Remaking History: 20 Essential Biopics for Cinephiles

Take a brief trip through human history on the silver screen.

Denzel Malcom

Biopics have become a perennial part of the Hollywood machine, every bit as integral in their own way as the summer blockbuster. Every awards season there are at least a handful of films built to mine maximum emotion from real-life stories of tragedy and triumph, achievement and failure. At their worst, they’re less about a onetime human being than about the myths built around them after the fact, but at their best they offer insight into who somebody was when they were living out the events we learned about in history classes.

So, with this in mind, and with the Alan Turing profile The Imitation Game hitting wider release today, we’ve pulled together an assortment of 20 of our staff’s favorite biopics, films that offer insights of one kind or another into the history that preceded us, or in a few cases, that we remember seeing on the news. Feel free to add your own, and let’s take a brief trip through the cinematic version of real human history.

–Dominick Mayer
Film Editor

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

There is a great Catherine the Great joke from Late Night with Conan O’Brien way back in the day. It arrived in a segment called “Caine Secrets,” when Sir Michael Caine “confessed” the following: “Catherine the Great died while attempting to have a horse lowered onto her for sex. I merely sprained my back!” Now, Catherine the Great did not die trying to copulate with a horse, but the joke arose due to her promiscuous adventures after marrying into the Russian royal family. This behavior is profiled in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, starring Marlene Dietrich as the titular character.

Dietrich is more than convincing in her role as the wide-eyed innocent Sophia, who becomes the ruthless Empress Catherine. The script is full of sexual innuendo and contains a fair bit of erotic scenery on display as well, just before the Hays Code ruined the fun for Hollywood. However, it’s John Lodge’s performance as the dimwitted but dangerous Count Alexei that steals every scene he’s in. In addition to being one of the great films of the 1930s, The Scarlet Empress can also lay claim to featuring one of cinema’s most frightening villains in Alexei. His introduction is one of the eeriest you’ll ever see. A masterpiece. –Justin Gerber

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Many great actors have “become” the characters they portray. Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln. However, those of us who have seen Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees would argue that Gary Cooper doesn’t become Lou Gehrig; he is Lou Gehrig. His “luckiest man” speech in the film is as popular as Gehrig’s actual speech at Yankee Stadium back in 1939. It’s nigh impossible to imagine anyone else ever playing the role, and just saying that out loud makes me fear that Hollywood may attempt to do so. Let me move on before they catch wind.

The movie follows Gehrig’s life as a college student, his consecutive-games-played streak, falling in love, and ultimately the disease that would one day bear his name and took him too soon. It features a subtle performance from Cooper, with an ending that stops where most tragic dramas wouldn’t (well before the funeral), and also capped off a run of three consecutive Oscar nominations for Teresa Wright, who played the role of Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor. Though she wouldn’t be nominated again for the rest of her life, it isn’t as though her career tanked. Wright would go on to star in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, as well as one of the greatest post-war films of all time in The Best Years of Our Lives. And those three nominations were for her first three films. Take that, J-Law! –Justin Gerber

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

You will not find a bigger biography on film than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Sweeping vistas, luxurious music, a classically charismatic lead, a sense of rambunctious adventure and bravery … Lawrence is a triumph. As a film, it’s grand, and as a biography it’s wildly debated. Perhaps this was necessary given the larger-than-life nature of Thomas Lawrence’s stories and exploits in the Middle East. T.E. Lawrence was already a renowned officer of the British army. He was involved in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt. Yet, there’s contention about the depiction of Lawrence on screen. This is big-time stuff right here, but Lawrence’s legacy and fictionalization still gets arguments to this day.

