It’s no surprise that there is a whole subgenre of films that revolve around writers. After all, the kernel of any film comes from a screenwriter, and if you follow the proclamation of “write what you know,” it only stands to reason that they would have a unique insight into the lives of other writers. In particular, we see a multitude of biopics that detail the historical experiences of these vibrant creative forces.
From the very first biopic about a writer, “Edgar Allan Poe,” in 1909, the lives of literary figures have always been a popular topic in cinema. And with the latest offering, Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” starring Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, being released today on Hulu, it’s clear that the fascination has remained as powerful as ever.
10. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994)
dir. Alan Rudolph
In “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Dorothy Parker, famed New York satirist and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. This 1920s writers’ group (named for the hotel in New York City they would meet at) was veritable who’s who of leading literary voices of the time. The film features not only a canny performance from Leigh in the main key. Still, it has a large supporting cast, all bringing to life other key figures, including Matthew Broderick as screenwriter Charles MacArthur, Campbell Scott as humorist Robert Benchley, and Peter Gallagher as Dorothy’s husband, Alan Campbell, with whom she formed a successful screenwriting duo.
9. Bright Star (2009)
dir. Jane Campion
Directed by Jane Campion, “Bright Star” brings to life the brief romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). A dreamy, understated period drama, their relationship highlights the poignancy of Keats’ tragically short life. He published his first book of poetry at twenty-one years of age and died of tuberculosis four years later. A lot of filmmakers struggle to know how to approach biopics about people who died young, and there’s often the worry of creating a film with too much of a downer ending. Campion finds a perfect balance, aided by moving performances from Whishaw and Cornish.
8. Trumbo (2015)
dir. Jay Roach
The career of Dalton Trumbo as a Hollywood screenwriter was cut brutally short by the Red Scare and increasing anti-Communist sentiment during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Blacklisted by every Hollywood studio for his perceived Communist sympathies and refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and name names, Trumbo found himself functionally prohibited from writing films under his name anymore. Starring Bryan Cranston as the verbose, stubborn writer, and the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson, “Trumbo” casts a light on a particularly unflattering period of Hollywood history with grace and a keen sense of justice.
7. Before Night Falls (2000)
dir. Julian Schnabel
In the world of biopics about writers, the vast majority tend to focus on authors who write in the English language. “Before Night Falls” bucks this trend, with director Julian Schnabel telling the story of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban novelist, poet, and vocal critic of Fidel Castro. The film focuses on his experiences as a gay man in 1970s Cuba, during which he is arrested for coming into conflict with the communist regime, both because of his political dissent and his homosexuality, and imprisoned for two years. Arenas is played by Javier Bardem in one of his earliest English language roles, a performance that would garner him international acclaim and his first of three Academy Award nominations.
6. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
dir. William Dieterle
Nominated for ten Academy Awards (the first film to ever received double-digit nominations) and taking home the Oscar for Best Picture in 1938, “The Life of Emile Zola,” was one of the most successful biographical films of the classical Hollywood era. It stars Paul Muni as Emile Zola, a novelist who became embroiled in the Dreyfus Affair that enflamed French politics for several years at the end of the 19th century. Although this film is a classic example of Hollywood avoiding taking a hard stance on antisemitism (it’s never actually mentioned, although it played a significant role in the miscarriage of justice that defined the Dreyfus Affair), the performances are nuanced and powerful, with Joseph Schildkraut as Alfred Dreyfus winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
5. The Hours (2002)
dir. Stephen Daldry
The narrative of “The Hours” is split between three distinct storylines: a 2001 New Yorker (Meryl Streep) preparing a party for a friend with AIDS, a discontent 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore), and Virginia Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman) in the 1920s, struggling to write what would become her seminal classic, “Mrs. Dalloway.” The performances included here from the three female leads have incredible depth, with each getting their moments to shine. “The Hours” was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won Nicole Kidman an Oscar for Best Actress.
4. Wilde (1997)
dir. Brian Gilbert
Oscar Wilde was the father of untold classic witticisms, the writer of some of the best plays in all of literature, and widely regarded as a gay icon. He casts an impressive shadow in Western civilization, both for his contributions to art and his tragic downfall, dying in exile after serving two years of hard labor for the crime of “gross indecency.” Here, Stephen Fry plays Oscar Wilde during the later years of his life, embroiled in court cases and publicly ridiculed, with a tremendous amount of empathy and vulnerability.
3. Colette (2018)
dir. Wash Westmoreland
Set in late 19th century France, “Colette” allows Keira Knightley to put in another striking period performance that she has quickly become synonymous with. This time she plays Colette, the unconventional woman who rose to fame after her series of scandalous novels about a schoolgirl named Claudine took Paris by storm. But these were written under her husband’s name, himself a well-known writer and publisher, and it’s only after she reclaims them as her own that she’s able to establish herself as a truly independent entity. The film takes pains to explore not only her writing career but also her series of romantic entanglements, from her much older husband with whom she had an intellectually stimulating but deeply dysfunctional relationship to her long-term love affair with a gender-fluid aristocrat
2. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
dir. Marielle Heller
There are times in every writer’s life when they feel that their talents aren’t being fully utilized. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, in a career-defining performance) has a passion for writing obscure biographies. Still, a lack of interest from publishers and her own unyielding and irascible personality have prevented her from getting a book deal in quite some time. But rent is still due, cats still need to be taken to the vet when they’re sick, and bills have to be paid. So she embarks on a career as a forger, using her impeccable writing and research skills to compose fake letters between iconic writers. Clever, witty, and heartbreaking, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is one of the most compelling films to come out in recent years.
1. Capote (2005)
dir. Bennett Miller
Truman Capote, the writer of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” had a larger-than-life presence in the artistic community of the 1950s and 1960s. His emotional vulnerability, his Southern drawl combined with a keen intellectual mind, and his unique vocal affections – all of these things make it an incredible challenge to play him because they lend themselves particularly well to surface-level impersonations. But when you have an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman taking the reins in “Capote,” there’s nothing to worry about. He plays Capote as erratic, alternately emotionally distant, and deeply empathetic, and his performance earns him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
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