“Jobs,” starring the unlikely Ashton Kutcher, opens this weekend, the first of two planned Steve Jobs biopics. Aaron Sorkin is still putting the final touches on his rumored three-scene depiction, but “Jobs” seems to have been rushed to the can following the Apple founder’s death from pancreatic cancer and the overwhelming success of Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography. The Globe’s Peter Keough hesitantly lauds Kutcher’s preparation for the role, saying “he nearly captures the soul of the man, except when he sounds like Keanu Reeves.”
The biopic has become a Hollywood fixture (expect treatments of Jimi Hendrix, Princess Diana, and Nina Simone later in the year) with the potential to lend its stars instant street cred (i.e. Johnny Depp in “Ed Wood”) or endless ridicule (Linsday Lohan in “Liz & Dick”). In honor of this new film, here are some of the best and worst performances to ever happen to the biopic genre.
By Christopher Hughes / Boston.com Correspondent Next
Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”(2006)
Forest Whitaker has been one of the most impressive actors of the last 30 years, but nothing could have prepared us for his monolithic portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” Seen through the eyes of his Scottish physician, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), we watch as his charming public persona is whittled away layer by layer, until the fetid underbelly of a genocidal despot is exposed. Amin is the worst kind of monster, powerful and paranoid, with a hulking presence larger than his sizeable girth. In “The Last King of Scotland,” Whitaker is so terrifying, that halfway through the movie you feel like Spicoli shaking in his Vans after totaling Charles Jefferson’s Camero.
Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar” (2011)
Leonardo DiCaprio’s botched makeup job in “J. Edgar” looks like work of a spurned ex-lover, a paltry budget, or a gifted position to Clint Eastwood’s out-of-work niece. Lying somewhere between Mrs. Doubtfire, Benjamin Button, and Winona Ryder at the end of “Edward Scissorhands,” DiCaprio was tasked with acting himself out of a prosthetic paper bag, an impossible task even for Daniel Day Lewis channeling the ghosts of Stanislavski and Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, DiCaprio tends to rely on two speeds, Gatsby debonaire with his eyebrow provocatively cocked and the frazzled lunatic he’s channeled since he was tweaking for smack in “The Basketball Diaries.” His brow buried beneath six inches of liver spots, DiCaprio leaned on his favorite screaming alter ego and the FBI’s most notorious director devolved into Judge Alvin Valkenheiser from “Nothing but Trouble.”
Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”(2010)
Jesse Eisenberg (with help from David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin) dared to bring one of the most obnoxious, unlikeable characters to life, a feat rarely attempted since “Citizen Kane” was released in 1941. From its opening moments inside the Thirsty Scholar, with Mark Zuckerberg carping over his entrance into Harvard’s Final Club, Eisenberg wields the arrogance and brilliance that will transform a college sophomore into a status-obsessed, social media tycoon. Following the structure of a Greek tragedy, Eisenberg confidently takes Zuckerberg from impish hacker to Sean Parker sycophant to coding savant gasping to stay ahead of his fallow personal life.
It’s easy to play nice. It’s exhilerating to play evil. But that nebulous, guarded middle-ground, inhabited by shrill genius; that takes real talent.
Hilary Swank, “Amelia”(2009)
Hollywood is absolutely shameless when it comes to Oscar season. For every “No Country for Old Men” there’s a “Patch Adams” or “I Am Sam” desperately wringing saline from audiences with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or that Hawaiian version of “Over the Rainbow.” “Amelia” was the most egregious example in recent years and Hilary Swank takes the brunt of the blame as exective producer and lead actor in this saccharine biopic, housed in banal, cardboard dialogue. At one point, flying over a heard of galloping giraffes, Earhart wistfully asserts, “Look how free they are. No schedules to keep!” Deeper sentiments have been expressed in a potpourri scented greeting card. And Swank does nothing to wrestle free of the cashmere shackles of this brittle script, which treats a cunning, stubborn figure more like an ornament in a nostalgia shop.
BEST TROUBLED SOUL
Sam Riley, “Control” (2007)
The industrial, post-punk music of Joy Division, and the despairing lyrics of frontman Ian Curtis in particular, might be the only things sadder than the weepy melodies of Morrissey and The Cure’s Robert Smith. Since his suicide at age 23, Curtis has been a poster child of emo angst, eulogized in several films, including 2002’s “24 Hours Party People” and the documentary “Joy Division.” “Control” delved much deeper into the unravelling personal life of Curtis, the script based on the 1995 memoir by his wife Deborah and directed by Anton Corbijn who photographed Joy Division in their brief two-year existence. Sam Riley plays Curtis with a pained gravitas as he emphatically explores a depression brought on by a troubled marriage and Curtis’s late battle with epilepsy. The troubled frontman was known for his robotic, flailing stage presence and Riley nails every one of his manic twists and jerks, but more importantly, Riley captured the anguished personality who swore never to live beyond his 20s.