There was a nine-inch height difference with the tall and slender Peter O’Toole. Lawrence is depicted as a man both looking for and avoiding notoriety, which is still being debated. Lean’s film ignores Lawrence’s past espionage and archeological skills, key factors in his story. Also, we couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Lawrence’s sexual orientation and how the film both withholds and explores. If you’re a Lawrence enthusiast or biographer, this will drive you nuts. In the end, that hopefully doesn’t get in the way of appreciating one of the most striking films in cinematic history, a movie that justifiably gets stuck with that “cinematic” label. It’s a film so big, they needed nine extra inches to get Lawrence right. –Blake Goble

The Miracle Worker (1962)

Helen Keller led an astounding life. She lost her vision and hearing and her voice due to scarlet fever as a small child, but it didn’t stop her from achieving great things. She was the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree who was deaf and blind. Keller fought for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and was a socialist activist. She even has a day named after her. The Miracle Worker became a sensation, an inspirational story about overcoming insurmountable odds. It storied Keller’s upbringing and struggle with being deaf and blind as a small child.

Based on Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, William Gibson’s 1957 Playhouse 90 teleplay went on to become an award-winning Arthur Penn film in 1962, with Patty Duke playing the seven-year-old Keller and Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan, the former student and teacher of the Perkins School for the Blind. The Miracle Worker was a moving, true story. Arthur Penn directed the movie with the same frank bravery for which he became known throughout the rest of his career, pulling two dynamic performances from Duke and Bancroft. The film is a tense tug-of-war between Sullivan and Keller, culminating in the heart-wrenching declaration by Sullivan, “She knows!” You really believe it. –Blake Goble

Patton (1970)

I don’t know how or why, but I didn’t see Patton until the summer of 2014. Was I intimidated by its runtime (170 minutes, plus intermission)? Was I burned out on war movies? Was I too busy writing questions about random events in my life? All of the above are likely true, but long story short, Patton deserves your attention. What better actor to portray the larger-than-life General Patton than the larger-than-life actor, the late and great George C. Scott? Although nominated several times, Patton is the one time Scott won an Oscar, though the sumbitch refused it (I say “sumbitch” in tribute to his performance, not to denigrate the man himself).

The title character was a lifer in the military and one who was not prepared to go quietly into retirement, forced or otherwise. With the aid of General Bradley (played by an equally awesome Karl Malden), Patton enjoys success and failure on the battlefield, both due to an inflated ego. The movie’s performances and director Franklin J. Schaffner’s staged battles are the standouts, not to mention that famous opening monologue delivered by Patton in front of a giant American flag. Even if you’ve never seen Patton, you’ve likely seen a shot of that sequence at some point in your life. There I go, guaranteeing something about you, whom I probably don’t know. I’m like a weaker, more frightened Patton. –Justin Gerber

Lenny (1974)

Can you imagine the inane amount of thinkpieces we’d be getting today if Lenny Bruce lived during this era, or even worse, was successful during this period of our lives? Huff Po would crash, and my Twitter feed would become even more aflutter with white knights and insufferable comments. The earth would shake, and I shudder just thinking about it. Bruce was an aggressive comedian who became largely concerned with race and politics as his drug-fuelled life raged on, a man as inappropriate as the definition goes, but almost always thought-provoking. Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the late comedian is one of Dusty’s best, and Lenny came during the heyday of his career.

After years of success as a successful director/choreographer of stage and screen, Lenny was a total departure for Bob Fosse. Gone were the elaborate song and dance routines that flooded his earlier work. This 1974 film is an actor’s showcase, with intense interplay between Hoffman and Valerie Perrine as Lenny’s stripper wife, as well as beautiful black-and-white cinematography to push the film to its core: a man on a stage with a single spotlight upon him. That’s the life of a stand-up comedian, and as Hoffman so brilliantly displays, that light shone too bright upon Lenny Bruce. One of the great films of the ‘70s. –Justin Gerber

Goodfellas (1990)

For a second there, it seemed like Henry Hill was going to be laughed at for eternity. He was funny. Funny how? Funny like he did a ton of embarrassing things beyond the obvious crime stuff. This movie’s the definitive legacy for the mob informant, and yet, Hill’s post-crime career was made of not-so-wise-guy stuff. There were the regular appearances on The Howard Stern Show, “Mob Week” appearances on AMC, multiple arrests, Italian restaurants in Nebraska with his name all over the place, and let’s not forget the potentially libelous rumors that he was sending sex tapes to the FBI as part of his “informing.” Still, all that doesn’t matter.

