10 Great Biopics About Not-So-Great People



Conflict. An essential ingredient for any drama to succeed. A good cast, nuanced script, and capable director also helps. And while a likable character often serves as a reliable vehicle to drive the plot, a great movie can still excel with a wide range of character flaws.

Several classic films have benefitted from fictional anti-hero characters, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or The Man With No Name in early Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, and Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy. Similarly, Hollywood has churned out a stockpile of biopics (biographical pictures) despite shining a spotlight on individuals who weren’t all Ghandi-esque.

As always with this kind of arbitrary list, art forms like cinema are highly subjective. After all, one man’s Strangers On A Train is another’s Snakes On A Plane. Comments are welcome and disagreements expected.

10. The Social Network  

This 2009 David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) film examines the fascinating genesis of Facebook and its boy wonder, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who morphs from a lonely Harvard student into the CEO of the world’s largest social media network. But as the movie’s tagline suggests, “You don’t have 500,000,000 friends without making some enemies.” Indeed.  

The story of Zuckerberg’s mercurial rise is both impressive and eerily prescient, as he steals, connives and screws over friends while building his behemoth creature. Paging, Dr. Zuckenstein? Fortunately, the well-crafted drama is also wildly entertaining, featuring a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and highlighted by the visually stunning “Regatta Scene” that plays right into Fincher’s wheelhouse.

Flash forward to 2019 and Facebook is all grown up with an expanded platform that now includes election meddling, online bullying, endless hate speech and private data for sale to the highest bidder. And with over 2 billion monthly active users and facing and never-ending litigation, it’s probably going to take a helluva lot more than cute cat videos to fix this glitch.

9. Steve Jobs

First of all, let’s be clear which flick is being presented about the enigmatic founder of Apple Computers. Steve Jobs (2015) featured Michael Fasbender (Shame, Hunger) in the title role, a script by Aaron Sorkin and the vision of Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle. Jobs (2013) had Ashton Kutcher in it.

Since passing away from cancer in 2011, the actual Steve Jobs left behind an amazing legacy. But like many mad genius types, his demons often made him difficult to be around — in spite of revolutionizing an industry with amazing products, including the MacBook Air creating this list.

In Steve Jobs, Fasbender exudes his usual commanding on-screen presence to capture the intensity of the tech titan, wrestling with one stupendous crisis after another — both personal and professional. Boyle’s direction makes for an interesting and unconventional approach that grabs the viewer and never lets go. The talents of Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogan, and Kate Winslet all provide balanced weight in supporting roles.

8. Spirit of St. Louis

This film chronicles the historic first transatlantic solo flight by aviation pioneer, Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh. Directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd, Some Like It Hot) in 1957, the title takes its name from Lindbergh’s single-engine plane and stars Jimmy Stewart, who lends his trademark boyish persona as the heroic young pilot (despite being nearly 50 at the time).

In the Spring of 1927, Lindbergh’s daring flight transfixed a nation and made him a household name. His luster, however, would soon become heavily tarnished with a series of scandals. Lindbergh repeatedly used his elevated platform to advocate extreme nationalist views, including an open letter that ran in Reader’s Digest and underscored his blatantly racist and anti-Semitic views:

“We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”  

Although he served as a pilot and instructor in the Pacific during WWII, Lindbergh’s popularity never recovered. Additionally, the married family man would be embroiled in another embarrassment involving an affair with a German woman and fathering two of her children.

7. They Died With Their Boots On 

Swashbuckling screen legend Errol Flynn (Robin Hood, Captain Blood) stars as US Calvary officer George Armstrong Custer in a highly fictionalized (and white-washed) account of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Olivia de Havilland (as Mrs. Custer) joins Flynn in their eighth and final pairing together, creating the always palpable chemistry between them. Unfortunately, historical accuracy takes a back seat as Custer is seen as a noble and brave soldier, and champion of Native American independence. Horsefeathers.

Helmed by Hollywood veteran Raoul Walsh, the movie features a series of realistic battle scenes, thrilling stunts by the incomparable Yakima Canutt, and even flashes of comic relief as Custer stumbles his way through West Point (where he finished last in his class). But the soldier’s name would be forever remembered for his actions with the fabled 7th Cavalry Regiment and a fatal encounter with warriors of the Lakota Sioux Nation led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Ultimately, Custer’s arrogance and poorly conceived strategy resulted in one of the worst defeats in US military history. Furthermore, it’s worth noting the flamboyant Custer made himself an easy target. Literally. Forgoing his standard military uniform, he instead preferred wearing a fringed buckskin jacket replete with a red scarf, gold lace, and a wide-brimmed sombrero that even Liberace would’ve found over the top.

