It seems like there are two categories for which a biopic can reasonably said to be “excellent.” In one case, we praise the biopic when the actor imitates the historical person. They get the look, the facial tics, the makeup, the vocal cadence etc. in a way that makes the audience lose track of whether we’re watching “reality TV” or a movie. The second form of excellence is whether the portrayal interprets the individual. In this case, the audience might forgive exactness of appearance or vocal cadence provided that the meaning of the person’s life is well-analyzed and their impact to the world that remembers them explored.
The optimal outcome, then, of a biopic is to excel at both. However, that seems to rarely happen and the majority (that is to say the mean biopic) chooses to excel on one axis or the other, but only rarely both simultaneously.
Excellence in Imitation
- Rami Malek’s as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody”
- Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”
- Taron Edgerton as Elton John in “Rocketman”
Biopics of this variety tend to focus on one actor’s imitation of the subject and, generally, don’t have much else going on.1. Their goal is to make the audience say: “Why, s/he looks just like him/her!” Movies of this type tend to be more pop and less serious and they’re concerned, mostly with an imitation.
As proof, did anyone watched “Walk the Line” a third time? A second even?
Excellence in Interpretation
Biopics of this second variety focus on not what the person’s mannerisms were, what their cadence was, how they looked, but rather who they were and what they meant.
- Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours”
- Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in “Ali”
- Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in “Won’t You By My Neighbor”
- Tom Hulce as Mozart in “Amadeus”
These films often work to understand the subject in a context (usually political) and puts less focus on the imitative aspect.
While it’s sufficient for a film to be excellent in either one of these axes' measure, the best biopics score well on both.
- Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
- George C. Scott as Patton in “Patton”
- Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in “Gandhi”2
“Patton” clearly understand what the man meant to the WWII war effort, how his personal flaws and gruffness victimized some, how his ego got in the way of big initiatives, etc. And George C. Scott is an outstanding actor: his pugilistic bulldog presence is a match for both the meaning of Patton and the morphology of the general.
- How “Bohemian Rhapsody” won a best picture is thoroughly beyond me
- Although the modern era’s intolerance for a brown-faced Ben Kinglsey portraying an Indian man now warrants some consideration