Underrated Biopics That Deserve A Spot In The History Books

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Vote up the biopics that deserve a bigger audience.

The biopic has long been one of the most popular genres in Hollywood filmmaking, and it’s easy to see why. The biopic gives viewers the opportunity to gain insight into what makes a significant person – be they a politician, a monarch, a singer, or an artist – great, what drove them and what, in some cases, led to their downfall.

While some biopics manage to become seen as canonically “great films,” just as many seem to fly under the radar, never quite attaining the status they truly deserve. Thus, it is worth taking a look at some of these underrated biopics, in order to really appreciate how well they accomplish the task of shedding light on some of the most important people in history.


  • 1
    137 VOTES

    Few Hollywood collaborations have been as fruitful as the one between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. From the 1980s into the 2000s, they each brought something unique out of the other. In Ed Wood, for example, their extraordinary creative partnership brought out the unique vision and life of Ed Wood, a cult filmmaker whose own artistic vision was, in its own way, as strange as Burton’s.

    In Depp’s capable hands, Wood - sometimes seen as one of the worst director’s in American film history - becomes more than just a caricature or a failed filmmaker. Instead, he is the epitome of American optimism, always willing to try something new in his pursuit of cinematic artistry and the success that always seemed to elude him. The film also explores his friendship with Bela Lugosi and, in this sense, is something of an expression of Burton’s own friendship with Depp.

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  • Infamous for saying starving peasants should “eat cake” (even though she said no such thing), Marie Antoinette has exerted a pull on the imagination since her execution. In Sofia Coppola’s film of the same name, in which she is portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, she emerges as a young woman doing her best to find her way in the ornate and bewildering French court. When, at last, she ascends the throne, she at last finds a measure of happiness, only for it to come crumbling down around her in the violence of the French Revolution.

    The film is a stylistic delight – though its jarring musical choices perplexed some viewers – and Dunst brings out both the vulnerability and the inner strength of one of France’s most famous queens. Like all good biopics, it allows the modern viewer to gain a more sympathetic understanding of this much-maligned monarch and the tremendous pressures she faced.

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  • The 1930s was a particularly rich decade for the biopic, as Hollywood discovered how lucrative it could be to dramatize the lives of famous people. There are few American presidents more renowned and beloved than Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by a very young Henry Fonda in this film. It focuses in particular on the first case he tried, in which he used an almanac to prove the real culprit in a murder.

    Fonda’s performance is definitely the film’s highlight, as he brings out Lincoln's fiery intensity and his steadfast belief in justice. Just as importantly, however, John Ford’s inspired direction imbues the film with a Western aesthetic, which helps solidify the viewer’s sense of witnessing a true hero of the American frontier.

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  • 4
    120 VOTES

    Andy Kaufman had a comedic genius all his own, and it would take a formidable acting talent to capture his complex persona. Fortunately, Man on the Moon found exactly that talent. The film starred Jim Carrey at the height of his own career and comedic powers.

    In many ways, the film is a traditional biopic, with the familiar story beats one expects of the genre. It is, in fact, Carrey’s performance that helps to elevate it above the crowd of similar films. Thanks to Carrey's signature expressive face – and his ability to capture so many of Kaufman’s notable mannerisms and behaviors – this is the type of film designed to make the viewer feel as if they are actually watching the real man rather than someone playing a role.

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  • 5
    82 VOTES

    The mark of any successful biopic is its ability to fictionalize not for the sake of changing history but, instead, to help bring out something profound about its subject. This is a task The Hurricane accomplishes with remarkable skill. Starring Denzel Washington as Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a boxer wrongfully convicted of three murders and sent to prison, the film also focuses on his time in prison and his eventual release thanks to the efforts of a Brooklyn teenager.

    Ultimately, despite the film's liberties with the facts, it is Washington’s searing performance that elevates the film to truly great status. He allows the viewer to understand the rage seething beneath Carter’s surface, even as he also demonstrates the fundamental nobility of spirit which allows him to not entirely lose himself to the darkness.

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  • True History of the Kelly Gang
    Photo: IFC Films

    Though the Western is often seen as the quintessential American genre, a number of other national cinemas have also taken up the form. True History of the Kelly Gang, for example, is a strong example of the Australian Western, focusing on Ned Kelly, a famous outlaw and bushranger, one of the last of his kind. Unsurprisingly, the film is something of a lament for the circumstances which led Kelly to become the man he was, a notorious wandering robber who was especially noted for his fatal encounters with police.

    However, in keeping with the tradition of the Western, it is also an exploration of masculinity, colonialism, and the ways in which colonialism can distort and blight the lives of colonizers and colonized alike. Its dreamlike atmosphere, as well as the rich performance from George MacKay (for whom the film is something of a star vehicle), lends it further emotional appeal.