WORST TROUBLED SOUL
Chris O’Donnell, “In Love and War”(1996)
Even at 18, a young Ernest Hemingway was itching for the escape of war and adventures far beyond Oak Park, Ill. He might not yet have developed into the swaggering thrill seeker in drunken pursuit of wild game and difficult women, but he also wasn’t the milquetoast stiff depicted by Chris O’Donnell in “In Love and War.” This loose adaptation of the love letters between Hemingway and his World War I nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, someone eight years his senior, cemented O’Donnell as Hollywood’s consummate Zeppo. After seeing Corey Stoll’s brilliant portrayal of “Papa” Hemingway in his French “A Moveable Feast” era, I wanted to give O’Donnell a Wallace Stevens-sized beatdown for past transgressions. Next
Sean Penn, “Milk”(2008)
“How did he do it?” queried Robert DeNiro at the Academy Awards. “How for so many years did Sean Penn get roles playing straight men?” That’s how good Sean Penn was in the role of martyred gay activist Harvey Milk. In Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece, “Milk,” Sean Penn drops his usual craggly, Marlboro-slicked machismo to give one of his most compelling and sensitive performances to date. Penn brought an undeniable (and necessary) magnetism to the iconic politician whose quixotic journey took him from Castro camera shop owner to the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Next
Nick Nolte, “Jefferson in Paris”(1995)
Director James Ivory is known for slow churning period dramas, such as “Howard’s End” and “Remains of the Day,” but his exploration of Thomas Jefferson’s tryst with Sally Hemings just prior to the French Revolution makes “The English Patient” look like a roided-up Michael Bay picture. Portraying an American forefather is always a precarious endeavor, usually frought with hyperbole and plenty of faux British accents, but Nick Nolte plays it razor straight, to the point where you’re ready to pull a Bluto on Jefferson’s Bordeaux cellar. Nolte’s depiction of the third president is so restrained and austere that I’m convincedthe pent-up intensity sent him spiralling into the boozy, Barney Gumble train wreck we know today. Next
BEST SEX SYMBOL
Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”(2011)
An impression of Marilyn Monroe singing the Happy Birthday Song is one of the most trite, overindulged gags in all of comedy. Imitating Johnny Carson or Bill Clinton might be more fresh at this point. But the breathy syllables and puckered fish lips has been the equivalent of every Marilyn Monroe depiction since her death in 1962.
Michelle Williams changed all that in “My Week with Marilyn” in a far more intuitive, caricature-free approach to the fragile inner workings of Norma Jeane Mortenson. Set abroad in the duplicitous final days of her marriage to Arthur Miller, Williams shows the damaged Monroe struggling to manage her public bombshell facade while battling a career meltdown on the set of “The Prince and The Showgirl.” Under seige from an insatiable paparazzi, the leering gaze of an equally famous co-star (Laurence Olivier), and a floundering relationship, we see the girlish spirit spiraling into the pills and anxiety which would prematurely end her movie star incandenscence.
WORST SEX SYMBOL
Lindsay Lohan, “Liz & Dick”(2012)
In a movie so overwrought and inept that it’s already considered a camp classic, Lindsay Lohan plays Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor during the controversial beginnings of her romance with married Welsh thespian, Richard Burton. Because it was marketed as Lindsay Lohan’s comeback — and skewered because of it — there seemed to be an implication that Lohan had something to come back from. Did she dazzle in “Freaky Friday”? Was “Herbie Fully Loaded” some cinematic coup? Did anyone even bother to sit through all of “Machete”? I can keep going.
“Liz & Dick” felt like a “Saturday Night Live” skit largely because Lohan gave a vapid, unemotional performances that would embarrass Tommy Wiseau . In a career more memorable for rehab and Wilmer Valderrama, it comes as no surprise that it was the fourth most-watched movie ... on Lifetime. “Drew Peterson: Untouchable” was a more successful endeavor. Now let us just avert our eyes from the flaming car wreck and never speak it again.
Denzel Washington, “Malcolm X” (1992)
Jay Pharoah on “SNL” has succinctly condensed the last 10 years of Denzel Washington’ career into a perfect parody consisting of condescending hand claps, toothy grins, and some well-timed“All rights” and “OKs.” Following his Academy Award-winning turn as detective Alonzo Harris in “Training Day,” it seems every rogue cop and gun-toting cliche has been a series of recycled “best of” moments. If Denzel Washington were Michael Jordan, this is the Washington Wizards twilight of his career.
