- THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images and Pathé Distribution
- Actors have long been earning award nominations for portraying celebrities and historical figures.
- For example, Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed Abraham Lincoln and Meryl Streep played Margaret Thatcher.
- Others play famous musicians. Rami Malek, for instance, portrayed Freddie Mercury, and Jamie Foxx brought Ray Charles to life on the big screen.
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It’s no secret that biopics are Oscars bait. It seems every award season has at least one biopic that chronicles the life of a famous figure, and the actors who portray these icons often earn Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys.
Sometimes actors play historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, King George VI, or Gandhi. Other times, actors adapt accents and take vocal lessons to portray famous musicians like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Freddie Mercury.
Here are some of the best portrayals of icons that have garnered critical claim and awards.
In 1969, Barbra Streisand won an Oscar for playing Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.”
- Silver Screen Collection/ Getty
In the musical movie “Funny Girl,” Streisand played Fanny Brice, a vaudeville actress who became a famous Broadway star. Brice was known for her acting, singing, and comedy – all of which Streisand brought to the biopic.
“Since Fanny herself cannot be brought back, the next best thing is to get Barbra Streisand to sing and strut and go through comic routines à la Brice,” the New York Times wrote. “Miss Streisand is well on her way to becoming a splendid entertainer in her own right, and in ‘Funny Girl’ she goes as far as any performer can toward recalling the laughter and joy that were Fanny Brice.”
Sissy Spacek took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in the 1980 film “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
- Bettmann/ Getty
Loretta Lynn was a country music star in the ’60s and ’70s whose hit song “Coal Miner’s Daughter” became an instant classic. In the movie adaptation, Spacek plays Lynn, who was married off at 15, had six children, and eventually became a superstar.
“Loretta Lynn, played with captivating daintiness by Sissy Spacek, climbs onto the stage at a Grange hall, at the urging of her husband,” the New York Times wrote at the time. “Her singing is wispy at first, but it grows clear and confident as she takes command of the stage.”
Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for playing Mahatma Gandhi in the 1982 film “Gandhi.”
Mahatma Gandhi was an activist who fought for civil rights, India’s independence, and religious freedom by practicing non-violent protests. In the 1982 movie, Kingsley portrayed the activist during his work in South Africa and up until his famous hunger strike.
“Ben Kingsley’s performance as Gandhi, aging 50 years in three hours, from dapper, status-conscious lawyer to emaciated ascetic in a loin-cloth, is certainly as fine as anything Muni ever did, and likely to take its place among the cinema’s great historic portraits,” the Guardian wrote at the time.
In 1990, Joe Pesci portrayed Tommy DeSimone in “Goodfellas” and won an Academy Award.
- Dirck Halstead/ Getty
“Pesci gives a masterful performance as a crudely fearless, paranoid runt who’s constantly in need of demonstrating his own power,” Entertainment Weekly wrote at the time. “And Scorsese is better than any director alive at bringing out the casual unreasonableness of those who live by violence. As Pesci beats the crap out of a perfectly innocent restaurant owner, the moment escalates into brutal, slapstick horror.”
In 2000’s “Erin Brockovich,” Julia Roberts gave an award-winning performance.
- Ronald Siemoneit/ Getty
Despite not having any formal legal training, Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk, helped bring a lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electrical Company of California in 1993 after it was found the company was poisoning residents of Hinkley, California. Roberts turned her into an icon when she portrayed the activist in a 2000 biopic.
“Julia Roberts marches through ‘Erin Brockovich’ like a force of nature,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote. “The actress seizes the film’s eponymous role with fire-in-her-eyes possessiveness and injects the character with all the energy and drive she can muster. Her performance is a true star turn.”
Jamie Foxx played Ray Charles in the 2004 film “Ray” and won an Oscar for his work.
Ray Charles lost his eyesight at a young age because of glaucoma, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. Foxx portrayed him in a biopic that highlights key moments in Charles’ life.
“Jamie Foxx suggests the complexities of Ray Charles in a great, exuberant performance,” Roger Ebert wrote. “What Foxx gets just right is the physical Ray Charles, and what an extrovert he was.”
Cate Blanchett stole the show when she played Katharine Hepburn in 2004’s “The Aviator” — and won an Oscar in the process.
“The Aviator” followed the adventurous life of Howard Hughes – played by Leonardo DiCaprio – who was a billionaire and playboy. But the actor who really caught the spotlight in this movie was Blanchett, who played Hughes’ girlfriend, actress Katharine Hepburn.
“Cate Blanchett has the task of playing Katharine Hepburn, who was herself so close to caricature that to play her accurately involves some risk,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Blanchett succeeds in a performance that is delightful and yet touching; mannered and tomboyish, delighting in saying exactly what she means, she shrewdly sizes up Hughes and is quick to be concerned about his eccentricities.”
Reese Witherspoon also stole the show — and earned herself an Oscar — when she played June Carter Cash in 2005’s “Walk the Line.”
- Twentieth Century Fox
Johnny Cash was one of the most famous musicians during the ’60s and ’70s. In “Walk the Line,” a biopic of his life, Joaquin Phoenix played the sometimes-volatile musician, while Witherspoon played his second wife, who was a Grammy Award-winning singer herself.
“Witherspoon delivers a knockout performance as a woman who must temper her passion with an unwillingness to witness her man’s self-destruction,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote.
Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen” and earned an Academy Award.
- Pathé Pictures
Queen Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch in British history and has seen many historic events from her seat on the throne. But “The Queen” follows the monarch, played by Mirren, as she handles the death of her ex-daughter-in-law, Princess Diana.
