The Top 10 Hollywood Biopics

With the recent release of Jobs a film about the early career of Apple founder, Steve Jobs, and the soon to be released, Diana and Grace of Monaco, biopics seem to be in vogue. They are candid, emotional and sometimes shocking especially with the wow factor that the story line is mostly factual. But there is nothing more interesting and scandalous as when Hollywood turns a camera on itself for the best of all biopic dramas. Below is a list of the top ten biopics, in chronological order, about the dark, manipulative and glittering highs and lows of the American film industry.

10. Too Much, Too Soon (1958)

Too Much Too Soon

The torrid and self-destructive tale of Diana Barrymore, daughter of silent film legend John Barrymore, an adaption from her autobiography of the same name published in 1957. The film accounts Barrymore’s (Dorothy Malone) erratic childhood, estranged relationship with her father (played by John Barrymore’s real-life friend, Errol Flynn), struggles to become an independent actress, failed marriages, drug and alcohol addiction and suicide attempts. It is a well-developed drama with great portrayals of actual people and events. However, the main issue with this biopic is its creation, some say too soon after the events, although both Barrymore’s parents had been dead for over a decade. The film highlighted the cruel, sad truth of Barrymore’s life as she died two years after its release, aged 38, from an overdose.

9. Harlow (1965)

Carroll Baker as Jean Harlow.
Carroll Baker as Jean Harlow.

Harlow (1965) is a big budget retelling of the life and premature death, aged 26, of blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. Featuring Carroll Baker as Harlow and Angela Lansbury as Mama Jean Bello, her mother; the film begins at the start of her career as a model through to her days as a star crafting an iconic persona and life from her platinum hair, legendary walk and costumes. Also, chronically parts of her failed personal life, such as, health problems and marriage to producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) that ended in his suicide. However, the movie has been criticised by failing to highlight many of her other personal relationships, such as, with William Powell and Clark Gable.

8. Mommie Dearest (1981)

Mommie Dearest

The most controversial and excruciating of all the Hollywood biopics, Mommie Dearest (1981) is the cult film made from an autobiography by Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of actress Joan Crawford. Joan Crawford, played brilliantly by Faye Dunaway, is portrayed as a controlling, psychotic ‘germaphobe’, egotistical, abusive mother focused only on her stardom and marriages. Dunaway does a scarily beautiful depiction of Crawford’s strange idiosyncrasies, volatile relationships and need for motherhood. Her performance is wonderfully campy and massively agonising especially when she is disciplining her adopted daughter Christina, played by both Diana Scarwid and Mara Hobel, who is constantly oppressed by her out of control mother. This film is a must watch if not just for the perverse clothes-hanger scene and Dunaway’s strange, but historically accurate, eyebrows.

7. Frances (1982)

Frances (1982)

Frances (1982) depicts the short life of acting hopeful, Frances Farmer, her brief career in Hollywood, collapse into mental illness, stints in sanatoriums and blacklisting from the film industry. Farmer, played by Jessica Lange who received an Academy Award for her efforts, is a tragic figure mostly for her time outside of Hollywood in an abusive mental institution suffering multiple rapes, numerous violent therapies and eventually a lobotomy. She is eventually released from the institution and put into the custody of her mentally abusive mother who was instrumental in her earlier breakdowns. The film rises however with Farmer legally parting from her mother, being honoured by the This is Your Life program and hosting her own television show Frances Farmer Presents. It is a brilliantly shot film with a powerful acting performance by Lange as she highlights the cruel and degrading side of Hollywood and mid-century mental institutions captured perfectly by the line, “if a person is treated like a patient, they are apt to act like one.”

6. Chaplin (1992)


An exploration into the life of the legendary filmmaker Charlie Chaplin; it includes his destitute childhood years in England, the creation of his classic films, his tumultuous love life and even political activities in a well-rounded portrayal. Robert Downey Jr. realistically plays Chaplin through his adult years pulling off a brilliant English accent and looking comfortable in the iconic top hat, moustache and cane. It is constructed through a series of flashbacks with Chaplin, living in Switzerland during his last years, discussing the events of his career and personal life with George Hayden, a fictional character played by Anthony Hopkins. The film is a duel adaption from Chaplin’s own publication, My Autobiography (1964) and Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson. It includes treasure trove of silent stars, directors, Hollywood businessmen and personalities all portrayed with varied success by modern stars. Such as, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Douglas Fairbanks, J. Edgar Hoover and not to mention all of Chaplin’s four colourful wives. Look out for a cameo of Chaplin’s real-life daughter, Geraldine Chaplin.

5. RKO 281 (1999)


Named after the original production title of classic film Citizen Kane (1941), RKO 281 (1999) is a dramatization of the controversy and issues surrounding the production of the film and its connection to the life of media owner and millionaire, William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell). The film’s centre point is director and leading man Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) whose daring, energetic genius pushes the production of the now classic movie. It does not make clear claims about the connections between Citizen Kane and true events which has been the talking point behind the movie for decades but appears to promote the mystery. This made for television drama does not have the big budget of many other biopics but with performance from Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell and Melanie Griffith, it is worth a watch especially for Orson Welles enthusiasts.

4. Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001)

Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001)

Me and My Shadows (2001) is another and probably the best interpretation of the volatile life of screen actress and singer, Judy Garland. The film begins when Garland is only two years old – her talent already visible, her early years in Hollywood, her declining years and later death in 1969. The story is broken into two parts, namely, her rise to popularity in the 1930’s and her equality famous fall into drugs and mental breakdowns in the 1960’s in one segment. The second chronicles her return to movies and marriage to Sid Luft in the last chapter. It is a prominent biopics for its thorough often over-the-top constructions of many of Garland’s films and concerts. A good performance by Judy Davis as Garland it is a full and unbiased account of her life and struggles, but perhaps just for Judy Garland enthusiasts.

3. The Aviator (2004)


A movie that is breathtaking even without its biopic status, The Aviator (2004), follows the life of complicated director and aviator, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio). It begins with his struggles to finally complete epic Hells Angels (1930) to his meticulous standards and tracks his path to Hollywood royalty and relationships with its queens – Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). The film concludes with an examination of Hughes’s greatest struggle, his battle with germophobia and obsessive compulsive disorder which resulted in his becoming a recluse later in life. DiCaprio and Blanchett steal the film as their relationship, her reluctance to commit to him and her later love for Spencer Tracy seem to dominate the movie. Both have stellar performances, with Blanchett winning an Academy Award for her efforts; however, a warning, those without prior knowledge of Katharine Hepburn may have to watch out for Blanchett’s seemingly bizarre accent and mannerisms.

2. The Life & Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

The Life & Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

Actor Geoffrey Rush shines in the biopic of the private and public life of actor, Peter Sellers. The film reveals the stark contrasts between the stars prosperous professional career and his troubled private life including four marriages, most famously to actress Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron). It begins with Sellers childhood and reveals the influence his mother Peg Sellers (Miriam Margolyes) had on his life and drive to enter the entertainment industry. The films concludes, conversely, with Seller’s attempting to regenerate his acting career though his last few films. However, for a biopic of a comedian this film is anything but a comedy with the darker parts of Seller’s life explored extraordinarily by Rush with the overall message being that, above his personal issues, Sellers was a comic and acting genius.

1. Hollywoodland (2006)


More focusing on a mystery rather than the life of a film personality, Hollywoodland (2006) is a dramatization of a detectives struggle to discover the true circumstances behind the real life death of actor, George Reeves. Reeves (played by Ben Affleck) was found shot in his bedroom in June 1959 in strange event that caused shock waves all over America. Detective Louise Simo (Adrien Brody) interviews a number of suspects including wife of MGM General Manager and Reeves reported mistress, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) and his fiancé Lenore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) trying desperately to find answers. Although, it is technically historical fiction, the film is made more interesting and current by the added exploration of Simo’s life and internal crisis’ while investigating the case.

Biopics, especially films focused on the events and lives of Hollywood elite, are entertaining and controversial both for the elements of fact and the ability of filmmakers to embellish – some of which have even added to the mystery and stardom of their subjects. The list represents a wide and varied collection of biopics from the 1950’s to today. They are all intriguing and frank, many with a pinch of fantasy rolled in, and well worth a watch.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. B. Silvey

    I recommend reading Mommie Dearest, the book. The movie, a campy treat which merely shows Joan as glamorous and “demanding”, is nothing like the book.

    The book credibly portrays the endless layers of an abusive relationship, the narcissistic and bottomless cruelty of a mother who only wanted children for the publicity of it.

  2. Vannesa Kirby

    Lovely list! You left out some of my choices though:
    * Living in Oblivion
    * Boogie Nights
    * Ed Wood
    But those are about film-making than hollywood biopics I guess!

  3. Robert Humphrey

    “The Aviator” was a great film. There is so much psychological analysis that can be done with that film, and I love that.

  4. First time I hear about RKO 281! Going to order it, thanks!

  5. Great list, there are so many great biopics out there, but I’m glad you picked some ones that I haven’t yet seen.

  6. Irina Heyw.

    Gef Rush have us a magnificent performance as Sellers and really deserved the awards he won. He literally becomes Sellers as well as all the various characters he played throughout his career such as the much loved Inspector Clouseau.

  7. Katherine

    Chaplin is a good choice for number one. Just one thing that bothered me was the “older” Chaplin’s makeup. It was absolutely awful. It took away from some very good scenes, especially the end.

    I really wish it had been better, but other than that, it was a wonderful film. I’ve loved it since it came out, even though I was very young, always had an appreciation for biographical and classic films… I thank my grandparents for that.

  8. Lachlan Vass

    The Pianist and Ray were both pretty sick too

  9. Lachlan Vass

    Or Schindler’s List

  10. Farisa Khalid

    Thank you so much for this. I have always thought that THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS is a vastly underrated film (maybe because it was made for television on HBO), which goes beyond biopic status to say something meaningful about the dark shadows of celebrity and fame. Geoffrey Rush, who I initially had misgivings about, was incredible as Peter Sellers–especially in capturing his highs and lows–those moments of really nasty meanness and self-disgust. The scenes with his mother, brilliantly played by Miriam Margolis, were unforgettable.
    And I also think CHAPLIN is underrated too, perhaps because critics thought it was too tasteful and conventional. Robert Downey Jr. was amazing (people don’t give him enough credit for that film) and so was Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks!

  11. I think your point about the Harlow movie not highlighting Jean Harlow’s relationship with Clark Gable and most of all William Powell is very important. To me, that is leaving out the most important part of her life. Powell was still alive and was not one to have helped in any way for this project. There are so many quotes by actors and actresses who knew Harlow and Powell, they all said he was the love of her life and that she really adored him. To leave someone like that out of a biography really leaves it incomplete.

  12. Good to know that there are early biopics to look into.

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