Our 50 favourite biopics

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Diana, Lovelace, Jobs... it seems not a week goes by when there isn’t another famous face, in make-up and wig, attempting to depict, well, another famous face.

From Charlize Theron’s trailer-trash turn in Monster to a stammering Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, the biopic genre can often equal Oscar gold for an actor. And rightly so, as many of the greatest movies ever made go beyond what we think we know to tell the stories of some of history’s most interesting, and infamous, characters.

In celebration of this lofty movie genre, we select our 50 favourites - prepare for the most entertaining history lesson you’ve ever had...

Words: Tamsin Crimmens, Photos: Rex Features

  • Citizen Kane (1941)

    Frequently cited as the finest American film ever made, Orson Wells’ first feature film, (which he directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in) is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, an aging newspaper magnate.

  • Ray (2004)

    Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his portrayal of legendary R&B musician Ray Charles, who was given a Braille copy of the script before filming began and only asked for a few minor changes.

  • Frida (2002)

    Salma Hayek’s moving performance as famous painter Frida Kahlo won plaudits from critics in this imaginative film that plays with the bounds of realism by incorporating Kahlo’s vivid dreams into the depiction of her life.

  • I’m Not There (2007)

    Anything but predictable, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale all play different aspects of folk legend Bob Dylan’s chameleonic character in this film which the elusive singer even granted permission to use his music in.

  • Coco Before Chanel (2009)

    Based on the Chanel biography L'Irrégulière or The Nonconformist, Audrey Tautou plays Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who rose from poverty in rural France to become an icon and ruler of a fashion empire.

  • Milk (2008)

    Oscar-winner Sean Penn gives a heart-and-soul performance as Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official. Led by director Gus Van Sant, the film-makers were so concerned with capturing the feel of 70s San Francisco, they even bought a shop once owned by Milk to shoot in.

  • Ali (2001)

    Directed by Michael Mann, Will Smith gained 35 pounds to play one of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammed Ali in a story of the boxer’s clashes with the American government over the Vietnam war and legendary comeback fight with George Foreman.

  • Goodfellas (1990)

    Telling the true story of New York gangster Henry Hill, Scorsese’s crime thriller is as authentic as biopics come. Immersing you as it does into Hill’s life, the film makes it hard not to like the protagonist, despite his villainous ways.

  • The Elephant Man (1980)

    Based on Victorian surgeon Frederick Treves’s book about his severely disfigured patient John Merrick, David Lynch’s black and white film melds history and art to tell the true story of the rise and fall of “The Elephant Man”.

  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

    Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film depicts the trial and execution of France’s most famous martyr. Lead actress Maria Falconetti’s haunting portrayal of Joan’s suffering makes this a favourite with critics.

  • A Mighty Heart (2007)

    Mariane Pearl, the pregnant wife of journalist Daniel Pearl who, in 2002 was abducted by militants in Karachi, personally chose Angelina Jolie to portray her, telling Time, "I asked her to play the role - even though she is way more beautiful than I am - because I felt a real kinship to her.”

  • Capote (2004)

    Philip Seymour Hoffman proved once again that drastically changing your appearance - he lost 40 pounds to play infamous author Truman Capote - wins Oscars. Based on the savage murder of a family that led to his breakthrough book, In Cold Blood, the film sees Capote befriend the two men awaiting execution for the crime.

  • The Social Network (2010)

    You’d be forgiven for not thinking too highly of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s social skills (oh the irony!) after watching this film which chronicles the rise of social media.

  • Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

    Part drama, part biography and part musical, the story of Loretta Webb Lynn, the dirt-poor kid from Kentucky who became a country music star, set the bar high for musical biopics to come.

  • Schindler’s List (1993)

    They don’t come much more moving or inspiring than Steven Spielberg’s monochrome telling of the story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s rescue of more than 1,200 Jews from the Nazi death camps. Liam Neeson’s “I could have got more out” speech has since gone down in film history.

