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The 8 Ball 11.20.12: The Top 8 Hollywood Biopic Performances
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 11.20.2012

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Hollywood Biopic Performances

This coming Friday Hitchcock opens in a limited number of theaters in order to make it into the eligibility period for Oscar season before making its eventual wide expansion. The Sacha Gervasi-directed film stars Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville, charting their relationship and professional collaboration through the making of Hitchcock's horror classic Psycho. The film is just the latest in a long line of films set within and telling the stories of real-life events within the film industry; let's be honest, no one likes presenting at their own history for the world to see better than Hollywood does. This week I thought we could take the time to look at the best portrayals of real-life people within Hollywood. Some of them may only cover a brief slice of their subjects' life while others may span birth to death; either way, they all do a fantastic job of telling the story of the storytellers of our most modern medium.

Caveat: As I said in the intro, by "biopic" I am not strictly limiting myself to those performances that cover a wide portion of someone's life story. Some biopics chose to focus on a narrow part of someone's life; that doesn't make it any less of a biopic. The only other caveat I would apply is that I decided to focus on stories that are as based within fact as possible (with obvious leeway for some level of dramatization). For example, Ben Kingsley's work in Hugo and both John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire do a great job of portraying real-life individuals within the history of Tinseltown, and include some very real level of factual detail. That being said, both films take such excessive liberties (to their benefit) so as to not really count as biopics.

Just Missing The Cut

George Reeves (Ben Affleck), Hollywoodland (2006)
James Whale (Ian McKellen), Gods and Monsters (1998)
Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), Auto Focus (2002)

#8: Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), Argo (2012)

Is it cheating to include a portrayal on a list like this if the subject in question never actually made a movie? Maybe, but you can't deny that the tale of Argo is a legitimate, if bizarre, Hollywood story. Some might call "too soon" on this, but I have never quite understood why we have to wait years before declaring something among the best in their category. Ben Affleck has earned a reputation between this film, The Town and Gone Baby Gone as an excellent director, but I still feel that he is underrated as an actor. Yes, he made Gigli but Sean Connery made Zardoz and you don't see many people trashing his thespian skills. Affleck's performance is top-notch here as Mendez, the CIA officer who helped in the "Canadian caper" to rescue six endangered diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis using a fake Hollywood movie as a cover story. There are criticisms that the film takes too much dramatic license in making the CIA and Hollywood the heroes of the situation while marginalizing the Canadian government and Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and I can sympathize with the criticism, but the changes don't take away from Affleck's performance or completely fictionalize the events; it certainly stays true to the spirit of the what happened. Much like he did in The Town, Affleck does another great job of showing how he's growing into a double-threat as an actor/director, making Argo a thrilling portrayal of a real-life occurrence that was almost stranger than fiction could have been.

#7: Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway), Mommie Dearest (1981)

"NO WIRE HANGERS, EVER!" Those words send a chill up my spine even today. Now let's be frank here; Frank Perry's feature adaptation of Christina Crawford's infamous memoir is hardly the greatest movie of all time, or even in the top 1,000. It's hilariously over-the-top and Paramount realized this early into the film's theatrical run, changing their marketing to push it as a camp classic (in fact, one of the few to ever market itself successfully as such instead of finding such a reputation naturally). As bad as it is in parts, Faye Dunaway's portrayal of Joan Crawford is actually better because of how over-the-top she is. As Joan Crawford she is chilling and yet captivating at the same time. Variety famously said of Dunaway's performance that she "does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all." That was not intended to be a compliment but it truly fits with the spirit of the film and in truth, her performance is convincing in presenting an image of Crawford that is quite compatible with the way she presented herself in the public eye. Dunaway later said she regretted the role as she felt Crawford's friends damaged her career, but it certainly stands as a fascinating performance and a lesson in how to chew scenery just right.

#6: Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey), Man on the Moon (1999)

Many people look for Jim Carrey to return to his true comedic roots and to recapture the glory days of Liar, Liar and Ace Ventura. For my part, as much as I would like to see Carrey be sincerely funny again I do think that he has still-untapped potential as a dramatic actor. This is not to say that he hasn't shown us some great work as a dramatic actor, and his performance as Andy Kaufman in Man in the Moon is a perfect example of that. Miloš Forman's biopic of the (in)famous actor who starred in Taxi and held a long-running wrestling feud with Jerry "The King" Lawler is an excellent piece of work, highlighted by many of the performances in the film. Remember when Courtney Love was actually considered to be a rising star within the industry? Of course, none of the performances are as admirable as Carrey's, who absolutely captures the essence of the controversial comedian. There are times in the film that I want to reach through the screen and strangle Kaufman and there are other times that I'm on the floor laughing at the antics, which are memorably recreated (with some embellishments when appropriate) by Forman, Carrey and the rest of the cast and crew. From his spot-on portrayal of the Tony Clifton character to the touchingly tragic scene where Kaufman realizes that his hopes for "psychic surgery" is a scam and more, Carrey is a joy to watch; I've always been hopeful that we'll see more of this kind of work by him, and less of the Mr. Popper's Penguins variety.

