- Published Date
- by Frank Wilkins
Hollywood has always found a path to cinematic greatness hidden beneath the often untold stories of real-life people. Whether celebrities, athletes, historical figures or just ordinary folk like you and me, everyone's got a story to tell. And following is a list of the best Biographical movies (biopics) of all time… in no particular order.
If you don't find your own favorite on the list, let others know about it in the comments section at the end of the article.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - David Lean directs Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence, who blazed his way to glory in the Arabian desert, then sought anonymity as a common soldier under an assumed name. His actions almost single-handedly helped destroy the Ottoman Empire. Also stars Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, and Anthony Quinn.
Sergeant York (1941) - Gary Cooper plays Sgt. Alvin York, a simple farmer from Tennessee who, despite his conscientious objections to fighting in WWI, ends up becoming a true war hero by capturing over a hundred armed German soldiers.
Capote (2005) - Philip Seymour Hoffman plays author Truman Capote during the period of time he researched the murders of a Kansas family. His research eventually led to him not only writing In Cold Blood, but also falling in love with one of the killers.
What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993) - Tina Turner's rocky rise to stardom with Ike Turner comes to life in this 1993 biopic named after one of the solo artist's biggest hits. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne star as the abusive musical couple.
Goodfellas (1990) - Ray Liotta stars as Irish-Italian-American Henry Hill, a petty crook who eventually worked his way up through the Italian Mafia hierarchy, only to bring it down as an informant for the FBI. Directed by Martin Scorcese and won one Oscar amongst six Academy Award nominations.
The Social Network (2010) - The fascinating story of how Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg founded one of the biggest and most influential web sites on the internet, the social-networking site, Facebook. Stars Jesse Eisenberg as the abrasive entrepreneur.
Braveheart (1995) - Mel Gibson stars as Scottish commoner William Wallace, who unites the 13th century Scots in a quest to overthrow English rule headed by Edward the Longshanks. The story has been mythologized throughout the years, but it's impact can't be denied. "Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!"
The Queen (2006) - Helen Mirren stars in this intimate portrait of HRM Queen Elizabeth II who, following the death of Princess Diana, must reach a compromise between what was a private tragedy for the royal family and the people's demand for a public mourning.
Erin Brockovich (2000) - Julia Robert's plays the titular singular mother who, as a law office employee, uncovers an environmental disaster so devastating, it would lead to one of the biggest class-action lawsuits in American legal history. Roberts won a best acting Oscar for her depiction.
Raging Bull (1980) - Robert DeNiro is Jake LaMotta, the hot-headed prizefighter who had trouble treating his family and friends differently than he did his opponents in the ring. One of the best sports movie of all time too.
The Hurricane (1999) - The story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (Denzel Washington) a boxer who was wrongfully accused and imprisoned for a murder he supposedly didn't commit. The boxer comes up against numerous racial obstacles in his struggle to clear his name.
Catch Me if You Can (2002) - Steven Spielberg directs Leonardo DiCaprio in this captivating story of Frank Abignale, Jr., a young con artist who successfully impersonated an airline pilot, doctor, assistant attorney general and history professor, while cashing more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in 26 different countries.
The King's Speech (2010) - Colin Firth is King George VI whose ascension to the throne during WWII strengthened the resolve of a weary nation on the brink of war. Geoffrey Rush is the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarchy with a speech impediment become worthy of the crown.
The Insider (1999) - About how a tobacco chemist turned whistle blower by appearing on 60 Minutes to expose big tobacco's dirty little secret. Directed by Michael Mann and stars Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. The film garnered 7 Academy Award nominations.
Schindler's List (1993) - Liam Neeson portrays Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who turns his factory into a refuge during Nazi rule, and saves nearly 1100 Jews from the gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. Spielberg directs.
Gorillas in the Mist (1988) - The story of Dian Fossey, a scientist who went to Africa in 1963 to study the great Gorilla population, and later fought to protect it from ruin by poachers. Sigourney Weaver stars as Fossey.
127 Hours (2010) - The true story of Mountain climber Aron Ralston who got trapped when a boulder became dislodged and pinned his right forearm to the canyon wall. After the titular amount of time, dehydrated, and desperate, Ralston resorted to the nearly unthinkable to free himself - imagine what a raccoon might do if caught in an iron leg trap. James Franco is brilliant in this one man setting.
Patton (1970) - George C. Scott plays the famous tank commander of WWII who garnered fear and respect from the Germans during his military career in the deserts of North Africa. Scott won an Oscar for his performance in Patton but refused to accept it, claiming competition between actors was unfair and a "meet parade."
Grizzly Man (2005) - If you haven't seen this devastating and heartrending docudrama of grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell… what are you waiting for? The film was created by documentarian Werner Herzog who accessed more than one hundred hours of footage to assemble this captivating but odd little piece of work. "Oh my gosh! The bear, Miss Chocolate, has left me her poop! It's her crap! It was just in her butt and it's still warm! This is a gift from Miss Chocolate! "
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) - Diane Lane is Evelyn Ryan who provided for her 10 children by participating in jingle-writing contests and slogan sweepstakes that were all the rage in the '50s and '60s. Woody Harrelson is great also as the drunken and abusive father.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) - Mel Gibson's passion project focuses on the last 12 hours of Jesus of Nazareth's life, starting with his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane to his eventual crucifixion at Golgotha by the Romans. The dialogue is spoken in Latin and Aramaic but subtitled in English. James Caviezel is Jesus.
Finding Neverland (2004) - Johnny Depp plays British playwright J.M. Barrie whose experiences with four young fatherless children in circa 1900 London, inspired him to write the famous children's classic, Peter Pan.
