Two biopics have special resonance for Goodwin, perhaps, because they cover important eras in American history that she has written about. Having won a Pulitzer Prize for “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II,” the writer picks “Patton” as Hollywood’s best biopic.
“The film takes this character and shows his incredible pride and discipline, and how he brought the Army up to an extraordinary level,” says Goodwin. “And then it shows how he undoes himself because of those same qualities. He slaps soldiers and falls into disgrace and is made to apologize, but somehow is able to bring himself back to glory with the German siege at the end.”
Released during the height of the Vietnam War, in 1970, “Patton” thrilled the hawks but also won fans among the doves, who thought George C. Scott captured the general’s psychotic edge.
“That’s because the film made him into a human being with both sides,” Goodwin says of the movie’s broad appeal. “It was successful in creating a living human being with warts and strengths. And of course there was George C. Scott’s performance!”
The author of “Team Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” also admires Edward Zwick’s 1989 Civil War film “Glory.”
“I don’t know if it is technically a biopic, because there are fictional characters. But the film is important in its depiction of Col. Robert Gould Shaw,” she says. “Zwick did an extraordinary job of showing the exploits of the black soldiers. People didn’t know of their courage and what they had to go through to fight the battle at Fort Wagner.”
The biographer is reminded of the movie’s impact whenever she goes home to Boston: “Shaw’s monument is on Beacon Street, right across from the State House. You can see the street where the parade took place, and I always think of that scene in the movie when I go there.”
When writing her own Lincoln bio, Goodwin found herself influenced, for better or worse, by Hollywood’s most popular movie ever. “For a young girl,” she says, “there was nothing like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and when I wrote about the Civil War, scenes of that movie were still in my head, even though I’d learned how unbalanced it was to the South’s side.”
Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, of course, “became the most desired man in life. And I used to worry if I was Melanie or Scarlett,” says the writer. “I wanted to be like Scarlett but felt I was nicer than Scarlett and so I could, unfortunately, be Melanie.”
In the end, “Gone With the Wind” didn’t make Goodwin a historian. “But it did figure into my ideals of romance and the grand, epic sweep of history,” she believes.