Biopics, considered.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Nov. 24 2004 11:54 AM

Readers Picks for Best Biopics

Plus, more on the genre.

Alzheimer's Watch: Several readers have written to say (or, rather, sneer) that Patrick Star, the doofus starfish of SpongeBob SquarePants, is pink, and not, as I wrote, purple. This is the sort of thing that I dread seeing in Slate's weekly list of fuck-ups (aka "Corrections"), which is why I'm posting it here myself.

On to biopics:

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Reading through the hundreds of e-mails in response to my biopic challenge ("Name one good one, I dare you"), I was struck by my rashness in declaring the genre the most vacuous in cinema. The explanation, I think, is that when I see a clumsy, superficial biographical movie, I think, "Ick … biopic." But when I see a biographical film that has the depth and compression of fiction, I think, "Hey, good movie!"

One reader called my definition of a biopic "wacky," but look, it's a meaningless label if you open up the category to include any nonfiction film. You don't call a book a biography just because it happens to focus on a person who actually lived. That would be, like, every nonfiction book. Unless the point of a movie is to take the measure of an entire life (or a good percentage thereof), it isn't a biopic. Jonathan Demme and Bo Goldman's Melvin and Howard is an American masterpiece about a couple of real guys who might or might not have met, but it's not a biopic of Melvin Dumar. A biopic is something like Oliver Stone's Alexander, which even has that old standby, the dead hand falling away from the body and dropping something symbolic in slow motion (in this case, a ring).

There are gray areas, especially with terrific films. Is Serpico a biopic? Some readers said so. OK, it's called Serpico, it opens with the guy at the police academy, let's call it a biopic. Elizabeth, with its stunning Cate Blanchett performances, focuses on an open and persecuted young woman becoming a hard and commanding queen. It's not the measure of the life, but it's the fulcrum of it. Besides, Elizabeth might well have been called "Young Elizabeth," and movies with "Young" in the title are a biopic subset. John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is a terrific "young" biopic.

Are portraits all biopics? Is Sid and Nancy a biopic? Tempting … Boys Don't Cry? The Whole Wide World? Birdman of Alcatraz? So close. John Boorman's The General? Maybe. Is The Miracle Worker a biopic? My head says no, but my heart … says no, too. Anne and Patty can console themselves with their Oscars for being snubbed. Is Goodfellas a biopic? The problem in that case is that Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a total cipher. Ixnay those very fine portraits Danton, The Story ofAdele H., Secret Honor, Dreamchild, Chopper, and Lumumba.

Canadians have lobbied to consider Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould a biopic. As, post Nov. 2, I've been mulling over a move to Canada, I'm going to give this one a big thumbs up.

One trend in the e-mails was a tendency to confuse great performances with great films. No one can dispute that there are a ton of great biopic performances. But I'm sorry: Chaplin is not a good movie, however amazing the performance of Robert Downey Jr. (He's often an amazing actor, isn't he? But the dude cannot sing …) Ditto What's Love Got To Do With It? with one of most criminally underused actresses, Angela Bassett. Ditto Heart Like a Wheel, ditto Bonnie Bedelia. Ditto Bird ditto Forrest Whitaker. Ditto Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, David Carradine in Bound for Glory, Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb, Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths in Hilary and Jackie, Charlize Theron in Monster. Ditto (reaching back) Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces and Larry Parks in The Jolson Story. I Shot Andy Warhol? Not bad, but it's all about Lili Taylor. Pollack? Sorry … but it's a great showcase for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden. Judy Davis (and whoever played her younger self) was extraordinary in that Judy Garland TV movie, but the thing itself was wall-to-wall biopic clichés.

Mommy Dearest? Please.

I like the acting in Julia, but the only thing in it that isn't a lie is that there were Nazis in a place called Germany.