Goodfellas is arguably the head honcho of mobster movies. Henry Hill’s story of a man who lived the life well until he became a regular schnook is still spectacular after all these years. Leonardo DiCaprio once probably put it best by characterizing it not only as a movie on constant repeat on cable, but easily the most entertaining one on right now that you can jump right into and watch until the very end. Steadycams, Phil Spector tunes, thinly sliced garlic, gettin’ the papers, Billy Batts, “Layla,” helicopters and Nilsson, and the entire cultural minutiae of being a modern Mafioso are naturalistically chronicled in Scorsese’s masterpiece. Hill may have been a dubious crook, but he inspired some damn fine movie-making. –Blake Goble

Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X died far too young, before he could see the impact of his work. Near the end of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, the firebrand is followed with a dolly shot, contemplative, complete with a thousand-yard stare, heading to a sermon at which he knows he might get killed. Lee perfectly frames the moment, scoring the scene with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s the bitterest, most beautiful, and melancholy moment of Lee’s career. It’s an amazingly deep remembrance for Malcolm Little, later known as Malik Shabazz and historically cemented as Malcolm X.

Malcolm X is notable not only for being a comprehensive and honest-feeling biography of one of the civil rights movement’s most provocative figures, but it’s possibly Spike Lee’s most cinematic and appealing artwork. Like X’s credo, Lee made this movie by any means necessary, showing X with warts and all. Islamic radical, civil rights figurehead, eloquent and extreme preacher, transgressive SOB, possible crook: it’s all part of the Malcolm X experience, made possible by Lee’s persistence and passion. Spike played with classical Hollywood cinema in his passion project about one of his heroes, casting Denzel Washington in what’s still an all-time high in the actor’s career. Who doesn’t gripe that Washington was robbed of an Oscar for this movie to this day? –Blake Goble

What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)

You go, Tina Turner!

Brian Gibson’s Oscar-nominated What’s Love Got To Do With It is a crackerjack chronicle of Tina, Ike, their hurricane of a marriage, and the hella-good music they forced out of each other. Based on Tina Turner and Kurt Loder’s book, the biopic attempts to understand the abuse that drove their Burton/Taylor love affair, while ultimately championing Turner as the superstar and supreme talent that she was and is.

This biopic was notable not only for shedding light on the tempestuous Turners, but for serving as a watershed chronicle of domestic abuse that’s since been recognized as a calling card for empowerment and breaking free from violent homes. Tina was a powerhouse vocalist, and Ike was a jealous, petty, vicious piece of periphery, a hanger-onner that treated her terribly.

What’s Love Got to Do with It benefits both from its audacious depictions of abuse and its charged soundtrack. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne got much-deserved nominations for playing Tina and Ike, respectively. In fact, Tina was such a prized role that Bassett beat out Halle Berry, Pam Grier, Vanessa Williams, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and even Robin Givens for the spot. It’s become her signature role. –Blake Goble

Schindler’s List (1993)

As biopics go, they don’t get much more devastating than Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, his three-hour-plus portrait of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German shop owner who bribed his way into the good graces of the Nazi Party and later used those same bribes to harbor and rescue persecuted Jews during World War II. It’s an iconic film, the image of the little girl in the red coat becoming a sort of shorthand for even those who’ve never actually seen Schindler’s List in full. Neeson, as Schindler, gives the sort of performance that lingers long after the film is over, as a man rife with survivor’s guilt, a man who did bad things in order to do an ultimate good, and who was left like so many others to wish he could have given more.

The black-and-white photography, the direction, all of it is as haunting and beautiful as can be, but technical prowess is scarcely the film’s point, even if it offers it in abundance. Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s way of reaching across the past, of making sure that the millions who died so needlessly in the Holocaust are remembered for all time, even as the world slowly moves on from its atrocities. Schindler’s List takes audiences back there and demands that they remember. –Dominick Mayer

Nixon (1995)

Richard Milhouse Nixon forever demeaned Presidency in the United States. Baby boomers viewed him as a boogeyman, or just, “The Man,” sitting in the White House and plotting his next evil move. In that light, Nixon is fascinating in what it accomplishes: it humanizes one of American history’s most dubious characters. In fact, it sympathizes with the extraordinarily intelligent, insecure president. Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a long and winding road of political intrigue, completely unfiltered and preposterous. This is Stone at his most stylishly invigorating, in total control during his 3-plus-hour opus. It’s a tremendous biopic.

Stone takes his usual postulating tendencies to extremes, placing Nixon in Dallas on the day of JFK’s assassination and presenting J. Edgar Hoover and his alleged drag-favoring tendencies. Anthony Hopkins is Tricky Dick, with the sweaty upper lip, vacillating between caricature and a tragic figure. One minute he’s firing the administration and drinking heavily in front of a fireplace alone in the dark. The next, he’s openly resenting how people viewed Kennedy as a hero and Nixon as a sad mirror.

“They look at you, they see what they wanna be. They look at me, they see what they are,” Nixon opines in front of Kennedy’s White House portrait. It’s shocking in how it elicits sadness and how it shows such tainted promise in the man. Nixon’s certainly among the most ambitious and freewheeling biopics out there, and Nixon is given the full and fair treatment. –Blake Goble

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

If you didn’t know the full story of Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank) when you sat down to watch Boys Don’t Cry, did you think you were going to discover a film about the triumph of the human spirit? Maybe you thought Brandon would somehow be accepted in a place where homosexuality or any other non-normative sexualities are considered taboo and blasphemous. And for a while it seems that way, especially after a romance between Brandon and Lana (Chloë Sevigny) begins to blossom. But what awaits Brandon is awful, heartbreaking, and very difficult to watch, even 15 years later.

Everyone is absolutely on point in director Kimberly Peirce’s feature-film debut. After toiling away for years in movies like The Next Karate Kid and shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Swank’s performance as Brandon won her several awards, culminating in her bringing the Oscar home. In addition to a solid performance by Sevigny, the supporting cast included Brendan Sexton III (the kid from Needful Things all grown up) and a then-unknown Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State, Shattered Glass to name a few), both of whom start off as likeable losers and are eventually exposed as monsters.

Boys Don’t Cry launched Swank and Sarsgaard’s careers, but for some reason Peirce has struggled to find success that equals her first film. She’s directed two films since: 2008’s Stop-Loss and the Carrie remake. At least she’s got this one to brag about. –Justin Gerber

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

April 6, 1994. A private jet carrying Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down and looked at as a Tutsi act of aggression. The assassination was never definitively solved, but it didn’t matter. Hutu powers-that-be stroked the flames of fear and turned the incident into an anti-Tutsi campaign. Hutu leaders were looking for any reason, really, and this turned into the Rawandan genocide, the systematic killing of over 800,000 Tutsis.

It was awful. People were chopped up and left for dead all over Rwanda. Paul Rusesabagina was just trying to help. Rusesabagina was the proprietor of the Hôtel des Mille Collines, a Belgian hotel in Rwanda, and over the course of the massacre he managed to save and hide countless Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees.