6. Sid and Nancy

This biopic depicts the incendiary romance between punk rock icon Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon. The 1986 film manages to create both pity and empathy in an unflinching, intimate portrait of two troubled souls in the grips of heroin addiction. Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t end well.

Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour, Immortal Beloved) delivers a masterful performance as the former Sex Pistols bassist and is well matched by Chloe Webb playing his groupie/junkie love interest. Additionally, the production benefits from a terrific soundtrack composed by The Pogues and Joe Strummer of The Clash.

The film begins at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City, where the couple had been living and fighting in squalor. Through flashbacks, we see the development of their destructive, co-dependent relationship; Nancy is later found dead from a stab wound with a knife belonging to Sid, who in a hazy stupor doesn’t remember what happened. The movie ends with the two lovebirds driving off in a taxi cab as part of a pre-arranged suicide pact — although, in real life, Sid was arrested and charged with murder, and while awaiting trial died of a heroin overdose the day after being released from jail on an unrelated charge.

Oldman had initially turned down the role, showing little interest in either Sid Vicious or punk rock music in general. But after signing on, the London-born actor immersed himself in the character, losing weight to create a convincingly cadaverous-looking drug addict. The movie also foreshadowed another deadly, drug-fueled romance — but this one involving Courtney Love, who originally auditioned for the role of Nancy before settling on the smaller role of Gretchen.

5. Ray 

In a tour de force turn that won him an Oscar for Best Actor, Jamie Foxx (Booty Call, Django Unchained) transforms into blind R&B icon Ray Charles. Although overly sentimental at times, the film covers both the highs and lows in the singer’s tumultuous life and groundbreaking career that produced 13 number one hits, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also first began shooting heroin in his teens, and later fathered 12 children by 10 different women.

Remarkably, Foxx doesn’t just mimic the legendary entertainer — he embodies him warts and all — and even does all the piano playing himself while perfectly lip-synching the vocals. Adding to the realism, Foxx wore custom prosthetics throughout the production, limiting his ability to see.  

The talented cast includes Kerry Washington as the singer’s second wife — and an outstanding Sharon Warren as his mother. Directed by Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman, Against All Odds), the 2004 film enjoyed both critical and box office success and earned an Academy Award Best Picture nomination. Hackford actually had acquired the rights to the story in 1987, but could never get studio backing — a fact that speaks volumes to the lack of diversity that continues to plague Hollywood.

4. Rudy 

From director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo (the talented duo behind Hoosiers), Rudy stars Sean Astin in the title role about an ordinary kid with extraordinary dreams. What isn’t shown is how the real Rudy parlayed his notoriety into a “pump and dump” penny stocks scheme that’s neither inspirational nor a Hollywood ending.

Released in 1993, Rudy is based on the real-life story of Rudy Ruettinger, an undersized athlete from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, who, through hard work and termination plays football for Notre Dame. Well, kinda sorta, anyway. Like most paint-by-number, against-all-odds sports movies, a healthy dollop of embellishment is added for the sake of a more compelling narrative and emotional investment in the characters. More on “investment” later.

In reality, Ruettinger had been a standout high school player in his hometown of Joliet, Illinois before spending four years toughening up in the US Navy. Nevertheless, Rudy still works on many levels in spite of its formulaic plotting and half-truths. Astin is superb in the lead — and Charles Dutton is nothing short of brilliant in the fabricated role as a Yoda-like mentor/groundskeeper. Additionally, the climactic scene in which several players turn in their jerseys in protest to Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine never happened. In fact, according to Devine, he routinely encouraged Ruettinger and was responsible for giving the walk-on playing time in the final game of the season.

But the biggest let down is what occurred after the cameras stopped rolling. As a popular (and well-paid) motivational speaker, Ruettinger hoped to get rich by lending his name to a Gatorade knock-off sports drink and installed himself as CEO of Rudy Beverage. He then created a reverse mortgage and entered the stock market in which he scammed investors to the tune of 11 million dollars — all for a company that had about as much of a chance at succeeding as Donald Trump becoming President. Nevermind.

Eventually, the SEC ruled that Ruettinger had committed several securities violations relating to fraud, and ordered him to pay $382,866 in fines. So now, sports fans, if you listen closely, the crowd isn’t chanting “Ruuuuudy,” they’re yelling “booooooo.”

3. The Aviator 

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) attempts to fill the shoes of the enigmatic, larger-than-life multi-hyphenate, Howard Hughes, in this 2004 Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) picture. As expected, we see Hughes dealing with various unflattering phobias, and bedding more starlets than Mattress Warehouse, but the reality of Hughes being a crappy pilot, deranged junkie, and spoiled rich brat go largely ignored.

