Johansson in Peter Webber’s film, Griet struggles to make a home for herself in the residence of Vermeer, the house itself belonging to his mother in law. Facing hostility from all sides, while at the same time being drawn into the lure of the artistic culture Vermeer tries to teach her, Griet is at a loss.
She sits, at the request of one of Vermeer’s wealthy patrons, for a portrait to be painted of her, forced to wear the scarf and pearl earrings of Vermeer’s wife. She watches as lives all around her unravel, including hers, as Vermeer’s wife storms into his studio with tears and accusations.
A few facts from this movie are accurate. For example, Vermeer was a mildly famous painter, well known for surviving on the money of his wife’s family, and making little from his paintings that he sold only to a few wealthy regular patrons.
Also, most of Vermeer’s paintings were Mona Lisa-esque portraits, painted stills of women around the house or performing errands. And he did have a wife named Catharina and many children. As for the rest, well, it’s just a question of what you see when you look at the painting.
To know more about this painting and others like it, check out these 10 Incredible Works of Art and The History Behind Them!
10. Julie & Julia
This is the story of two women, Julia Child and Julie Powell. Julia Child is the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, containing 524 authentic French recipes. The wife of a Diplomat, Julia, played by the absolutely ever-gorgeous Meryl Streep, found herself in Paris in the 1950s with a lot of time and energy on her hands, but little to do.
Just for fun, she decides to take up cooking classes at the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu but is challenged by the proprietors and other students of the institute, being the only female in her class. Stupid sexism. But Julia persists, perseveres and overcomes to go on to author the book that 40 years later finds its way to the home of Julie Powell.
Powell, played by Amy Adams, had a job hearing complaints about damage around the city after one of the biggest tragedies in the world. The job begins to take a heavy toll on her. So she turns to Child’s book and starts a blog to document her progress in completing all 524 recipes in the book.
This movie is one of those few that definitely gives a cheerier tone to what seems to be to individual and independent struggles. But it also addresses the fact that Julia Child’s and her supporters were less than enthusiastic about Julie Powell’s blog, seeing it more as a critique than an homage. And Powell, to her credit, never gave up.
My interpretation, it is the story of two strong women with different obstacles to overcome but a similar passion. Can’t get much better than that.
I have to say though, on a personal note, as someone that has a tendency to eat through the difficult times in life, I have immense admiration and appreciation for these two strong people who made the choice to cook instead. Kudos to them and what has to have been an immense display of will power!