POSTED July 8 2013

Can an artist biopic itself be a work of art?

Charles Laughton as Rembrandt.

Charles Laughton as Rembrandt.

Rewatching some of my favorite biopics as I gear up to host “Portrait of the Artist,” a Wednesday-night series this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

One of the paradoxes about Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt (1936) is that while it is factually wrong on many counts (the painter neither had a falling out with the subjects of The Night Watch nor was he a peasant, as the film suggests), it is so emotionally right. This is largely due Charles Laughton’s stunning performance (one that his biographer, actor Simon Callow, ranks as his best) and because art director Vincent Korda (the director’s brother) and cinematographer Georges Perinal imagine 17th century Holland in terms of its art. The establishing shots reference Brueghel, de Hooch and Vermeer and the closeups look like Rembrandts, lit with his partial lighting that clarifies certain features and leaves others mysterious.

Do you have a favorite artist biopic? What and why?


  1. Not many people would regard Hannah Arendt as an artist, but for me part of what made her special was her grasp of aesthetics as well as ethics and politics–what one might even call the art of her writing–and von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt is a whole lot better than I could have expected. Speaking as someone who’s followed that part of her life fairly closely (and had the privilege of both studying with her husband and even visiting their apartment once, briefly), this is an unusually scrupulous biopic.

  2. Carrie Rickey says:

    I’m so glad you mentioned the Hannah Arendt, JR. Thanks.

  3. I don’t know why it is but it seems to me that more times than not, movies about artists end up being a bore. Peformers have given many great portrayals in biopics, but something always seems to end up lacking in movies, especially about painters and most of the time about writers. I think it’s because the crafts themselves are such solitary endeavors that they don’t really lend themselves to compelling filmmaking. That’s why so many biopics of musical performers do work because they involve the audience. The movies I’ve enjoyed best about artists and writers tend to be about fictional ones such as Scorsese’s short “Life Lessons” in New York Stories or Michael Douglas in Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

  4. Carrie Rickey says:

    Edward: I don’t disagree with what you say. I think in general that since real life (and real lives) rarely conform to the three-act structure we expect from drama) that many biopics are not shapely. Still, I’ve always been fascinated with how filmmakers approach the lives of visual artists in a visual medium.

  5. Without a doubt, Raul Ruiz’s Klimt is as artistic a biopic as the art its subject created. I could study it for hours.

  6. Ken Russell’s “Savage Messiah”

  7. Steve Elworth says:

    It is both a genre of films made according to cookie cutter rote and some very interesting films. I do have a strong weak spot for Cassavetes’s too late Blues. I love Pialat’s Van Gogh. Of course film makers love these films because they are a out creating art and this are reflexive

  8. wwolfe says:

    I’ll say “The Buddy Holly Story.” As you say about “Rembrandt,” it is “factually wrong on many counts” (it omits Norman Petty entirely, the Crickets did not almost re-form prior to Holly’s death, nor did Holly appear in concert with an orchestra in Clear Lake), but “it is so emotionally right.” Several scenes stand out in my memory: the skating rink that shifts instantly from the somnolence of “Mocking Bird Hill” to the joy of “Rockin’ Around with Olly Vee;” the response from the Apollo Theater crowd; Buddy’s kiss-off to his mis-matched hometown girlfriend (“Tell ’em ‘Boola boola'”) and his stubborn insistence to his producer on making records his way (“I’d rather shovel shit in Lubbock”). Most of all, in Gary Busey’s performance, the movie conveyed all the joy of the first rock and roll. Alongside this movie, I’d put “American Hot Wax,” with Tim McIntyre’s beautiful portrait of the doomed Alan Freed.

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