  • Walk the Line (2005)

    Joaquin Phoenix gave a memorable performance as country music legend Johnny Cash in Walk the Line but it was Reese Witherspoon who won an Academy Award for her performance as his wife June Carter, performing all of her own singing in the film.

  • My Left Foot (1989)

    Daniel Day Lewis brings his method acting chops to play Christy Brown, an Irish painter and writer who was born with severe cerebral palsy.

  • Monster (2003)

    Charlize Theron got her ugly on - gaining 30 pounds and being lathered in latex make-up - to play prostitute turned serial killer Aileen Wuornos in this unsettling story of a deranged mind. The trailer-trash look paid off though, as it led to a well-deserved Oscar for the actress.

  • The Aviator (2004)

    Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of famous businessman and aviator Howard Hughes captures another side of the man at his lowest, during Hughes’ anxiety-ridden battles with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

  • La Vie en Rose (2007)

    Marion Cotillard was widely praised for her moving performance as French icon and singer Édith Piaf, going on to win the Best Actress Oscar - the first time it had been awarded for a French language film.

  • The King’s Speech (2010)

    The story of how King George VI overcame his speech impediment, with the help of a speech therapist named Lionel Logue, stormed the Oscars, cemented Colin Firth as one of the best actors of a generation, and proved we can’t get enough of stories about the royals.

  • Malcolm X (1992)

    Controversial director Spike Lee directed Denzel Washington as the eponymous black nationalist in this weighty biopic. Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, it follows his path from petty criminal to mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam.

  • Gandhi (1982)

    Richard Attenborough’s eight-time Oscar-winning film takes over three hours to tell the story of the man that lead India to its independence from Great Britain in 1947. It’s worth it though, for the all-star cast that includes Ben Kingsley, Daniel Day-Lewis and Martin Sheen and beautiful cinematography.

  • Raging Bull (1980)

    Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull sees Robert De Niro physically transform into self-destructive, obsessive and jealous boxer Jake LaMotta in a film regarded as one of the greatest ever made.

  • Evita (1996)

    "Don't cry for me, Argentina" sang Madonna in this musical adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice biopic. Antonio Banderas narrates the story of Eva Duarte’s rise to power as Argentina’s spiritual leader, over the course of which she changes costumes a staggering 85 times - setting a new Guinness World Record.

  • Wilde (1997)

    Stephen Fry was simply born to play the literary genius and controversial homosexual writer Oscar Wilde. Based on Richard Ellmann’s well-respected biography, the film goes through the legendary wit’s struggles with what he considered his sins and tragic affair with (a perfectly cast) Jude Law as his beautiful and bratty lover.

  • Iris (2001)

    Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent deliver subtle performances as Irish writer Iris Murdoch and her beloved husband John Bayley, as she battles against Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Hunger (2008)

    A former inmate of imprisoned IRA member Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), who, in 1981, led a hunger strike which resulted in nine deaths, said of director Steve McQueen’s disturbing film, “Everything was pretty accurate, the conditions, the beatings, the grimness of the blocks. It brought it all back...”

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

    Considered a cinematic masterpiece, David Lean’s historical epic won seven Academy Awards for its telling of the story of TE Lawrence, the enigmatic British army officer who battles conflicted loyalties during his World War I service in Arabia.

  • Erin Brockovich (2000)

    Julia Roberts donned some interesting outfits for her performance as a tenacious single mother of three turned legal eagle. It paid off as she won the Oscar and inspired a generation with the true story of the titular heroine who helped win the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit.

  • Chaplin (1992)

    Silent film legend Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine played her own grandmother in some of the most poignant scenes from Richard Attenborough's charming biopic. But it’s undoubtably Robert Downey Junior’s film and, despite his struggles with drug addiction, he gives a career-defining performance.

  • Cleopatra (1963)

    A film notorious for its epic budget and overblown sets, Elizabeth Talyor plays the Egyptian queen opposite Richard Burton as Marc Anthony, the pair causing a scandal when they left their spouses to begin a heated affair.

