Actresses who have braved playing iconic women from history

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Stylist Team
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Looking for a female-focused film to watch, or look forward to? Here’s some of the best feminist films that follow the stories of real-life inspirational women. 

Playing a fictional character in a major movie is a challenge, but taking on the role of a legendary historical figure takes serious courage. So a tip of the fedora to these talented thespians, who have risen to the challenge of playing titans from Hollywood and beyond.

As Michelle Williams is said to be playing teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe, we take a look at other actresses who have embodied real-life icons – from Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II to Beyoncé as Etta James.

Images: Rex Features/ Getty

  • Michelle Williams

    Actor: Michelle Williams
    Film: The Challenger 
    The story of Christa McAuliffe is regrettably a sad one. In 1985 McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, USA, won a competition against 11,000 other applicants to be part of the NASA Teacher in Space Project, becoming the first educator to become an astronaut. Tragically the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds after launch, killing McAuliffe and her six crew members.
    The AV Club reports that Michelle Williams will play the late teacher in a new film, The Challenger, which is due to start production in spring 2019, and will look at McAuliffe’s life, the year she spent training for her space mission and her death. 

  • Zendaya

    Actor: Zendaya
    Film: A White Lie
    The film, which Zendaya not only stars in but is producing too, is based on Karin Tanabe’s novel The Gilded Years. It tells the true story of Anita Hemmings, a light-skinned, African-American woman who pretended to be white so she could attend Vassar University in the 1890s, and became the first black woman to graduate there with a diploma.
    Reese Witherspoon will be producing alongside the singer, but no timescales have been released on when the film will be coming to cinemas. 

  • Cynthia Erivo

    Actor: Cynthia Erivo
    Film: Harriet
    Harriet is set to be a powerful biopic about Harriet Tubman, the famous abolitionist who escaped slavery in 1849 and became an integral part of the Underground Railroad system, eventually freeing hundreds of slaves using public transport. Erivo will star in the picture alongside Janelle Monáe. 

  • Kristen Stewart

    Actor: Kristen Stewart
    Film: Against All Enemies, release date TBC
    Kristen Stewart has been cast as American actor and activist Jean Seberg, who spent half her life in France and became heavily associated with French New Wave cinema. The movement of filmmakers of the late Fifties and early Sixties was seen as a rejection of the literary period pieces being made at that time, in favour of shining a spotlight on current social issues.

    Seberg appeared in multiple French New Wave films, including Bonjour Tristesse and Breathless and at one point was hailed ‘the best actress in Europe’.

    Against All Enemies is said to start shooting this summer and will be a political thriller. Deadline reports that the story is inspired by true events surrounding Seberg’s illegal targeting by an FBI surveillance program.

  • Gloria Steinem

    Actor: Julianne Moore

    Film: My Life on the Road, release date TBC

    Moore will star as the legendary feminist activist in upcoming biopic My Life on the Road, based on Steinem’s memoir of the same name. Julie Taymor – who previously directed Salma Hayek in Kahlo biopic Frida, and also helmed the original Broadway production of The Lion King – is set to direct, Deadline reports.

    Steinem’s autobiography tells the story of her journey to becoming one of the most prominent feminist activists in the world, from her early years as a journalist and political campaigner to her world travels and involvement in international protest movements. As well as being an Oscar-winning actress, Moore seems a good fit for the role politically: she’s a staunch liberal, pro-choice advocate and outspoken critic of gun laws in the US. 

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

    Actor: Felicity Jones

    Film: On The Basis Of Sex, release date TBC.

    Felicity Jones is set to star as legendary US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, a biopic slated to start shooting in September 2017.

    Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, and was the second female justice after Sandra Day O’Connor. The film has been in development since 2015, with Natalie Portman previously pegged for the role of Ginsburg.

    Deadline reports that the film will follow “the travels of Ginsburg as she faced numerous obstacles to her fight for equal rights throughout her career”. We’ll be watching.

  • Janis Joplin

    Actor: Michelle Williams

    Film: Janis, release date TBC

    Michelle Williams will star as iconic sixties singer Janis Joplin in an upcoming biopic directed by Sean Durkin, who also helmed Martha Marcy May Marlene.

    The film, which has been in the works for a whopping 21 years, is being produced in collaboration with the Joplin family. As a result, it has the rights to 24 of the late musician’s most loved songs, including Mercedes Benz and Me and Bobby McGee.

    Joplin began her career singing in coffee shops and went onto become one of the biggest female rock stars of the sixties. Known for her mixture of vulnerability and charisma, she died from an accidental heroin overdose in 1970.

  • Jackie Kennedy Onassis

    Actor: Natalie Portman

    Film: Jackie (2016)

    Portman was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 2017 for her turn as Jackie Kennedy. The biopic follows the former First Lady in the days following the assassination of her husband, President John F Kennedy, in 1963.

