It’s often said that biopics are nothing more than “Oscar bait” for the actors involved, but the great ones are so much better than that, and baiting Oscar for one doesn’t always work, anyway. So whether you watch them for the history or the performances, here is a list of some of our favorite biopics.
2023’s Golda didn’t get the best reviews when it was released, except for Helen Mirren‘s spectacular performance as the titular Golda Mier. Mirren is unrecognizable in the role, both due to the incredible work by the makeup department, and her acting. It also gives a good history lesson, which isn’t always the case with biopics.
Robert Downey, Jr. had an infamously rough decade in the 1990s, but it started with a bang, as he starred as the legendary Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. Downey nailed the role, even learning how to play tennis left-handed for the part. It was the first real glimpse at Downey’s range as an actor and it earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
What’s Love Got To Do With It
The life of the late, great Tina Turner is one of heartbreak and triumph. The film based on it, What’s Love Got To Do With It, succeeds in showing both sides. Angela Bassett‘s performance as Turner leaves audiences stunned as she just crushes every aspect of the role, from the hard-to-watch personal moments with Turner’s ex-husband Ike, to those moments on stage where she was second to none.
Amadeus, starring F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri and Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is just a wonderful movie. Director Milos Foreman and the actors, playing rival composers in 18th century Austria were clearly having a good time filming this movie, but where it needs to be serious, it is. It’s no surprise it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Abraham.
Winning eight Oscars is a good sign of a great movie, and Gandhi is an epic one. Ben Kingsley might be a controversial choice to play India’s most important historical figure, but he just crushes the role, winning an Oscar for his portrayal of the celebrated pacifist. The film also won Best Picture and Best Director for Sir Richard Attenborough.
Anyone in Gen X knows the story of I, Tonya by heart. The names Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, Jeff Gillooly, and Shawn Eckardt are part of the cultural zeitgeist. Knowing the story doesn’t make the movie less enjoyable, though. In fact, just the opposite. Learning Harding’s story from the beginning brings new understanding and compassion for the figure skater at the center of the movie. Margot Robbie is fantastic as well, earning an Oscar nomination in the process.
Denzel Washington is powerful as Malcolm X in Spike Lee‘s Malcolm X. The film was a major cultural moment when it was released in 1992. Critics praised both Washington’s performance and Lee’s direction, and the film has gone a long way to present Malcolm X’s full character and not just the firebrand he’s most known as.
Salma Hayak made a lot of believers out of audiences with her spot-on portrayal of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It’s fair to say Hayak wasn’t given the respect she deserved as an actress before the film, but she would never be doubted after it. In fact, the whole cast is great.
At the heart of Milk are the two amazing performances by Sean Penn (Harvey Milk) and Josh Brolin (as Milk’s killer Dan White). If ever there was a person worthy of a biopic, it was Harvey Milk, the politician and gay activist who was murdered while serving in the local San Francisco government. His story was almost untold in society and this movie changed that.
Sophia Coppola’s 2023 biopic, Priscilla, about Priscilla Presley, is a rarity, in that it’s about the woman behind the man. Her marriage to Elvis was always in the news, but rarely was it from any perspective other than his. Finally, fans were able to see it from Priscilla’s side, and it makes the marriage all the more fascinating.
Lawrence Of Arabia
Lawrence Of Arabia may play fast and loose with the facts regarding T.E. Lawrence’s life, but there’s no way to make a list like this without including one of the greatest movies of all time. Volumes have been written about the movie, so we’ll just say, if you’ve never watched it, you should. All three hours and 38 minutes of it. You won’t regret it.
What can one say about Robert De Niro‘s performance in Raging Bull? It’s one of the greatest roles of all time. Of course, he won the Academy Award, and of course, it’ll be remembered forever, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of how good it really is. He lost weight, he gained weight, and he did everything he could to make Jake LaMotta the role of a lifetime.
Audiences get three for the price of one with 2016’s Hidden Figures. The movie tells the little-known story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and the work they did for NASA.
Put simply, Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant in Capote. He captures the mannerisms and voice of the author perfectly and really, one could just watch B-roll of Hoffman in character and be mesmerized. The role earned him a well-deserved Oscar and the rest of the cast and the story itself are just as good.
It’s always a little hard to watch biopics of people who are still living and have lots and lots of actual film footage of themselves. Rocketman is one such case. Taron Egerton’s award-winning performance as the legendary Elton John is still worth a watch, plus, the movie is just a ton of fun, even if it doesn’t get all the facts correct.
Leave it to Baz Luhrmann to re-invent how to make a biopic. Elvis is like no other biography before it. Part musical, part music video, and part biography, the movie is, luckily, grounded in Austin Butler’s fantastic performance as Elvis Presley. Even if Luhrmann’s style isn’t your bag, it’s worth a watch for Butler alone.
Erin Brockovich is proof positive the subject of a biopic doesn’t need to be famous. Julia Roberts is a powerhouse as the titular character in maybe the best performance of her career.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Jennifer Lopez wasn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet. In fact, it was 1997’s Selena that really launched her career into superstardom. She’s magnificent in the movie about the Tejano star who was tragically murdered at the height of her fame. Lopez is perfect in the role, playing a singer who dazzled her legions of fans, just like JLo herself does.
Bohemian Rhapsody, about Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and Queen, isn’t a perfect movie. It gets a lot of the facts wrong, and outside of Mercury, we don’t learn much about the rest of the band. Still, Malek’s performance is amazing, and it makes sense why they chose to end the movie with the legendary LiveAid performance, even if it meant changing some of the facts.
Coal Miner’s Daughter
1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter has a stacked cast. Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm, and Beverly D’Angelo all put in great work here, but they are all outshined by Sissy Spacek in the lead role, playing country music legend Loretta Lynn. Based on Lynn’s autobiography, it tells the story of how she rose from desperate poverty in rural Kentucky to the biggest stages in the world, and it’s a wonderful, bittersweet, triumphant ride.
Jamie Foxx is transcendent as Ray Charles in Ray. Foxx won all the awards. Literally all of them, becoming just the second actor to win the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Oscar, The SAG Award, and the Critics Choice Award for his performance. In a word, it’s brilliant. It’s rare for a performance of a person audiences are so familiar with, as they were with Charles, to work so well, but that’s how good Foxx is.
The Iron Lady
It’s not hard to believe that Meryl Streep would put in one of her best performances playing a historical figure as she does with Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. For fans of political history, this movie is a much watch on either side of the Atlantic. Streep plays the former Prime Minister exactly how you’d want, with power and grace and even if you disagree with her politics, you can’t deny her story is amazing.
No one in Hollywood history has been better suited to play the mercurial Howard Hughes than Leonardo DiCaprio is, and he proves it in The Aviator. From young movie producer to a hot shot pilot to a mentally ill old man, DiCaprio hits all the right notes as Hughes through his life.
The biggest criticism of Elizabeth is that the historical facts are a jumbled-up mess and that’s fair. The timeline is all over the place, for starters, but sometimes good storytelling requires a… re-imagining of events, as it were. Elizabeth is great storytelling, with Cate Blanchett playing the titular queen so well, we can look the other way a little bit here.
The best aspect of Notorious is not that it’s about the Notorious B.I.G., but that it’s more about Christopher Wallace, the man who would become Biggie. It’s been rightfully praised for focusing more on the man behind the persona, than the persona itself. Jamal Woolard is great, as is the supporting cast, including Angela Bassett as Wallace’s mother, and Anthony Mackie as Tupac Shakur.
Gorillas In The Mist
Gorillas in the Mist is as triumphant and tragic as its subject’s life. Dian Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver, who won the Best Actress Oscar for the role, did more to save the gorillas in Rwanda than any other single person, and for that, she was likely murdered. Her murder remains an unsolved mystery, but there is no mystery as to why Gorillas in the Mist is worthy of this list.
Like so many other films on this list, Judy is anchored by a career-defining performance by Renee Zellweger as the iconic Judy Garland. The film’s structure is brilliant as well, allowing audiences into the tragic last year of Garland’s life while celebrating all the great moments of her career when she was younger.
Val Kilmer completely transforms himself into Jim Morrison in The Doors. Watching the movie, audiences get lost in the performance, completely unable to separate the performer from his part. The rest of the cast, led by Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley, and Kevin Dillon are also amazing, plus Crispin Glover’s turn as Andy Warhol leaves one giddy.
Walk The Line
Walk The Line is ostensively about Johnny Cash, but it’s just as much about June Carter Cash as it is about her husband. Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix were both nominated for their roles, but only Witherspoon won, because as good as Phoenix is – and he’s fantastic – Witherspoon is stone-cold brilliant.
Natalie Portman racked up the award nominations for her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie and with good reason. Her performance features the highs and lows of Kennedy’s life as first lady, and is wonderful. It would be so easy for this one to fall into a trap of knowing too much about the subject going in, and though we all do, the movie still works brilliantly.
Even 80 or so years after World War II ended, General George S. Patton is still a controversial figure. Actor George C. Scott weaves a wonderful performance as the famous general in Patton, just as anyone would want. You understand why he was great, but you see all the flaws that made him so polarizing. It’s a hard line to walk, but Scott does it well.
When you watch a performance like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, it’s easy to understand why the actor decided to retire. He so encompasses the role, it has to be completely exhausting, just as Abraham Lincoln was exhausted toward the end of the Civil War, as the movie shows. The film can be slow at times, but the history is spot on and the acting is amazing.
Biopics are reliably great opportunities for actors to win awards, but that’s not the only reason we love them, and these movies prove that they are more than just the performances.