True to the movie’s title, Scorsese spends the first hour re-creating the making of Hughes’s WWI flyboy epic, Hells Angels. That film, which began in the silent era but ended up a “talkie,” would pioneer several innovative camera techniques and feature some of the most thrilling aerial combat scenes in cinematic history and resulted in four stuntmen being killed. Hughes also introduced a 19-year-old platinum bombshell to the world named Jean Harlow.

Scorsese, however, is guilty of perpetuating several myths, including the falsehoods that Hughes assembled the world’s largest airforce for Hells Angels (he didn’t) and the young mogul was a talented aviator (he wasn’t) despite crashing several planes and nearly killing himself in the process. To be fair, Hughes did excel at hype and staged some of the most spectacular Hollywood premieres ever witnessed.  

But the most egregious whopper surrounding the enigmatic figure is that he was a self-made man. Poppycock. Hughes hit the gene lottery at birth as the son of a wealthy Houston businessman, Howard Hughes Sr., who made his fortune developing a drilling bit used in the early days of the Texas oil boom. And when the old man died in 1924, Junior became a millionaire at the tender age of 19. Thanks, Dad.

Hughes then added to his substantial fortune by marrying Ella Rice, the daughter of the founder of Rice University. Not surprisingly, the marriage went bust shortly after the power couple landed in Southern California, where the notoriously promiscuous Hughes quickly started banging everything under the sun (and allegedly involved not only Tinseltown’s top leading ladies but handsome hunks as well).

2. Patton

George C. Scott (Dr. Strangelove, The Hustler) took home the Oscar (actually, he refused it) for his frighteningly realistic portrayal of George S. Patton. Although Patton’s tactical brilliance and innovations in tank warfare helped win WWII, he wasn’t called “Ol’ Blood n Guts” for nothing.

Patton won a total of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (co-written by Francis Ford Coppola). The movie famously opens with Scott delivering a monologue with a gigantic American flag as a backdrop that became the most iconic image of the film. Although the message of American strength and superiority is meant to be aspirational, there’s just something fundamentally wrong with a man who views war the same way Oprah looks at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Hailing from a military family*, Patton lived, breathed and relished the life of a professional soldier — a purpose that began shortly after graduating from West Point. He first earned distinction as an aide de camp to General John “Blackjack” Pershing in WWI and steadily rose to the rank of General in WWII, building a vaunted reputation for his relentless drive and battle-hardened instincts during Allied ground operations in North Africa and Europe.

(*Robert Duval’s unhinged character in Apocalypse Now, the war-loving “Colonel Kilgore,” was purportedly based on Col. George S. Patton IV.)

One of the most memorable moments of the film (and based on actual event) is the scene where Patton slaps a soldier suffering from shell shock (now known as PTSD). The incident led to Patton being relieved of his command and forced to apologize. As a result, the general missed out on all the fun of D-Day but soon returned to the battlefield in charge of the 3rd Army, cutting his way through France like a guillotine through warm Brie — and forever solidifying his legacy.

1. Raging Bull

Scorsese is back again, topping the list with his magnum opus about the rough and tumble life of boxer, Robert De Niro — err, Jake LaMotta — wait, who’s who again? Shot in glorious black and white that perfectly captures the dark, shadowy storyline and earned De Niro a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor.

Ask any boxing fan about “The Bronx Bull” LaMotta and most will agree the brawler was a tough S.O.B. When he wasn’t fighting in the ring, he spent his time terrorizing others — usually family members — in a maniacal, self-destructive rage. As LaMotta, De Niro seamlessly transitions from a chubby nightclub entertainer into the World Middleweight Champion, losing 60 pounds in the process.

Throughout the production, LaMotta trained De Niro extensively, getting him into tip-top shape while serving as the film’s technical adviser for the brutal, blood-soaked fight scenes. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarity are spectacular in support, playing the champ’s battered brother and wife — and Nicholas Colasanto, best known as “Coach” on the first three seasons of the TV show Cheers, is equally stout as the local mob boss.

Despite being a quintessential New Yorker, Scorsese had never been much of a sports fan and knew nothing about LaMotta’s life story until De Niro brought it to his attention. The director remained reluctant to take on a subject in which he knew so little or scarcely cared about; eventually, he saw a parallel between the fighter’s attempt at redemption and overcoming his own struggles with cocaine addiction, and took on the project with a heightened sense of commitment and gusto.

The end result is a film which ranks as not only one of the greatest sports movies ever made — but possibly Marty’s finest work. Ever. So for those who’ve never seen it, watch it immediately. And those who have, watch it again and marvel at the exquisite craftsmanship of a director and actor at the top their game. Fuhgettaboutit.

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