10 biopics that broke the mold
Every now and then, however, a biopic does something differently. Not just by reaching a new level of artistry but by making a daring choice of casting, or offering a new interpretation of an old story. These movies don't always top the box-office, but they're often far more interesting than the ones that do. Here are 10 biopics that broke the mold. -- RAFER GUZMÁN
"THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY" (1950): By 1950, the biopic formula was set in stone, but this film took an unusual approach by casting baseball legend Robinson as himself. He holds his own quite respectably, too. (Future Oscar nominee Ruby Dee played his wife). It's worth noting that the concept of a lead black actor was almost unheard of at the time -- Sidney Poitier was years away from fame -- which means Robinson gets a little credit for breaking Hollywood's color line, too.
"CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND" (2002): In his post-fame autobiography, television impresario Chuck Barris made an unexpected claim: During the 1960s and '70s, while creating "The Dating Game" and hosting "The Gong Show," he was an assassin for the CIA. The book mostly met with bemused shrugs, but George Clooney turned it into his directorial debut, with Sam Rockwell playing the frizzy-haired Barris. "Confessions" neither fully debunks nor completely swallows Barris' story, though it does depict him as having killed a lot of people. The result is an uneven but unique film about one man's decidedly rich inner life.
"MOMMIE DEAREST" (1981): Exposing Hollywood's dark underbelly has long been a national pastime, but "Mommie Dearest" took it to a whole new level. Depicting the legendary actress Joan Crawford as a psychotic monster who mentally and physically abused her adopted daughter, "Mommie Dearest" was more horror movie than bio-pic. Inevitably, it became a camp classic thanks to Faye Dunaway's indelible performance as Crawford -- a vampire in shoulder pads screaming such now-famous insanities as "No wire hangers!" For a while, the film tarnished Dunaway's career as much as the late Crawford's, making it impossible to view either of them the same way again.
"ALICE'S RESTAURANT" (1969): Another example of a bio-pic subject playing himself -- in this case, the singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. Loosely based on his autobiographical song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" and directed by Arthur Penn ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Little Big Man"), the movie nicely captures the dusk of the 1960s with a combination of earnest liberalism, freewheeling surrealism and a few doses of hard reality (Pat Quinn plays Alice as a battered woman). Also appearing as themselves are folk torchbearer Pete Seeger and the Massachussetts policeman William J. Obanhein, immortalized in Guthrie's song as "Officer Obie."
"SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY" (1987): It sounds like a joke: A movie about the anorexic pop-singer Karen Carpenter, starring a cast of Barbie dolls. But Todd Haynes' 43-minute drama (live action, not animated) turns out to be a serious, sometimes harrowing biography of a singer whose sun-dappled California image masked an inner darkness. The costumes and sets are astounding -- little recording studios, little mirror-balls -- and Haynes even whittled away his plastic "Karen" to reflect the eating disorder that led to her death. Her bandmate and brother, Richard Carpenter, was not pleased, and he successfully sued to destroy all copies of the movie. You can find dim but servicable versions on the Internet.
"THE SOCIAL NETWORK" (2010): This movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hit theaters so quickly that many people were still wondering what Facebook was. A typical director might have taken a breathless, laudatory approach to the story of a newly-minted, 23-year-old billionare, but David Fincher ("Fight Club") was more interested in how Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, snottiness incarnate) reflected an entire generation of highly wired but emotionally disconnected young Americans. For an example of why this movie is so smart and penetrating, see its dull and superficial opposite, "Jobs."
"JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR" (1973): It was a product of its time, a combination of ersatz acid-rock, Broadway glitz and the post-hippie "Jesus freak" movement, all wrapped in a splashy Hollywood movie. But Norman Jewison's version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical is electrifying. Though fairly faithful to the facts (it was filmed on location, so to speak, in Israel), it's a highly imaginative interpretation of Jesus (a soulful Ted Neeley) as history's first pop star. The cast is top-notch (particularly Carl Anderson as Judas) and the music has held up remarkably well. The grinding instrumental "39 Lashes" became an unlikely punk favorite; the Afghan Whigs recently covered it on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
"AMADEUS" (1984): Milos Forman's lush adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play doesn't give a fig about accuracy, but it's a great example of how poetic license can reveal deeper truths. There's little if any proof that the composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) orchestrated the death of Mozart (an unforgettable Tom Hulce). But the movie's central themes -- the pitfalls of ambition, the nature of genius, jealousy, God and so much more -- are irresistible. A smash hit and eight-time Oscar winner, "Amadeus" essentially turned two real people into fictions. Unfair? Probably. A modern classic? Definitely.
"JFK" (1991): It's easy to forget that Oliver Stone's whacked-out political thriller is essentially a biopic of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), whose conspiracy theories about Kennedy's assassination drive the movie. "JFK" includes many staples of the biopic -- whispered warnings, a faithful wife, a climactic courtroom scene. Some dismissed the whole thing as a paranoid left-wing rant, but its larger message, that politicians and businessmen are capable of just about anything, seems hard to argue with. It's also a piece of maverick filmmaking, nearly unmatched for sheer energy, brio and vision.
"I'M NOT THERE" (2007): Another one from Haynes, who clearly has a gift for unconventional biographies (see "Velvet Goldmine" for more proof). In this film, Bob Dylan is played -- in spirit if not name -- by six actors, including Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and an astonishing Cate Blanchett. It's a speculative story drawn from several decades' worth of material (primarily 1967's documentary "Don't Look Back"), yet it's somehow the most insightful portrait of the mysterious singer to date. Blanchett, fierce and funny as the newly electrified Dylan, lost the Oscar for supporting actress but should have won it as a lead. "I'm Not There" is the truest fictional bio-pic ever made.