Fame: Hollywood’s greatest, most inspirational bio-pics
- Credit: Archant
Everyone loves an inspirational life story, particularly if it involves drama and redemption. Cinema loves to work its magic on a heroic figure. Arts editor Andrew Clarke nominates some of his favourite bio-pics
With Rami Malek bringing Queen’s Freddie Mercury onto the big screen in larger-than-life fashion in the bio-pic Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s interesting to look at the other famous lives which have been explored and re-examined by the world’s film-makers.
Some personalities like Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria have been dissected several times with films looking at different phases of their lives and different aspects of their personalities.
Hollywood loves a good bio-pic as it offers them a ready-to-serve hero or heroine and, as Bohemian Rhapsody has proved, dramatic license means that you don’t always have to stick to the facts or the chronological order of events.
As the film-maker John Ford said: “If the legend is better than the truth, then print the legend.”
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Here are some of greatest bio-pics of all time:
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Milos Foreman’s multi-Oscar winning celebration of the life of child protégé Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s an astounding evocation of the talent and the wild lifestyle of the young Mozart. Tom Hulce excels as the young composer while F. Murray Abraham is suitably jealous and admiring as Emperor Joseph’s court composer Antonio Salieri. He cannot understand why God has favoured such a vulgar boy and consumed by jealousy sets out to exact his revenge on God by murdering Mozart, leaving him as the greatest composer in Austria.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean made a career of setting intimate, personal stories against an epic canvas. Lawrence of Arabia was his masterpiece and it serves both as a bio-pic and an action-adventure blockbuster. The film, written by playwright Robert Bolt, tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, the English officer who was posted to the Middle East during World War I and successfully united and led the diverse, often warring, Arab tribes to fight the Turks.
Young Winston (1972)
Richard Attenborough loved making films about his personal heroes. In Young Winston he assembles a star-studded cast – Simon Ward, Robert Shaw, Anne Bancroft, John Mills and Edward Woodward – to explore the early life of the future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The film turns a historical icon into a human being by telling the story of his childhood, his time as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Second Boer War and his election to Parliament.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Not every bio-pic has to be about a great statesman, a great general or someone who changed history. Sometimes a bio-pic can be disguised as a first-class caper movie as Steven Spielberg did with the story of confidence trickster Frank Abagnale Jr. With the FBI on his trail, but always two steps behind, Abagnale, before his 19th birthday, successfully forged millions of dollars’ worth of checks while posing as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a legal prosecutor. It was an audacious escapade that just happened rather than was planned. Spielberg tells his story with a light touch with the help of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.
Mrs Brown (1997)
Royalty has always attracted film-makers but with Mrs Brown, director John Madden opts to explore a different side of Queen Victoria’s life, her friendship with gamekeeper John Brown. Brilliant performances from Judi Dench and Billy Connolly bring this heartwarming but scandalous relationship to life. Judi Dench was nominated for an Oscar but lost out but won a ‘consolation’ Academy Award the following year for a much shorter performance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love.
The Young Victoria (2009)
This film from Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes looks at Victoria’s passionate affair with Prince Albert and how the Victorian ideas about men being head of the household led to conflict inside the Palace when Victoria defended her role as monarch. Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend are outstanding as Victoria and Albert but the biggest surprises come when Victoria has to battle her mother for control of the realm.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Just when you thought you knew everything about The Royals along comes a film like The King’s Speech which opens up a fascinating new story which makes you wonder why we didn’t know about this before. In this Colin Firth’s King George VI, turns to Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist to help him overcome his stammer when he ascends to the throne in 1936. It’s a wonderful, aspirational story of one man overcoming his fears.
Another star-studded epic from Richard Attenborough, one that took 20 years to raise the finance for, it cleaned up at the 1983 Oscars winning eight awards and made a star of Ben Kingsley. It told the story of one of the greatest figures in world history. Attenborough manages to trace both Gandhi’s life story and intertwine it with India’s complex political situation as the country progressed towards independence.
Darkest Hour (2017)
From Young Winston to old Winston as Gary Oldman, who won the Best Actor Oscar, explores Churchill’s emergence from the wilderness as the Nazi’s sweep across France. The film looks at a tight time frame and is just concerned with the events in the spring of 1940 as our troops are evacuated from Dunkirk and the RAF gear up for the fight of their lives in The Battle of Britain. Churchill may be abrasive but he manages to inspire a nation to stand firm against the invader.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Benedict Cumberbatch assumes the mantel of World War II code-breaker and mathematical genius Alan Turing in this touching tale of life at the code-breaking hot-house of Bletchley Park. The film portrays the nail-biting race against time to break the German’s Enigma Code while the film also jumps to Turing’s post-war struggles to integrate into society while also being suspected of being a Soviet spy.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest minds that academia has ever produced but as director James Marsh and actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones prove in this tender and touching bio-pic, his personal story was just as compelling. Given just two years to live following the diagnosis of a fatal illness at 21, he was galvanized by the love of fellow Cambridge student, Jane Wilde, and he went on to be called the successor to Einstein. Over the course of their marriage as Stephen’s body collapsed and his academic renown soared, their marriage came under increasing strain and both were forced to find relationships elsewhere.
The Aviator (2004)
After politicians and royalty, the most popular subject for bio-pics are actors, musicians and showbiz figures. One of the most eccentric figures in Hollywood history is millionaire businessman and producer Howard Hughes and his increasingly bizarre life was brought to the screen by Martin Scorsese and lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio while Cate Blanchett won an Oscar as Katharine Hepburn.
Richard Attenborough returned to the director’s chair with a tribute to his childhood hero Charlie Chaplin. The film made a star of Robert Downey Jr in the title role while Geraldine Chaplin played her own grandmother. However, the person who nearly stole the screen away from Robert Downey Jr was Kevin Kline as the boisterous Douglas Fairbanks.
Walk The Line (2005)
Johnny Cash was one of the giants of country music and lived long enough to cross over and find a mainstream rock audience. The fact that he lived so long is testament to a resilient body as he abused it through drink and drugs for much of his life. The film chronicles his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm, his rise to fame with Sun Records in Memphis, where he recorded alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to his worldwide fame as the Man in Black.
La Vie en Rose (2007)
Marion Cotillard hit the international big-time with her transformational performance as Edith Piaf in this moving look at the life of the Little Sparrow. Her mother was an alcoholic street singer, her father a circus performer, her paternal grandmother a madam. During childhood she lives with each of them. At 20, she’s a street singer discovered by a club owner who’s soon murdered, coached by a musician who brings her to concert halls, and then quickly she finds stardom. Her signature song “Non, je ne regrette rien” is an accurate reflection of her life.