Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover biopic J. Edgar is out on DVD today, following a fall theatrical run notable mostly for its lack of awards consideration; the film, and particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s leading role in it, had been the object of much presumptive Oscar buzz (hitting, as it does, multiple circles in the Oscar Venn diagram: slightly villainous, based on a real person, wide range of aging, secretly gay). But the film underwhelmed, for one very simple reason: we’re just getting tired of biopics.
The biographical film portrait has been a venerable institution since the early days of cinema; Georges Méliès made a Joan of Arc biopic clear back in 1900. And while there have been scores of great ones, the tropes of the form (the birth-to-death chronology, the trials and triumphs, the romantic struggles, etc.) are so firmly established that the only biographical films that really make an impression any more, it seems, are those that buck the trends and experiment, or at least futz with the form a bit. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten great biopics that made an impression, and float some theories as to why.
Few figures in American culture have tinkered with our perception of identity more frequently (or fascinatingly) than Bob Dylan, so when the great Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven) took a crack at bringing Dylan’s life to the screen, he did so in the only way that made sense: by casting six different actors as Dylan — none of them actually playing the man. Instead, they took on different aspects of his persona, the characters he played in public life or on his records (rock star, cowboy, poet, troubadour, preacher, actor), which Haynes intermingled with appropriately varying film and narrative styles. The results were a bit befuddling to those unfamiliar with Zimmy, but for fans, it was an entirely appropriate way to approach a living enigma.