#5: Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), Boogie Nights (1997)

Okay, so Dirk Diggler isn't a real person. Let's not pretend this isn't any less of a biopic just because the character isn't named John Holmes. (And yes, adult entertainment is as much part of Hollywood as the studio system.) Paul Thomas Anderson is a brilliant filmmaker and Boogie Nights is one of his best films, highlighted by Wahlberg's career-making performance as Holmes/Diggler. There are a significant amount of details that got changed around of course, but all in all the story is surprisingly faithful to the truth including references to Holmes' Johnny Wadd character, the Wonderland robbery (if not the murders that followed), Holmes' history with cocaine abuse and the negative effect it had on his career and so on. Wahlberg is fearless in his performance here and in the hands of a director like Anderson he had the ability to flex his acting skills in a way that he hadn't been able to before. Even at the end, despite the apparent happy ending, I could never shake the feeling that, like Holmes, things did not ultimately turn out well for Dirk Diggler. Maybe he gets nabbed by Rahad Jackson and forced to help him in his revenge scheme, resulting in the deaths of his friends. I wouldn't particularly doubt it; there is certainly precedence.

#4: Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Aviator (2004)

Howard Hughes is one of the most complex public individuals of the twentieth century. While he was obviously far more than just a film producer, that is an important part of his life and it comprises a significant portion of Martin Scorsese's 2004 biopic, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the obsessive-compulsive aviation pioneer who made quite an impact on the film industry. The film is a veritable army of good to great biopic performances that includes Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Jude Law as Errol Flynn and even Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow. It is DiCaprio upon which the film rests however, and he succeeds with (forgive the pun) flying colors in portraying the best and worst moments of Hughes. The film won DiCaprio his first Golden Globe and garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, an award for which he was arguably robbed in favor of Jamie Foxx's also-great but less compelling work as Ray Charles in Ray. The performance still stands as one of DiCaprio's best pieces of work and helped establish him as a top-tier performer to be taken seriously, a status he has capably held onto ever since.

#3: Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), My Week With Marilyn (2011)

This is one of those portrayals that do not cover its subject's entire story, a fact that is obvious by its very title. My Week With Marilyn focuses on the incomparable Marilyn Monroe and her work on Sir Laurence Olivier's 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl. The film is based on the books by Colin Clark, who was the production assistant from whose eyes the week in question unfolds. Director Simon Curtis acquits himself tolerably in his feature directorial debut here, but in all fairness it is much easier to avoid failure when you have assembled a cast as impressive as this. Kenneth Branagh is very well-cast as Olivier and Eddie Redmayne shines as Clark; Judi Dench is her reliably-excellent self as Sybil Thorndike. This is undeniably Michelle Williams' film though and much like the actress she portrays, she steals every scene in the film. Marilyn Monroe has been depicted many times on screen, but too often the actresses who portray her get caught up in aping her famous persona to the point of caricature. Williams is anything but a caricature and she does a fantastic job of presenting a portrait of the actress as a complex and captivating individual, alternately breathtakingly magnetic and heartbreakingly vulnerable. It is one of the great portrayals of a real-life individual and raises what would have been a solid but unspectacular Hollywood story into something very good indeed.

#2: Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey, Jr.), Chaplin (1992)

Robert Downey, Jr.'s big career comeback with Iron Man in 2008 was so dramatic and encompassing that it seems almost as if he didn't have a career before that, thanks to the long drought during the turbulent era of his personal issues in the mid-1990s to early 2000s. Unfortunately that leaves a wide swath of his great early work in the shadows, one of which was his brilliant performance as Charlie Chaplin in Richard Attenborough's length 1992 biopic of the legendary silent film actor. As Chaplin, Downey absolutely captured the iconic actor in every way. While the film was not a financial success and some criticized it for being too ambitious or too much of a whitewash, no one could deny how much Downey brought to the chief role. The actor prepared extensively for the role, including learning how to play tennis left-handed and hiring coaches in order to perfect Chaplin's posture and style of movement. A performance is more than just physical transformation though and Downey brought his substantial talent to the emotional aspects of the performance as well. In Downey we got a perfectly-captured portrait of Chaplin's personal struggles as much as we got of his lovably goofy public persona, resulting one of the great real-life portrayals of anyone--Hollywood-related or not.

#1: Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood is, to me, the result of the best work that Johnny Depp and Tim Burton ever did together. The film, which somehow honors and pays loving homage to one of the worst filmmakers in cinematic history without shying away from how bad he really was, was the first time that the label of "great" was applied to Depp as an actor; he had been viewed as doing very good work in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Edward Scissorhands but this was where he found himself approaching that upper echelon reserved for a select few. Depp has said that he was depressed about filmmaking at the time and that working with Martin Landau, who was similarly great as Bela Lugosi, "rejuvenated my love for acting." You can see it in every frame of the film as he invests Wood with such energy and enthusiasm. This is not a role anyone would have been able to give anything but 100% without coming off like sleepwalking. His capturing of the absolute, unwavering optimism of the character invigorates the film and makes this a performance that has and will continue to stand the test of time; it is truly my favorite Depp role and my favorite portrayal of a true-life Hollywood character.

Current Doctor

Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).

Current Series/Season: Season Eight (1971)
Episodes Watched: 587
Last Serial Completed: Colony in Space - When the Time Lords discover that the Master has stolen their secret file on the Doomsday Weapon, they realize that they have only one recourse and send the Doctor and Jo--without their knowledge or consent--to the planet Uxarieus. There, they become enmeshed in a struggle between an agrarian colony and a powerful mining corporation, with the Master himself pulling strings from the shadows.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 42

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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