    “It’s a portrait of a woman and a particular moment in her life that affected history,” Portman told the Scotsman after the film’s release, adding: “The central story of this film is how she was able to grab hold of the narrative and really control it, which is remarkable and very ahead of her time.”

  • Jackie Kennedy Onassis

    Actor: Katie Holmes

    Film: The Kennedys (TV mini-series, 2011)

    Slightly less critically acclaimed than Jackie was Katie Holmes’ interpretation of Kennedy in TV miniseries The Kennedys. Historians questioned whether the show was accurate in how it depicted the First Family – but that didn’t stop a second series, The Kennedys: Beyond Camelot, being aired in April 2017.  

  • Maggie Thatcher

    Actor: Meryl Streep

    Film: The Iron Lady (2011)

    If anyone was up to the job of playing Britain’s most controversial prime minister, it was Meryl. She adopted a cut-glass English accent and unsettling helmet hair to play Thatcher in this acclaimed biopic.  

  • Marilyn Monroe

    Actor: Michelle Williams

    Film: My Week With Marilyn (2011)

    Williams won a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award for her turn as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, which focuses on the relationship between the legendary movie star and aspiring filmmaker Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). 

  • Wallis Simpson

    Actor: Andrea Riseborough

    Film: W.E. (2011)

    Andrea Riseborough played Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936, in this Madonna-directed period drama. The film received notably mixed reviews – but at least Riseborough got to wear some fabulous Thirties suits. 

  • Zelda Fitzgerald

    Actor: Alison Pill

    Film: Midnight In Paris (2011)

  • Joan Jett

    Actor: Kristen Stewart

    Film: The Runaways (2010)

  • Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother

    Actor: Helena Bonham Carter

    Film: The King's Speech (2010)

  • Jane Birkin

    Actor: Lucy Gordon

    Film: Gainsbourg (2010)

  • Coco Chanel

    Actor: Audrey Tautou

    Film: Coco Before Chanel (2009)

  • Amelia Earhart

    Actor: Hilary Swank

    Film: Amelia (2009)

  • Anne Boleyn

    Actor: Natalie Portman

    Film: The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

  • Etta James

    Actor: Beyonce

    Film: Cadillac Records (2008)

  • Jane Austen

    Actor: Anne Hathaway

    Film: Becoming Jane (2007)

  • Queen Elizabeth I

    Actor: Cate Blanchett

    Film: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

  • Edith Piaf

    Actor: Marion Cotillard

    Film: La Vie En Rose (2007)

  • Queen Elizabeth II

    Actor: Helen Mirren

    Film: The Queen (2006)

  • Beatrix Potter

    Actor: Renée Zellweger

    Film: Miss Potter (2006)

  • June Carter Cash

    Actor: Reese Witherspoon

    Film: Walk The Line (2005)

  • Harper Lee

    Actor: Catherine Keener

    Film: Capote (2005)

  • Bettie Page

    Actor: Gretchen Mol

    Film: The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

  • Sylvia Plath

    Actor: Gwyneth Paltrow

    Film: Sylvia (2003)

  • Wallis Simpson

    Actor: Amber Rose Sealey

    Film: Bertie and Elizabeth TV series (2002)

  • Virginia Woolf

    Actor: Nicole Kidman

    Film: The Hours (2002)

  • Iris Murdoch

    Actor: Judi Dench

    Film: Iris (2001)

  • Audrey Hepburn

    Actor: Jennifer Love Hewitt

    Film: The Audrey Hepburn Story (TV movie, 2000)

  • Gia Carangi

    Actor: Angelina Jolie

    Film: Gia (TV movie, 1998)

  • Selena Quintanilla-Perez

    Actor: Jennifer Lopez

    Film: Selena (1997)

  • Eva Perón

    Actor: Madonna

    Film: Evita (1996)

  • Marilyn Monroe

    Actor:: Mira Sorvino

    Film: Norma, Jean & Marilyn (TV movie, 1996)

  • Tina Turner

    Actor: Angela Bassett (seen here alongside Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner)

    Film: What's Love Got To Do With It? (1993)

  • Marilyn Monroe

    Actor: Susan Griffiths

    Film: Marilyn and Me (TV movie, 1991)

  • Nancy Spungen

    Actor: Chloe Webb

    Film: Sid And Nancy (1986)

  • Adventurer Baroness Karen Blixen

    Actor: Meryl Streep

    Film: Out Of Africa (1985)

  • Joan Crawford

    Actor: Faye Dunaway

    Film: Mommie Dearest (1981)

  • Loretta Lynn

    Actor: Sissy Spacek

    Film: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)

  • Jayne Mansfield

    Actor: Loni Anderson

    Film: The Jayne Mansfield Story (TV movie, 1980)

  • Bonnie Elizabeth Parker

    Actor: Faye Dunaway

    Film: Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

  • Cleopatra

    Actor: Elizabeth Taylor

    Film: Cleopatra (1963)