If a talented actor is lucky, they’ll give a performance that completely redefines how audiences perceive them. Not to mention, these landmark roles usually help them nab a few awards in the process. We’ve seen a lot of impressive performances this year, including Kristen Stewart’s critically lauded portrayal of Princess Diana in Spencer. While many folks still associate Stewart with her Twilight days, she’s given multiple outstanding performances in films like Clouds of Sils Maria (2014).
Then, there are actors like Nicole Kidman and Will Smith who’ve starred in several biopics over the years. Smith’s portrayals of Muhammad Ali, Chris Gardner, and Bennet Omalu garnered numerous awards and Oscar nominations. Meanwhile, Kidman has portrayed Martha Gellhorn and Grace Kelly. We’re taking a closer look at Nicole Kidman, Will Smith and Kristen Steward’s acclaimed performances, and we’re exploring 13 other instances when actors brought well-known historical figures to life on the big screen. Some are from this year — and are potential Oscar contenders — while others are some of our enduring favorites.
Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in “Being The Ricardos” (writ./dir. Aaron Sorkin, 2021)
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were pioneers in the entertainment industry. They rose to prominence in an incredibly prejudiced era, and they created Desilu Productions. I Love Lucy is perhaps their greatest contribution to television history. The show earned dozens of Primetime Emmy awards and nominations during its heyday. However, that feat pales in comparison to I Love Lucy’s international, multi-generational fanbase.
Being the Ricardos shows us a different side of Lucille Ball’s life – one fraught with tabloid rumors and marital tribulations. Aaron Sorkin (of A Few Good Men (1992), The West Wing (1999 – 2006), and The Social Network (2010)fame) is the writer and director behind this project while Nicole Kidman will step into Lucille Ball’s iconic ballet flats. Despite her initial anxiety towards the role, Kidman’s portrayal of Ms. Ball was praised by Lucie Arnaz and has already earned critical praise. Being the Ricardos will hit select theaters on December 10 before streaming worldwide on Prime Video on December 21.
Will Smith as Richard Williams in “King Richard” (dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green, 2021)
We called Will Smith a renaissance man earlier for a specific reason – several, to be more accurate. He’s a certified platinum charting musician, a notable philanthropist, a loving husband and father, and an internationally adored actor. “Mr. July” is another of Smith’s aliases which refers to the string of summer blockbusters that he starred in between the late-1990s and the 2010s. And we’d be remiss not to mention The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a staple of the 1990s sitcom boom.
Simply put, Will Smith is one of the most multi-faceted artists of our time. His filmography is balanced with lighthearted projects Men in Black and Independence Day and somber roles like Ali and Twelve Pounds. King Richard sees Smith step into the shoes of Richard Williams – the father and trainer of Venus and Serena Williams. This film has already received plenty of praise from numerous critics and the Williams Sisters, who’ve deemed it “frighteningly accurate”. “Mr. Oscar” might become Will Smith’s newest alias once the 94th Academy Awards ceremony rolls in next year.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in “Spencer” (dir. Pablo Larraín, 2021)
Director Pablo Larraín’s latest film, Spencer, provides a tragic, rather haunting portrait of the late Diana Spencer — more prominently known by her royal moniker, Princess of Wales. The “peoples’ princess” captured the hearts of people the world over — so stepping into her shoes is a daunting task, to say the least. Much like Emma Corrin (who gave an Emmy-nominated portrayal of Diana in Netflix’s The Crown), however, Kristen Stewart shines.
Vulture‘s Alison Willmore notes that Stewart plays Diana “with remarkable translucence,” while NPR‘s Linda Holmes writes that the actor’s “performance here is powerful, and it carries this version of Diana through such instability as a character… but she always seems like the same person, the same good mother who doesn’t know how to begin to separate herself from the life she’s walked into.”
For KStew fans, her Oscar-worthy turn here is no surprise: she won the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria and stunned critics in the psychological thriller Personal Shopper (2016). And we’ll always love her in Panic Room (2002). But it’s clear that Stewart’s Diana has provided yet another — and perhaps broader-reaching — showcase for her remarkable talents.
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in “Respect” (dir. Liesl Tommy, 2021)
In Respect (2021), Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) portrays her friend and mentor — the iconic Aretha Franklin. Hudson, whose early career was heavily influenced and inspired by Franklin, received a personal call from the revered musician, who told Hudson she was the only person who’d be considered for the role.