  • My Week With Marilyn (2011)

    Michelle Williams is Marilyn Monroe in this Simon Curtis directed film which focuses on the troubled actress’s relationships, most notably Sir Lawrence Olivier as he attempts to direct her in The Prince and the Showgirl.

  • Ed Wood (1994)

    Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as ridiculed cult film-maker Ed Wood, this black and white film features an Oscar-winning performance from Martin Landau, who plays an aging, morphine-addicted Hollywood has-been.

  • Nixon (1995)

    Oliver Stone directs Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced president whose corruption led to the Watergate scandal that rocked America. The Nixon family weren’t too happy about it, claiming it defamed the ex-President in the minds of the American public.

  • Veronica Guerin (2003)

    The story of fearless Dublin journalist Veronica Guerin, played by Cate Blanchett, whose investigation into the drug trade in the city’s sink estates led to her murder in 1996.

  • Nowhere Boy (2009)

    Artist-turned-director Sam Taylor Wood famously fell in love with the actor playing a young John Lennon in her film which turns a lens on the musician’s adolescence and relationship with his stern aunt Mimi and exciting but absentee mother Julia.

  • Finding Neverland (2004)

    While it may not be perfectly accurate, this moving drama about the origins of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan character is full of imagination and sees Johnny Depp perfectly cast - with the actor even delivering a convincing Scottish accent.

  • Man On The Moon (1999)

    Jim Carrey wowed the critics with his manic energy playing surreal comedian and star of hit sitcom Taxi, whose bizarre antics led many to believe he faked his own death.

  • The Pianist (2002)

    A disturbingly authentic film from controversial director Roman Polanski based on the memoirs of holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, Adrien Brody won an Oscar for his starring performance.

  • Elizabeth (1998)

    Cate Blanchett is literally the queen of biopics, delivering a multi-faceted interpretation of the Virgin Queen who, in this film, isn’t so virginal at all, implying as it does that Elizabeth had an affair with nobleman Robert Dudley.

  • A Beautiful Mind (2001)

    An Oscar magnet, the film based on the life of brilliant mathematician John Forbes Nash, sees Russell Crowe play the gifted yet troubled genius as he struggles with mental illness. However good the film is, it’s nevertheless almost entirely fabricated.

  • The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

    Oscar-winning Australian Geoffrey Rush played the British comedy actor as a tormented genius in a physically skilled performance, leading Pink Panther director Blake Edwards to endorse Rush’s performance as the best he'd ever seen.

  • Lincoln (2012)

    Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the American president as he struggled on the battlefield and with the political establishment on the emancipation of the slaves.

  • Patton (1970)

    An American classic, Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for this seven-time Oscar-winning film which tells the story of controversial US general, George S Patton, opening with an iconic scene where he delivers a pep-talk to an unseen audience of troops in front of a huge American flag.

  • The Hurricane (1999)

    Hate put him in prison but love's gonna bust him out!

    Denzel Washington plays wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter in this hard-hitting drama that uses Bob Dylan's song, Hurricane, which he wrote in support of the fighter.

  • Donnie Brasco (1997)

    Johnny Depp stars as FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, who infiltrated the higher ranks of the Mafia by befriending Al Pacino’s mob hit-man.

  • The Doors (1991)

    Val Kilmer's portrayal of wild man Jim Morrison as a booze-hound in Oliver Stone’s film understandably attracted criticism from the three surviving members of the band. But the 'Lizard King' really did show the audience 'lil Jim Morrison on stage, so maybe Oliver’s depiction isn’t so far off, after all.

  • The Last Emperor (1987)

    Offering a subtle lesson in history, The Last Emperor tells the true story of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last ruler of the Chinese Ching Dynasty and swept the board at the Academy Awards, winning nine Oscars.

  • Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll (2010)

    A dedicated method actor and self-confessed Ian Dury fan, Andy Serkis spent months preparing for his role playing the flamboyant frontman but, when he met his hero in a restaurant admitted he found him "obnoxious...he slagged everybody off and was just an arse.”

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