Nearly every biopic is about a man. 12 Years a Slave, Mandela, Captain Philips, The Butler, and The Fifth Estate all focus on men. And when a woman is the focus, she is usually paired with an equally prominent (or equally emphasized) man, as in Saving Mr. Banks. Those are just the most prominent biopics of 2013. The vast majority of best-of lists are dominated by movies about men - Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Amadeus, The Pianist, The King's Speech - all wonderful movies, but why should the most critically acclaimed biopics always be about men?Ah yes, because the people that receive the most critical acclaim from the male dominated world are men. Here is a ranked list of the best biopics about women:
12. The Actress/Yuen Ling Yuk/Centre Stage (1992)
Ruan Lingyu, China's first great film star, is the subject of Stanley Kwan's genre-bending film. Maggie Cheung won numerous festival awards for her performance as the "Chinese Garbo," following her short and tragic life from her breakout film roles until her suicide at age 24. Although the film is not terribly accessible for Westerners, who are unlikely to have seen any of Ruan Lingyu's films, Kwan's decision to incorporate footage from her films, as well as sequences of reflection on what her stardom meant for the Chinese cinema with Maggie Cheung and Kwan as themselves, allows The Actress to transcend cultural limitations.
11. The Queen (2006)
Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II, caught in the furor following Princess Diana's death and suddenly having to question her duty as a queen when the public demands official royal recognition of what she viewed as a strictly private matter. Mirren deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar and the rest of the cast, including Michael Sheen and James Cromwell, is uniformly excellent. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan present a complicated and nuanced depiction of the roles and relationships of the members of the royal family and the British government with both respect and scrutiny.
10. Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991)
Gabrielle Anwar stars as Sonora Webster, a young girl who runs away from home during the Great Depression, determined to become a star diving horses and make it big in Atlantic City, in this film based on the memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses. By far, one of Disney's best live-action efforts of the past few decades, this film has a delightfully vintage feel, using period songs and almost sepia toned cinematography to excellent effect. The DVD release is unfortunately presented in a pan and scanned format, though the original film was widescreen.
9. The Virgin Queen (2005)
Queen Elizabeth I has been a favorite biopic subject for over a hundred years. She's been played by Sarah Bernhardt, Jean Simmons, Bette Davis, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench, but none of these great actresses gave a performance as good as Anne-Marie Duff's in this BBC miniseries. Unlike most film depictions, this one is largely accurate, rarely deviating from the historical record. The costumes, sets, and locations are magnificent, the screenplay by Paula Milne is stellar, and the score by Martin Phipps, featuring the Mediaeval Baebes and the London Bulgarian Choir, and prominently setting a poem by the queen herself, is spectacular.
8. The Miracle Worker (1962)
Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Academy Awards for their performances as Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, in this film based on William Gibson's theatrical adaptation of Keller's biography, The Story of My Life. When Anne Sullivan arrives at the Keller home as a teacher for Helen, blind and deaf since infancy and unable to either understand others or make herself understood, she determines to both communicate with Helen and teach her to communicate back. Few films can boast such extraordinary, sincere, heartfelt performances.
7. Bright Star (2009)
Jane Campion's film at first glance appears to be about John Keats (a perfectly cast Ben Wishaw), but it is his lover, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) who really comes first. Fanny pursues Keats after she reads his unappreciated "Endymion," asking him to give her lessons in poetry and hoping for a great deal more. Their love affair unfolds with delicacy and a realism that, rather than making the story seem hopelessly modern, gives it an immediacy that few period films even try to achieve. It's worth noting that this is the only film on this list directed by a woman - and not because I didn't look for more.
6. Temple Grandin (2010)
Temple Grandin is an extraordinary human being, but it was far from a given that a film about her life would reflect the down-to-earth values and compassion that she herself demonstrates as an author. This HBO film is an empathetic portrait of Grandin, who was diagnosed with severe autism at a time when autistic children were routinely institutionalized and yet went on to become a doctor of animal science, revolutionize and humanize conditions for livestock, and develop the "hug box," an innovative device that helps calm autistic children. Claire Danes's performance is a masterclass in acting.
5. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
The brilliant and beautiful Norma Shearer plays the young poetess, Elizabeth Barrett, who, although an invalid, writes and publishes her poems, which sweep Robert Browning (Fredric March) off his feet. Their romance is impeded by Elizabeth's violently possessive father, played by Charles Laughton with a sinister gleam in his eye. Tragically, this fabulous film has never been released on DVD, though I still hold out hope that the Warner Archive Collection will release it.
(This film will be airing on TCM, February 20th at 1 a.m. Vote for this film to be released on DVD!)
4. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Peter Jackson's breakout hit is a blend of creepy horror, fairy tale fantasy, and coming-of-age story. Pauline and Juliet (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in astonishing screen debuts) are best friends whose bond is so intense that their parents determine to separate them, fearing their friendship is in fact a homosexual relationship. The two girls have created a fantasy world so enveloping that they lose themselves in its alternate reality and hatch a plan to prevent their parents from separating them, whatever the cost. An intensely disturbing and powerful film.
3. Out of Africa (1985)
Sydney Pollack's drama based on the wonderful book by Isak Dinesen stars the always marvelous Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who gave one of his best performances in this film. Karen Blixen enters into a marriage of convenience with her friend Bror and moves with him to an African farm. Though their marriage swiftly turns sour, Karen reinvents herself, managing her farm, starting a school for the children of her laborers, and starting a romance with adventurer Denys Finch Hatton. The film is worth watching for the gorgeous African landscapes alone, but the wonderful performances, direction, score, and screenplay make this film one of the best biopics ever.
2. The Lion in Winter (1968)
Katherine Hepburn is as venomous as a viper and as cunning as a fox as Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O'Toole as Henry II, in a battle of wits over the succession to the throne of England, she favoring their son Richard and he their son John. Based on a play by James Goldman, the film is full to the brim with biting dialogue, complicated intrigues, and some of the finest acting ever captured on screen. Anthony Hopkins makes his film debut as the future Richard the Lionhearted.
1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
This is the best film of all time, transcending every limitation of the genre. Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece is a deeply spiritual portrait of one of the most enigmatic and fascinating of the saints. Renee Jeanne Falconetti's performance as Joan is unsurpassably the best cinematic performance of all time, perhaps even the best performance in any medium. Perfection.
Some honorable mentions:
Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001) - A particularly accurate depiction of Anne Frank's life and tragic death, with a great performance by Ben Kingsley.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) - A lavish but overlong retelling of the life of Anne Boleyn.
Madame Curie (1943) - A decent if not terribly accurate depiction of the famed scientist's life starring Greer Garson.