Hudson revealed that she and Franklin shared similar life experiences, so the actor found it important to portray Franklin’s pain without sensationalizing the events. “As humans, we all go through life, and in life there are traumas,” Hudson said. “But when it comes to legends and icons, [we] forget there’s a human under there.” Hudson was truly a perfect casting choice, and, in all likelihood, she’ll receive some much-deserved awards buzz at the end of the year.
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (dir. Michael Showalter, 2021)
Jessica Chastain admitted she never knew much about Tammy Faye Bakker other than what she saw in tabloids. In fact, she actually thought Bakker was a terrible person. But the more Chastain learned about the evangelist and TV personality, the more she grew to respect her.
“Chastain does a lot of interpretative heavy-lifting by depicting this woman throughout her life and capturing her magnetism no matter the hairstyle, fashion choice or makeup usage,” Ask’s own Patricia Puentes writes in her review of the film. “You can’t become a TV personality without a dash of charisma and Chastain channels a lot of that through Tammy Faye.” And, seeing as how our own reviewer titled her write-up on the movie How to Secure an Oscar Nomination, by Jessica Chastain, we’re expecting big things this awards season.
Andra Day as Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (dir. Lee Daniels, 2021)
Billie Holiday is another one of music’s biggest icons. In 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues, music legend Diana Ross (of The Supremes) gave an incredible performance — but it might not be the definitive Billie Holiday biopic anymore.
In The United States vs. Billie Holiday, newcomer Andra Day stepped into the songstress’ shoes, bringing her story to life on the big screen like never before. One of the most incredible aspects of the film? Day didn’t have any feature film experience prior to shooting this one. Previously, she worked on some shorts. But none of that stopped her from delivering a raw, visceral performance.
Even though the film received mixed reviews overall, critics agreed that Day knocked it out of the park. “There’s nothing flawed about Day’s interpretation of Holiday,” Ask’s own Patricia Puentes writes in her review of the film. “Day — who has been nominated for an Oscar for her work in this film — underwent a total transformation to become Holiday.” And, Puentes adds, this Oscar-nominated performance allows the film to “[shine] a new light on an unapologetic Black artist.”
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in “42” (dir. Brian Helgeland, 2013)
Chadwick Boseman could be on this list at least three times, if we’re being honest. He’s stellar in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), for example. Not to mention he provides a “fittingly dynamic homage” to the Godfather of Soul in Get On Up, a 2014 film about iconic singer James Brown. While Get On Up is worth watching for Boseman’s performance alone, we’re also excited to highlight another of his performances — just to break up the number of music biopics on this list.
In 2013’s 42, Boseman steps into the shoes — or cleats — of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 when he became the first Black baseball player to join an MLB team. Boseman’s portrayal of the Brooklyn Dodger and World Series champ is incredibly convincing — and inspiring. The actor said that friends of his went to screenings with their kids and, when they left, the kids wanted to play baseball, too.
To prep for the role, Boseman met with Robinson’s wife, who, in a few intimate heart-to-hearts, helped the Oscar-nominated actor understand more about Robinson’s mannerisms and personality.
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in “Selena” (dir. Gregory Nava, 1997)
This biopic recounts the tragically short, but undoubtedly incredible, life and career of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. The film is perhaps most well-remembered for Jennifer Lopez’s breakout performance, which Roger Ebert called, “star-making.” And he wasn’t the only one to applaud JLo’s acting chops.
On bringing Selena’s story back to life, Lopez revealed that “You have to think of the whole story and how you fit into that story and at the same time, who is that character, what makes them tick, all the way down to their mannerisms and what drove them emotionally.” And all of JLo’s dedication to the craft paid off.
In his review of the film, film critic James Berardinelli wondered “if Selena’s family, upon watching this performance, felt an eerie sense of déjà vu.” Needless to say, if you’re looking to be wholly transported by a biopic, Selena is a must-watch.
Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie” (dir. Pablo Larraín, 2016)
In 2016, Academy Award winner Natalie Portman (Black Swan) portrayed a recently widowed Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s critical darling, Jackie. Portman revealed that she obsessively studied Jackie O. to ensure an authentic performance. Much like Princess Di, Jackie Kennedy is a pretty well-known pop cultural figure, so bringing her to life in a genuine way that avoids caricature is a tall order.
Eventually, Portman got so wrapped in her research that she had to force herself to stop reading about the former First Lady of the United States. But that hard work certainly paid off; the actor was nominated for an Oscar and the film was well-received. Portman revealed that Jackie was well aware of her different personas — one was public and one was private. That awareness — as well as Jackie’s quiet wit — help give the film a haunting, psychological edge.
