32 Best Biopic Films Hollywood Ever Made
08th April, 2020
Do you know what makes for a good movie? A perfectly well-woven story. And there's no better place for great stories than in real life. That’s what we love about biographical films (or biopics, as these films are called). They give us more than a sneak peek into the lives of the famous, the great, and the brave ones. They’re a powerful reminder of history; combine it with exceptional storytelling, and they're cinematic masterpieces. Here are some of the best biopics ever made in Hollywood, in no particular order.
The life of J. Edgar Hoover, the most powerful head of the F.B.I, is documented in this taut drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He received a nomination for a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of J.Edgar. The film follows Hoover as he looks back on his professional and personal life while building one of the world’s most formidable law enforcement agencies.
This Martin Scorsese film showcasing the early years of Howard Hughes’s career gained critical acclaim for its technical brilliance. Being the genius director that he is, Scorsese designed each year in The Aviator to look just the way a color movie from that period would look. The film is also notable for Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredible acting chops. It added another Academy Award nomination to his kitty.
The film narrates the origin story of Tonya Harding, the incredible American figure skater. She was on the brink of global stardom until everything fell apart during the Olympic trials in 1994. Margot Robbie, who played the role of Tonya, won accolades for her powerful performance. She underwent an insane amount of training under Sarah Kawahara, a renowned figure skating choreographer.
The World’s Fastest Indian
This 2005 biographical sports drama film, directed by Roger Donaldson, is based on the speed bike racer Burt Munro and his highly modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Sir Anthony Hopkins was roped in to play the role of Munro. However, not all was well during filming, as Donaldson was miffed with the actor. This was because Sir Anthony Hopkins and the director had constant clashes in the previous movie they had worked on.
This 2014 biographical flick is loosely based on Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL. He was known as the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. Steven Spielberg was roped in to direct this film; however, his vision for the movie was a screenplay of a whopping 160 pages. It was way beyond Warner Bros's budget, so Spielberg dropped out of the project, and Clint Eastwood came in to direct the movie.
Denzel Washing received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a former middleweight boxer. Carter was wrongly convicted for a triple murder. The film follows his arrest, life in incarceration, and exoneration. Did you know the movie was barely ready before it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Lenny is one of the greatest American biopics to be ever made. The film, starring Dustin Hoffman, is about the misunderstood comic Lenny Bruce. Hoffman was nominated for the Best Actor during the 1975 Academy Awards for his depiction of Lenny. Years later, Al Pacino, who was first offered the role and rejected it, said that turning it down was the only regret in his career.
The biopic on the unbeatable boxer Muhammad Ali was in development hell for over ten years. After many hiccups, it finally hit the screens in 2001. The movie focuses on Ali's career and banishment from boxing, conversion to Islam, and criticism of the Vietnam War. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
This 1973 film is based on the autobiography of Henri Charrière, a French convict. The story depicts his incarceration and dramatic escape from a penal colony in French Guiana. Henri, who was wrongfully convicted for murder, became close friends with fellow prisoner Louis Dega. Unfortunately, this camaraderie between the characters was not reflected in real life, as the actors, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, reportedly had frequent squabbles on set.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort—the notorious stockbroker who became wealthy through corruption and fraud. This Martin Scorcese film is based on the 2007 memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort. Fun fact: the iconic chest-thumping and humming scene by Mathew McConaughey in the movie was improvised.
American novelist Truman Capote received literary acclaim for his true crime novel In Cold Blood. Capote gives us a glimpse into the events in the writer’s life while he wrote this book. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who played Capote, had to lose a good deal of weight—nearly 40 pounds—for the role. The crew also had to make use of various techniques to make Hoffman resemble the physical stature of the writer.
Walk the Line
A chance appearance in an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993) was all that was needed for this 2005 flick to go on the floor. Johnny Cash, a guest star on the show, became friends with one of the stars of the show, Jane Seymour, and her husband, James Keach. The country singer casually suggested to Keach that he should make a film based on his personal life and music career.
Spike Lee put in his everything for this 1992 film, which is based on Malcolm X, an influential civil rights leader. When Warner Bros refused to put in more money, Lee contributed nearly $2 million from his $3 million worth of salary. This gave him proper control over his project. He also raised funds from his celebrity friends, including Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey.
Into the Wild
This tragic coming-of-age film narrates the story of Christopher McCandless. After he graduates from Emory University, McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is disillusioned with his privileged and comfortable life. He gives up everything and hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness. On the way, he meets people who shape his perspective toward life. The movie received critical acclaim with two Golden Globes nominations.
Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks takes a look back into author P.L. Travers’s tragic childhood. The film also pays tribute to Walt Disney and the legacy he has left behind. It follows the famed animator and film producer in his quest to obtain the rights of Travers's Mary Poppins. Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, does everything in his power to convince the writer to let him make a movie based on the book.
The Theory of Everything
Did you know that screenwriter Anthony McCarten took nearly a decade to bring the story from script to screen? McCarten became interested in Stephen Hawking’s life when he first read the book “A Brief History of Time” in 1998. It was only in 2004 that he began writing a screenplay after reading Jane Hawking’s “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”
Jamie Foxx left no stone unturned to do justice for his role as Ray, a visually impaired man who became one of the greatest musicians of all time. The actor wore silicon prosthetics over his eyes for nearly 14 hours during filming. These helped him play Charles Ray to perfection. The actor also learned Braille and spent hours learning the piano. Talk about grit!
Monster is based on Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who became a serial killer. Charlize Theron, who played the role of Wuornos, gained about 30 pounds and shaved off her eyebrows for the role. She won an Oscar for her faultless portrayal of a person with borderline and antisocial personality disorder. While the world raved about her performance, all the media cared about was how Theron could sacrifice her “pretty looks.”
12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave takes us back to the nightmarish times when slavery was still in existence. It tells the story of Solomon, a free Black man who is kidnapped and forced into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley each got an Oscar for it. But did you know that they had a tiff about sharing the screenplay credit? Although both had worked on the script, Ridley refused to share credit.
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch brilliantly portrays the life of Alan Turing, a mathematical genius who tried to crack the German Enigma code during World War II. The film recounts Turing’s time working as a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park for the British government. The movie’s title comes from a paper Turing wrote—“Computing Machinery and Intelligence”—where he poses a question, “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?”
Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her role as Erin Brockovich, a single mother who managed to bring down a power company for polluting Hinkley’s water supply. In one of the most comically unforgettable moments, she forgot to thank Erin Brockovich during her acceptance speech for the Best Actress Academy Award. The actress was quoted saying, “It doesn't bring out the Albert Einstein moment that you hoped it would." Oops?
Raging Bull is based on Jake LaMotta's stint as a boxer and how his temper set his career in motion and ruined his personal life. Martin Scorsese, the director, took an unusually long time during the post-production, as he was convinced he wouldn't be making another film. It seems like his efforts paid off when Raging Bull received critical accolades.
Martin Scorsese’s dramatization of the rise and fall of the American mobster Henry Hill is regarded as one of the greatest gangster films. The movie is notable for the spontaneous ad-libbing and improvisations. During rehearsals, Scorsese gave free rein to his actors to act however they wanted. He picked the lines he liked best and revised the script. The result? A brilliant film where the world of crime unravels.
My Left Foot
The movie tells Christy Brown's story, a person with cerebral palsy who learns to paint and write with his left foot. If there were an award for the perfect method actor, we’d give it to Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor refused to come out of character during the film's shooting. He sat in a hunched-over position in a wheelchair for weeks and ended up with two broken ribs.
The film's production team wasn't appreciated as much as they should have for replicating the epic Live Aid performance by the Queen and their lead singer, Freddie Mercury, at the Wembley Stadium. The crowd of nearly 72,000 people was re-created with highly advanced digital technology. You can barely see any repetition in the audience members. Each person in the crowd can be seen moving and clapping differently throughout the concert.
The Pursuit of Happyness
The biographical drama, starring Will Smith, focuses on Chris Gardner’s life before he became a successful businessman. Gardner and his son are evicted when the IRS seizes his bank account for unpaid income taxes. He tries to overcome his impoverished situation by taking up an unpaid internship in a stockbroker training program, hoping to secure a full-time position there. The movie employed many extras who were struggling to make ends meet in real life.
Milk is a poignant reminder of the times when the police raided gay bars and society was less accepting of the LGBTQ community. It centers around Harvey Milk's struggles as he fought for gay rights. He was the first openly gay politician elected in California. The movie was a much-anticipated one, and thousands of people agreed to be cast as extras for free. It was shot in Milk's apartment, and it made use of props that once belonged to him.
Catch Me if You Can
The real-life Frank Abagnale Jr., who swindled people out of millions of dollars with his masterful art of deception, was not enthused about Leonardo DiCaprio playing him onscreen. He thought that Leonardo was not “suave” enough to pull off the role. However, the Titanic actor aced the character of the notorious con artist and got nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama.
A Beautiful Mind
From Alec Baldwin to Ralph Fiennes, many were considered to play the role of Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash. It went to Russell Crowe, who was most famously known for playing tough-guy characters until then. He played John Nash with such finesse that the “tough-guy” won Best Actor at the BAFTA Film Awards and the Golden Globe Awards.
Nearly 1,400 actors auditioned for the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist who lived through the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of WWII. Unfortunately, Roman Polanski, the director, liked none of them. Later, he ended up meeting Adrien Brody in Paris and thought him perfect for the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman. And what a perfect choice he was, as Brody ended up bagging the Best Actor Oscar award for his role!
The movie, directed by Richard Attenborough, is based on Charlie Chaplin, one of the best comic actors of all time. Chaplin, an iconic figure in the world of cinema, rose to fame with his memorable character of The Tramp. The 1992 biopic is adapted from the actor’s autobiography that was published in 1964. Robert Downey Jr. played the role of the legend with such finesse that he received a BAFTA for it.