Director Terry George (an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and winner for Best Live Action Short in 2012 for The Shore) felt that the lives of Africans were devalued by the United Nations at the time of the genocide. He wanted to depict the horrors of the event, not to shock but to inform, and he wanted to show Rusesabagina’s humanitarian spirit against the inhumane circumstances. Regardless of the inaccuracies within, or perceived commercialization of the awful history it depicts, Hotel Rwanda is powerful. –Blake Goble

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

People always wonder how Hitler came to power or how murderers like Ted Bundy got away with it for so long. The answer is simpler than you think: charisma. (Okay, maybe it’s not that simple, but you get my point.) These guys weren’t running around in straight-jackets or shouting at people near bus stops. They had charm. They were manipulative. And as we learn in The Last King of Scotland, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) was no different. Amin’s eight-year run as “President” of Uganda is widely known, but despite all that, we are initially taken in by Whitaker’s performance. It’s the mark of a good performer, and seriously, how great was Whitaker on The Shield?

James McAvoy’s storyline is actually fictional, but it doesn’t take away from Whitaker’s through line. McAvoy’s Nicholas Garrigan represents not only the outsider perspective of Amin, but the insiders as well, the people who believed this man would make a difference for a country largely in need of one. Sadly, like the aforementioned psychopaths, he did not.

Whitaker became the fourth African-American to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and it’s well-deserved for such a big, grand, and, yes, charismatic performance. –Justin Gerber

Marie Antoinette (2006)

For a filmmaker who’s made a couple modern classics, and with a steadily interesting (if not always great) filmography, Sofia Coppola catches a lot of hell. People are still mad about The Godfather Part III, apparently. Quite a bit of it is undeserved, though, never more so than in the case of Marie Antoinette, her lustily rendered, anachronistic retelling of the French queen in her pre-Revolution days. The film was considered an empathetic celebration of the decadent queen, one who in reality was deservedly usurped for her compulsive neglect of those she reigned over.

And it’s not as though Coppola’s film shies away from the ignorance of her behavior or gives her a pass necessarily. While there’s empathy in play, Marie Antoinette is primarily a chronicle of garish, compulsive affluence as seen from the perspective of the affluent, of those so far above the fray that the bubbling resentment within it hardly rates, if at all. It’s an endlessly fascinating portrait of young royalty, people who probably should’ve never been tasked with governing a soverign nation in the first place, being worshipped even as those offering the loudest accolades are the ones with the most to hide. As a commentary on both the rich and on modern celebrity, it’s sneakily remarkable stuff. –Dominick Mayer

Control (2007)

There is a nice bit of authenticity in Control that separates it from many other biopics. The actors playing the musicians in Joy Division are actually playing those songs onstage. Behind a fittingly frenzied performance by actor Sam Riley (playing the late Ian Curtis) is a tight band emulating the members who would go on to form New Order, shortly after the events in Control take place. No mimicry, just honest performances. That, too, is what makes a good biopic or any movie really. My long-winded statements aside, Control is a near-perfect film on every level.

The decision to release the film in black-and-white turned out to be the perfect decision for longtime photographer and first-time director Anton Corbijn. This obviously fits the bleak mood of the film, which surrounds the small rise and tragic end of Curtis, but it also makes sense from a strictly visual perspective. Most pictures we have of Curtis and the band are in stark black and white, without a hint of color to be found.

Riley’s performance of Curtis is appropriately understated, and though the surviving members of the band played a part in the film’s production, the film doesn’t shy away from any less-than-perfect behavior; Peter Hook during a Curtis seizure is particularly cold. The lead singer’s legacy was already secured, but this movie humanizes him in a way music never could. –Justin Gerber

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Jean-Dominique Bauby was once a rockstar of the French fashion industry. He was the editor of ELLE, a renowned man-about-town, something of a skirt chaser, and a man with a furious passion for life and all of its trappings. Accordingly, life dealt him the cruelest possible hand that a man like Bauby could ever have to suffer. In 1995, at the age of only 43, Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome,” a condition that leaves the mind fully active but the body paralyzed. Bauby was immobile save for the use of one eye.