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in “Frida” (dir. Julie Taymor, 2002)
Salma Hayek’s incredibly convincing performance in Frida has become a career-defining one. However, Hayek admitted that she initially disliked Frida Kahlo’s work; it was too grotesque for the actor.
But the more Hayek learned about the artist, the more intrigued she became — not just in terms of the role, but in terms of learning about Frida, the person. After all, the artist’s work is not just passionate, but full of irony and humor, too. In addition to gaining a deeper appreciation for Kahlo, Hayek earned an Oscar nomination for her performance.
Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith in “Bessie” (dir. Dee Rees, 2015)
The made-for-HBO film Bessie sees acclaimed director Dee Rees teaming up with Queen Latifah to tell the story of American blues singer Bessie Smith. When the film hit screens, audiences and critics alike flocked to their TVs to watch Bessie Smith’s (Queen Latifah) transformation from a struggling songstress into “The Empress of Blues.” In fact, by 2016 it became the most-watched HBO original film of all time and garnered four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Television Movie.
Praised universally for Queen Latifah’s star performance — as well as Mo’Nique’s supporting role as fellow blues icon Ma Rainey — Bessie was described in Slate‘s The Black Film Canon as “one of the best and most unabashedly honest portrayals of Black womanhood and sexuality put on screen.” Ren Jender, a writer for Bitch Flicks, echoed that sentiment, saying that although the biopic follows the genre’s usual beats, a film about “a queer Black woman (Smith was bisexual) [made] by an out queer Black woman… is unusual” and, therefore, needed.
Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” (dir. Olivier Dahan, 2007)
A year after first auditioning for the starring role, Oscar-winning actor Marion Cotillard finally received the script for La Vie en Rose. Cotillard revealed that although she didn’t hesitate to accept the role once she got the script, she still privately doubted whether or not she could really bring a legend like Edith Piaf to life.
Cotillard explained that in order to portray Piaf, she chose not to imitate her — in order to avoid caricature. “I wanted to understand her inside,” the actor said. “And there’s a very technical part — reading, watching, listening. I watched her a lot.” Mesmerizing and incredibly convincing, Cotillard’s prep work paid off; she won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, marking the first time an Oscar had been given for a French-language role.
Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” (dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)
Directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Velvet Goldmine), I’m Not There is self-described as “inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan.” In short, it might be the most unique approach to making a biopic that we’ve seen in a while. Throughout the film, six actors depict Dylan’s public personas.
The lineup includes Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw. But, undoubtedly, Blanchett received the most acclaim, garnering awards from the Venice Film Festival and Golden Globes as well as an Oscar nomination. Not to mention, Haynes wrote the role with her in mind. Called a “deliciously unconventional experience,” I’m Not There captures Dylan’s spirit.
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in “Malcolm X” (dir. Spike Lee, 1992)
Malcolm X, a civil rights leader and Muslim minister, is one of the most important figures in American Civil Rights history. He openly criticized Martin Luther King Jr. and other mainstream activists who emphasized racial integration. Instead, Malcolm X was a vocal advocate for Black empowerment and Black liberation.
All of that to say, bringing such an influential figure to life is a daunting task. But Oscar winner Denzel Washington delivered a truly unforgettable, powerful performance. Although he didn’t win another Academy Award for his portrayal of the activist, Washington’s transformative portrayal has helped new generations understand Malcolm X’s legacy.
André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in “Jimi: All Is by My Side” (dir. John Ridley, 2013)
More commonly referred to as André 3000, André Benjamin delivered a show-stopping performance in the Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side. In some ways, the role of a lifetime was a long time coming; Benjamin revealed that he started getting calls from various directors and producers who wanted him to play Hendrix 15 years ago — well before All Is by My Side came to fruition.
“Approaching the Hendrix project, I just wanted to make sure that I tried to show some kind of personal side, the sensitive side,” Benjamin explained in the same interview. Praised for his “gentleness and charm” (The Guardian), Benjamin gets “the vocal mannerisms and movement of the guitar legend down to a fine art” (One Room With a View), making an otherwise uneven movie well worth the watch.
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn” (dir. Simon Curtis, 2011)
Apart from Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe might be one of the most frequently talked about pop culture icons of the last century. Much like Princess Di, people felt like they knew Monroe — but, behind her facade, the actor struggled, often without much genuine support. While portraying Monroe was a tall order, Michelle Williams did a truly tremendous job.
Williams studied a lot in order to make sure she knew everything there is to know about Monroe. Of the icon’s strut, Williams said, “She’s making an entrance and making an exit” (Newsweek). The point being, she commands her audience. Williams certainly tapped into that ability, too. Her portrayal of the Hollywood starlet earned her a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination.