So Ed Wood is still the best Hollywood biopic ever made, not because it's completely faithful to the facts (it is not), but because it doesn't just reduce its subject to one thing the way so many biopics do. Tim Burton tries to understand what made Ed Wood Ed Wood, and the movie interprets the director's body of work and reflects that interpretation back into something that both celebrates Wood's life and work and attempts to get at what makes it special. It also manages to be entertaining.
These movies don't do that.
The majority of celebrity biopics are made for TV (Lindsay Lohan IS Elizabeth Taylor! Adam Brody IS Barry Williams! THOMAS IAN GRIFFITH IS ROCK HUDSON!), which aren't worth listing because (for the most part) of COURSE THOSE ARE BAD. These are all movies that actually played in theaters, and they range from "Ok, but not very good" to "This is one of the worst movies ever made."
1. Chaplin (1992)
Like so many bad Hollywood biopics, Richard Attenborough's movie about the life of Charlie Chaplin doesn't concern itself so much with the man's work or what made him one of the greatest screen comedians/icons/comedy directors of all time. Instead, it's more interested in answering the question "But Who Was He Fucking?" The answer, the movie says, is "A lot of women." Yes, Robert Downey Jr. is very, very good in the title role (he was nominated for an Oscar), especially in the recreations of Chaplin's work. It's an uncanny imitation. Truth be told, the movie is not outright horrible. It's not very good, either, but it's totally watchable. The movie has a great cast, and it's fun to see Dan Aykroyd playing Mack Sennett and Kevin Kline play Douglas Fairbanks and so on and so on (it's the kind of movie where a new famous face shows up every five minutes so the time passes quickly). But it reduces one of the most incredible film careers of all time to a single takeaway: Charlie Chaplin was a womanizer.
2. The Buster Keaton Story (1957)
Casting Donald O'Connor as the great Buster Keaton makes sense on paper, since O'Connor is very talented physical comedian. Unfortunately, the movie has no interest in physical comedy. Or comedy. Or the facts about Buster Keaton's life. It's a lame and turgid account of his romantic relationships. Did it ever occur to anyone to consider making a film about a famous comedian...what's the word...funny? Don't expect to learn anything about Keaton from the movie, since pretty much everything here is made up. Buster Keaton made a bunch of money selling the rights to his life, suggesting that he would never have to work again. So what was he doing in all of those AIP movies?
3. Hollywoodland (2006)
Ok, like Chaplin, this movie is not completely terrible. In fact, the George Reeves flashbacks are the best stuff in the movie, and Ben Affleck is actually really good (this came from the period when it seemed like he was going to become a really solid character actor, but instead he went the route of Academy Award-winning director) in the part. In fact, they could have just made a movie out of the George Reeves stuff and Hollywoodland would have been pretty great (it's like Julie and Julia that way). Instead, the movie adds all this stupid stuff with Adrien Brody as a detective speculating what REALLY happened when Reeves proved to not be faster than a speeding bullet. The single takeaway: The death of George Reeves is one of Hollywood's greatest mysteries. WRONG.
4. Mommie Dearest (1981)
This biopic of Joan Crawford is astonishingly bad, which means it has inevitably been ironically embraced as a camp classic. Because things that are terrible should be celebrated. Faye Dunaway ruins all of her Bonnie & Clyde goodwill by going waaaay over the top as Crawford, an anal retentive control freak who makes life for her daughter Christina (who wrote the memoir on which this movie is based) a hell to be enjoyed by drag queens for years to come. The single takeaway: Joan Crawford was a fucking monster. Say it with me: SOMETHING SOMETHING WIRE HANGERS.
5. Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) Rather than tell the story of how Lon Chaney became one of the biggest stars of silent film and a brilliant makeup artist who would disappear into his characters, contorting his face and body so as to cause himself genuine physical agony in the name of a performance, Man of a Thousand Faces is about family drama -- Chaney's relationship with his parents, his wives and, eventually, his son. As Chaney, James Cagney is a great actor who is badly miscast, and the makeup recreations look way worse in 1957 than they did in the '10s and '20s. The single takeaway: Lon Chaney had deaf parents.
6. Hitchcock (2012)
JB and I have already spent an hour discussing why this is a terrible movie on our podcast, but in case you need reminding, here it is: a) it suggests that every good decision Alfred Hitchcock made in the directing of Psycho came from his wife, Alma; b) Instead of concentrating on what drove him as an artist, it tells a story about how he was jealous of the attention his wife received from a male friend; c) It makes pretty much everything up. The single takeaway: Behind every brilliant filmmaker is an even more brilliant spouse.
7. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) Rob Cohen's well-intentioned biopic of Bruce Lee commits the sin of most biopics: it tells the story purely with the benefit of hindsight, as though everyone involved knows that they are famous characters acting out a biopic. Because Lee is Asian, the movie dumps on a bunch of vaguely racist mysticism and explains away the star's death as some act of predetermined fate. Bruce Lee's premature death (like that of his son, Brandon) is tragic enough without having to romanticize it with Hollywood nonsense. Jason Scott Lee (no relation) gives it his all in the title role. The single takeaway: It was a curse that killed Bruce Lee.
8. Wired (1989)
Bob Woodward's book on John Belushi is one of the most disreputed and despised celebrity biographies of all time, so it makes sense to try and make a movie out of it. No one saw it, and the movie has still never been released on DVD. The most amazing thing about the movie is that Michael Chiklis' career managed to bounce back. Just kidding! The most amazing thing about Wired is that it is told from the point of view of John Belushi's GHOST. It has to be seen to be believed. Better yet, just watch the trailer; multiply that to 110 minutes and that's the movie. The single takeaway: John Belushi was a drug addict.
9. W.C. Fields and Me (1976)
Legendary screen comedian/raging alcoholic W.C. Fields was an interesting, dark personality who successfully transitioned from the vaudeville stage to silent film to the "talkies" and is one of the most recognizable film personalities of all time. BUT WHO WAS HE FUCKING? Answer: the "me" of the movie's title, his mistress, Carlotta Monti (Valerie Perrine). Question: if the movie is told from Monti's point of view, how is it that half the running time goes by before the two even meet? HOW DID SHE KNOW ABOUT HIS SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP WITH A LITTLE PERSON? Playing W.C. Fields would be a thankless job for just about any actor, since there's a tremendous temptation to just do a cartoonish impression. In the hands of Rod Steiger -- who already has a proclivity for overacting -- it's an impression on steroids. Fields -- like Chaplin, like Keaton, like Chaney -- wasn't just another actor. He was an icon. Don't these classic movie stars deserve better?
10. Harlow (1965)
Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, was one of the biggest and most successful movie stars of the 1930s. So accurate is this biopic that it fails to mention any of her actual work, makes up almost every single person in Harlow's life, leaves out two of her three husbands and changes the cause of her death. Listen, biopics do not have to be completely faithful to the truth, but they need to devise a fiction that's more compelling than the facts -- or, at the very least, attempt to understand what made this person special (Ed Wood) or interesting (Ed Wood). Harlow does none of that. The best thing about the trailer below is how much the movie is sold like a '70s exploitation movie, complete with sleazy, salacious voiceover. The single takeaway: Jean Harlow was a sex object.