Into the Wild (2007) - The story of Emory University student Christopher McCandless who quit school, abandoned his possessions and worldly goods before hitchhiking to Native Alaska to live in the wilderness. Things didn't quite work out so well, however. Also contains a brilliant score by Eddie Vedder.
The Aviator (2004) - An epic scale biopic directed by Martin Scorcesse that centers on the life of obsessive-compulsive aviation pioneer and millionaire inventor Howard Hughes. The film covers the period of the 1920s up to 1947, during which time Hughes had become a successful film producer and aviation magnate. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes while Cate Blanchett depicts Katharine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsale is Ava Gardner.
Malcolm X (1992) - A Spike Lee Joint. The controversial biography of the famous African American leader and Nation of Islam founder, Malcolm X. Denzel Washington is so good here he received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
Gandhi (1982) - The biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the lawyer who became the famed leader of the Indian revolts against the British through his philosophy of non-violent protest. Sir Richard Attenborough directs Ben Kingsley. The film won 8 Oscars including Best Actor, best director, best cinematography, and even best picture.
Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) - The true story of Elle Magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body. The only thing that isn't paralyzed is his left eye. But he doesn't let that stop him from writing a novel. French-language film directed by Julian Schnabel.
Milk (2008) - Sean Penn is Harvey Milk, who gained focus in his life in the '70s as a gay activist. Milk would eventually go on to become the first openly gay man in the United States to be elected to political office when he won a San Francisco supervisor seat in 1977.
Cinderella Man (2005) - The story of Jim Braddock, a believed washed up boxer who would go on to eventually become a champion and an inspiration to millions ruined by the Great Depression in 1930s America. Russell Crowe stars in this terrific sports thriller directed by Ron Howard.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) - Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway immortalize their fame in this 1967 romanticized depiction of the notoriously violent bank robbing couple and their gang. Arthur Penn directs this film that garnered no fewer than 10 Oscar nominations with 2 wins.
The Straight Story (1999) - Sissy Spacek and Richard Farnsworth star in this lovely depiction of a poor 73-year-old farmer who rides his tractor from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin… because he didn't have a car… just to visit his ill brother. Surprisingly directed by David Lynch.
Crumb (1994) - A stream of consciousness documentary that chronicles the life of eccentric cartoonist/artist Robert Crumb, most recognized for his Keep on Truckin' and Fritz the Cat characters. Crumb was also largely responsible for pioneering the underground commix movement of the day.
Shine (1996) - Geoffrey Rush immerses himself in the role of Australian pianist David Helfgott. The film tells the story, in flashback, of the troubled man who grows up from child prodigy in a household of abuse to eventual concert pianist. Scott Hicks directs this film that received seven Oscar nominations and one Academy Award win for Rush as lead actor.
American Splendor (2003) - Another comic book artist gets the love, this time in the form of Harvey Pekar whose friendship with Robert Crumb would eventually lead to the founding of the self-published underground comic book, American Splendor. Paul Giamatti plays the eccentric artist.
Ray (2005) - Jamie Foxx lovingly depicts the life and career of legendary blues singer and pianist Ray Charles, who lost his eyesight at an early age then went on to become an American treasure and an international phenomenon. The real Charles was able to preview an early edit of the film before he died of liver failure on June 10, 2004. The film won 2 Oscars including a Best Actor win for Foxx.
Walk the Line (2005) - Another American musician gets the biopic treatment, this time it's Joaquin Phoenix as country music legend, Johnny Cash who grew up poor on an Arkansas cotton farm before going on to find fame and fortune in the country music recording business. Reese Witherspoon is also brilliant as Cash's wife and fellow musician June Carter-Cash.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) - Mostly idealized depiction of abrasive Strip club owner and Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt who eventually turned his sights to the American constitution when he waged a battle to protect the freedom of speech for all people. Woody Harrelson portrays Flynt, but Courtney Love's depiction of his wife, Althea Flynt nearly steals the show.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) - An odd little documentary biopic about Daniel Johnston, a manic-depressive genius songwriter/singer/artist who found a fleeting bit of fame through a 1995 performance on the MTV program, The Cutting Edge. Many don't believe in the talents of Johnston and consider him a true-life hack, but the effectiveness of the film can't be denied.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989) - Tom Cruise stars as Vietnam vet Ron Kovic who became an anti-war and pro-human rights activist after feeling abandoned by his country upon his return to America after fighting in the Vietnam war. Won a best director Oscar for Oliver Stone and a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Tom Cruise.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942) - The story of baseball player Lou Gehrig who after playing in 2130 consecutive games, eventually falls victim to ALS (a deadly nerve degeneration disease which bears his name) at age 37. The biopic follows the New York Yankee from his childhood in New York up to his famous "luckiest man alive" farewell speech in 1939. Gary Cooper plays Henry Luis "Lou" Gehrig while Babe Ruth depicts himself.
Monster (2003) - The dark film is based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, one of America's first female serial killers. After falling into a life a prostitution at the tender age of thirteen, Wuornos would eventually move to Florida where she turned the tables on the lifestyle by killing her customers. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her leading role in the film.
Boys Don't Cry (1999) - Hilary Swank won a Best Actress Oscar for her depiction of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen posing as a man in a small Nebraska town. Little did she know, small town Americans aren't too keen on being fooled in that way. Also stars Chloe Sevigny and Peter Sarsgaard.
Lincoln (2012) - While it’s still too early to determine exactly where Lincoln might land in the expansive Spielberg oeuvre, the fact remains that he pulled off something quite magical here by capturing not only the gripping nature of democracy’s greatest battle AND making Lincoln, the man, feel alive.