That eye was all that Jean-Do needed. His memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, may have only been published two days before his passing, but with the help of a supportive group of friends and an infinitely patient translator, Jean-Do escaped from his paralysis and into the infinite realm of memory, a transition perfectly framed by Julian Schnabel in his film, both an adaptation of Bauby’s memoirs and a chronicle of their creation. Schnabel’s film seamlessly transitions in and out of his head, giving audiences a first-hand perspective on the simultaneous horror and liberation Bauby experienced. And above all, unlike so many films about ghastly ailments of one kind or another, Schnabel reminds you of the man Bauby was and never stopped being. –Dominick Mayer

The Social Network (2010)

For a film about a website that connected everyone to everyone else, the coldness and impersonal aesthetic of The Social Network is perfect for a dramatization of the birth of Facebook and the death of the relationships between its founders. Mark Zuckerberg (a never-more-caustic Jesse Eisenberg) was an awkward Harvard kid who just wanted to get into an exclusive social club, and maybe laid while he was at it, and got more than he could’ve ever planned for when a “hotness-rating” page became the germ that led to an exclusive, campus-based social network.

Within a few years, Zuckerberg was well on the path to being a billionaire, but the ruthlessness such a milestone requires is the true focus of David Fincher’s masterful film. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay absolutely has the same woman problems that virtually every piece of Sorkin writing tends to have, but at its best he furiously extracts white-knuckle intrigue from legal arguments in boardrooms, as Zuckerberg’s ruthless pursuit of ever-higher highs leads to fallouts with his friend and cofounder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the erratic Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). The Social Network ended up setting the tone for the next few years of movies, many of which have explored its core ideal: the more connected we get, the less we actually know each other. –Dominick Mayer

Fruitvale Station (2013)

In the first few hours of New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant III was murdered by Los Angeles police on the Fruitvale platform of the city’s train system. Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s magnificent debut feature, is about the 24 hours leading up to that. It’s an unassuming biopic on the surface. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) goes about the banal details of his day, from selling away his drugs to trying to reclaim a job that he carelessly lost for himself to dealing with his exasperated but loving girlfriend Sophina (Melanie Diaz). Oscar’s made mistakes in life, and even did a little time, but for Sophina and for his daughter Tatiana, he also wants to do better. He just doesn’t get the chance.

The power of Fruitvale Station lies not in the exceptionalism that usually colors which real-life figures get biopics made about them, but in the precise opposite. Oscar isn’t a particularly notable figure. He was a man trying to improve his life, to eke out some piece of whatever the American Dream is in this day and age, who lost his life because of a mixture of bad luck, past indiscretions, and a momentary lapse of reason. It’s a deeply felt, empathetic film, one that asks audiences to be moved not because somebody recognizable died unnecessarily, but because a life was taken at all. It’s as truly human a film as you can ever see. –Dominick Mayer

12 Years a Slave (2013)

“Harrowing” is an adjective that gets used often, but I feel compelled to use it to describe Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. It’s the story of a black man from the free northern states who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. He is removed from the only life he knew and most importantly the family he loves. McQueen’s film is to slavery what Saving Private Ryan is to war: a realistic, brutal look at a historically awful period of American history that is less than 200 years in our past. After years as a cult figure (Kinky Boots, Serenity), Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance of Solomon Northup launched him into the mainstream.

The supporting cast is comprised of no-names and established vets. Michael Fassbender appears in yet another McQueen film, this time playing the villain in a film that is overflowing with them. Paul Dano normally excels at playing an unlikeable creep and succeeds yet again in this film, while newcomer Lupita Nyong’o was so great as a doomed slave that she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress earlier in 2014. We won’t mention producer Brad Pitt’s role as the dude who was ultimately responsible for freeing Northup. Oh. I just did. Forget I said anything.

12 Years a Slave is hard to watch, but you really need to. It’s a reminder of where we were as a society and a reminder to keep moving away. –Justin Gerber