As the film prepares to take flight tomorrow, reviews are starting to pour in for Hilary Swank's Amelia. It's quite the mixed bag, from Roger Ebert's praise to Keith Uhlich's description of the film as a "colorfully hollow biopic about America's beloved aviatrix." Should more chime in with Ebert's positivity, the film could get decent buzz, but as it stands while writing this on Thursday afternoon, out of 13 reviews, it's got a paltry 23% fresh rating.
The negative sentiments aren't really a surprise. The early pictures of the film weren't exactly promising, and the trailer induced skeptical responses. But rather than rant about dreams of Amelia Earhart getting one of those biopics that mesmerizes from the get-go, I'm going to try and stay positive. Not every biopic has to struggle to find footing. In fact, some manage to capture the magic of their subject and make for a damn fine film.
Catch seven of my favorites after the jump, and since such a small number can't begin to cover them all, please weigh in with your own in the comments.
Henry & June
Henry Miller has never gotten a true biopic, but his writing has brought him to the big screen. Rip Torn played him opposite Ellen Burstyn in Tropic of Cancer. Andrew McCarthy (of all people) and Paul Valjean poorly attempted to bring him to life in two treatments of Quiet Days in Clichy. But it was through the words of Anais Nin, and in the hands of Fred Ward, that Henry Miller got the performance worthy of his fame. The film didn't focus on his writing, but Ward's talents made Miller real. He balanced the rough stature with engaging charisma, and the creative passion with the depravity, leaving a true, caricature-free impression of the author.
The Elephant Man
David Lynch was the perfect man to take on the life of Joseph Merrick. No, this is not because he loves all things strange, but because he could give a unique man's struggles a palpable sense of heart. It's the film that bred remnants -- darkness going the way of projects like Blue Velvet, and true heart going the way of The Straight Story. But it's John Hurt who really inspires The Elephant Man to hit this list. While covered and weighed down by large prosthetics, he still managed to pull off a truly powerful portrayal.
While this film has yet to find a distributor stateside, it's been taking Spain by storm and quickly working its way towards paying off its hefty budget -- something many never thought possible. The film makes this list because it doesn't fall into any traps, the most prevalent of which is the biopic romance. While the film mixed in romantic intrigue, it's never at the cost of Hypatia's history. It's one of the very few current biographical films to honor the subject, rather than sensationalize it. And in a world where every big thinker or writer seems to be reduced to piles of romantic fluff, it's nice to see one whipped into a stunning film free of such simplicity.
Boys Don't Cry
Perhaps this feels like an unusual pick. Brandon Teena wasn't an icon, but his story was important, and Swank's performance, unlike Amelia, was stunning from moment one. She showed the heart and humanity in this person, this name known only for being the victim of a terrible hate crime. It's one of the rare films and performances where the violence feels 100% real. You don't recoil because you imagine the horror of reality, but because it seems like we're peeking into the violence as it's happening.
Lawrence of Arabia
Considered not only one of the top biopics of all time, but one of the top movies of all time, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that could never be made today. 3 to almost 4 hours of epic desert travel, with an unknown lead, and a lack of romance and epic, heart-thumping action? It's unthinkable. Yet this film got made, won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, and most impressive of all -- continues to elicit love in our ADD world. It's still considered one of the great films. Arabia never fell victim to the challenges of age, and made T.E. Lawrence an icon many times over.
No, this is not a true biography, nor would it find a spot on many lists before the likes of Schindler's List and the more directly applicable Amadeus. But while the others are, most definitely, great films, Beloved captured the heart of Beethoven. Yes, it is fictionalized, but it also does something a lot more important than show the composer's life -- it makes you understand not only his manic ways, and heart-wrenching deafness, but classical music on a whole. It's a door into the emotions caught within the notes, and how the struggles in his life informed his music.
Does it count when a cinematic subject becomes a mainstream icon through film? Maybe, maybe not. But what is certain is that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro deliver the power that can come from the story of someone not steeped in iconic fame or notoriety. And it might be hard to remember these days, with one or two too many Fockers flicks and goofy comedies, but there is a reason that De Niro is such a mainstream name, and this is one of the perfect examples of it.
Honorable Mention: Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. It still surprises me that her performance didn't elicit her own biopic immediately.