But in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” Denzel was at his absolute best, breaking down a man of disparate parts, a myth shrouded in pathos and bogus misconceptions. Washington deftly juggled the various reincarnations of the man who would eventually become Malcolm X; from country rube, Malcolm Little, to “Red” the zoot-suited street hustler, all the way to his militant, uncompromising civil rights persona. To this day, Pacino’s victory over Denzel for “Scent of a Woman” remains one of the biggest snubs in Oscar history, right next to Marty Landau stealing one from Samuel L. Jackson. Next
Mick Jagger, “Ned Kelly”(1970)
Academy award-winning director Tony Richardson wanted Ian McKellen to play the title role of Australia’s most famous real-life Robin Hood, but the producers of the 1970’s “Ned Kelly” instead gave the nod to cinema newbie Mick Jagger. The filming was a “Cleopatra”-sized disaster from the start as Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, Marianne Faithful overdosed on sleeping pills after a falling out with the Rolling Stones lead singer, Jagger himself was injured by a backfiring pistol, the cast was plagued by illness, and a number of costumes were destroyed in a fire. Worst of all, Jagger was saddled with a dull Ian Jones script and a Lincoln beard that was as convincing as Gary’s in “Team America.” Jagger refused to attend his own premiere and it would be another seven years before he received another acting gig. Next
Michael Douglas, “Behind the Candelabra” (2013)
If you’re looking for proof of Steven Spielberg’s “implosion” of Hollywood theory, look no further than the travails of Steven Soderbergh, whose $5 million biopic of Liberace was deemed “too gay” by major film studios. Eventually released by HBO earlier this year, “Behind the Candelabra” proved to be some of Michael Douglas’s best work and an overall fantastic movie. The film chronicles the entertainer’s “secret” affair with his assistant-turned-lover Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon). Kind, narcissistic, and even predatory, Douglas gives Liberace a myriad of layers that makes the famous pianist at turns both lovable and revolting.
Kevin Costner, “Wyatt Earp” (1994)
Don’t encourage Kevin Costner. If you let him, he will make a seven-hour movie. He’s the Leon Uris or James Michener of acting and producing.
In the last gasp of Santa Fe chic, where Southwestern pastels, Navaho beads, and black bean salad were all the rage, audiences came out in droves to see Costner ride with the Sioux in “Dances with Wolves.” Afterward, he seemed to think he was bulletproof, pumping out three-and-a-half hour fluff as if he were Cecil B. DeMille. Just one year after the success of “Tombstone,” Costner thought he could improve upon the exact same story by adding two more hours to Earp’s cleanup of Dodge City. “Wyatt Earp” is buried in prosaic stretches void of dialogue, Costner sagely peering into the distance, the veritable tumbleweed rolling across parched caliche. And even when he does speak, it’s in a monotone, sleep-inducing timbre unbearable in its tedium. Kevin Costner is the only actor capable of positing the enigma: How do you make the shootout at the O.K. Corral boring? Next
BEST 20th CENTURY ICON
Jamie Foxx, “Ray” (2004)
The lengths that Jamie Foxx endured to prepare for the role of Ray Charles are commensurate with Hoffman’s notorious extremes on the set of “Marathon Man.” How did Wanda from “In Living Colour” transition into the persona of one of R&B’s imporant musicians? By shrouding his eyes in prosthetics that blinded him for 14 hours a day, practicing on the piano until the wee hours of the morning with Berklee alum Curt Sobel, and training under the demanding tutelage of Charles himself. Jamie Foxx had reportedly been doing impressions of Ray Charles for years before being cast in Taylor Hackford’s film, but in “Ray” he nailed every facet of Charles’s gait, cadence, and electrifying stage presence. Next
WORST 20th CENTURY ICON
John Goodman, “The Babe” (1992)
Widely considered one of the worst baseball movies of all time, John Goodman suffers the same cruel fate of lesser actors like Tom Selleck, Corbin Bernsen, and Freddie Prinze Jr: string players all on their respective Titanics. But it takes a true bumbling virtuosity to turn the beloved “Bambino” into a boozy, maladorous, more tempestous version of The Donald. Goodman — betrayed by the incompetence of screenwriter John Fusco — depicts America’s first PR darling, “The Sultan of Swat,” as a cigar-chomping lout with absolutely zero social graces. “The Babe” is a nightmare of a movie, something akin to watching your childhood hero thrash in the battered last throes of his career. Back to the beginning
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