“How heavy that crown and how very lightly Helen Mirren wears it as queen,” the New York Times wrote. “She delivers a performance remarkable in its art and lack of sentimentalism. Actors need to be loved, but one of Ms. Mirren’s strengths has always been her supreme self-confidence that we will love the performance no matter how unsympathetic the character.”
Sean Penn won an Oscar for playing Harvey Milk in 2008.
- Focus Features
Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist and politician in San Francisco. In fact, he was one of the first openly gay politicians to ever be elected in California. In 2008, Penn played the activist in a biopic that chronicled his life up until his assassination in 1978.
“He is played here by Sean Penn with the kind of ferocious virility and detailed concentration that only Penn can bring to a role,” the Guardian wrote about the actor. “You can almost feel the energy with which this actor reproduces learned camp mannerisms – yet miniaturises them, clamps them down, brings them just below the stereotype level.”
Eddie Redmayne portrayed Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” earning him an Oscar in 2015.
- “The Theory Of Everything”
Stephen Hawking was a renowned British cosmologist and author who had ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The 2014 movie “The Theory of Everything” tells the story of his relationship with his first wife, Jane, after they met at the University of Cambridge, as well as his diagnosis and his academic success.
“Mr. Redmayne’s performance – from the gnarled, paralyzed fingers to the mischievous spark that lights an otherwise frozen face as he savors a joke or a bon mot – is spot on,” the New York Times wrote.
Colin Firth won an Oscar for his portrayal of King George VI in 2010’s “The King’s Speech.”
- Transmission Films/ YouTube
King George VI became king of England after his brother abdicated the throne. Before taking the throne, however, the future king had to deal with his stuttering problem. In the “The King’s Speech,” Firth plays the monarch as he meets with a speech therapist in an attempt to get rid of his stammer.
“Firth doesn’t just make a British king vulnerable and insecure, he shows the fierce courage and stamina beneath the insecurities that will see him through his kingship,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote. “It’s not just marvelous acting, it’s an actor who understands the flesh-and-blood reality of the moment and not its history. It’s an actor who admires his character not in spite of his flaws but because of them.”
In 2011’s “The Iron Lady,” Meryl Streep gave an Oscar-winning performance in her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher.
- Hassan Hartley/ YouTube
Margaret Thatcher was the first female prime minister of England, and she remained in the position for 11 years. Streep brought the character – who was often called the Iron Lady – to life in the Oscar-winning movie.
“Margaret is played with cunning and gusto by Meryl Streep, and it is a pious critical convention to praise performances like these on the grounds that they go beyond mere impersonation,” the Guardian wrote.
In 2012, Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln and won an Academy Award.
- Sony / Columbia Pictures screencap
In the film “Lincoln” from 2012, Day-Lewis portrayed the president in the final months before his assassination, as he debates the idea of emancipating every slave in the country.
“It’s a performance that is subtle. It’s not the Lincoln you expect. It’s a different interpretation of Lincoln than we have seen and we feel, wow! This could be the way Lincoln was,” Deadline wrote about the movie.
Michael Douglas played Liberace in 2013’s “Behind the Candelabra” and won a Golden Globe.
Liberace became a musical sensation in the ’50s after his variety show became a national hit. Trained in classical music, Liberace was famous for his piano abilities and his flamboyant attire and set designs. In the film, “Behind the Candelabra,” Douglas portrays the classical pianist as he struggles to hide his sexuality.
“There’s something uncanny, even brilliant, about Michael Douglas’s impersonation of Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s biographical film ‘Behind the Candelabra,'” the New York Times wrote.
Sarah Paulson won an Emmy in 2017 for portraying Marcia Clark in the TV series “The People v. O.J.: American Crime Story.”
Marcia Clark was the lead prosecutor in the case against O.J. Simpson when he was accused of killing his ex-wife in the ’90s. In the series that chronicled the trial, Paulson played the prosecutor, highlighting the sexism and challenges Clark faced during the media frenzy.
“Sarah [Paulson] just gets under her skin so much. And you feel such empathy for her. It’s an extraordinary performance,” Vanity Fair wrote. “Paulson was likely able to get under Clark’s skin so easily because, like most actresses, she’s experienced her fair share of sexism in her industry.”
In 2018, Darren Criss won an Emmy for his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan in the series “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”
In 1997, Andrew Cunanan became a serial killer when he murdered five people during a three-month spree. One of his victims was fashion designer Gianni Versace. In the second season of “American Crime Story,” Criss took on the role of Cunanan.
“Mr. Criss is impressive and haunting as the mediocre con man and murderer, but ‘Assassination’ is never quite sure what to make of its central figure, his narcissism or, perhaps, his sociopathy,” the New York Times wrote about the show.
Rami Malek took home the Academy Award in 2019 after playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
- 20th Century Fox
Freddie Mercury was the lead singer of the hit band Queen. Malek took on the role of the icon in 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which chronicled the singer’s life in and out of the band.
“Put Rami Malek high on the list for best film performances of 2018. As Freddie Mercury … the ‘Mr. Robot’ star performs miracles, catching the look, strut, and soul of Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991,” Rolling Stone wrote.
In 2020, Renee Zellweger won a Golden Globe for playing Judy Garland.
- Movieclips trailers/ YouTube
In “Judy,” Renee Zellweger plays Judy Garland near the end of the icon’s life, as she travels to London in 1968 to perform in a series of concerts for one last comeback tour.
“‘Judy’ is just such a sturdy, dependable vehicle which, in this case, carries the precious cargo of Renée Zellweger in a dazzling portrayal of Judy Garland at the end of her life,” the Washington Post wrote. “Tough, vulnerable, resilient and wrecked, Zellweger’s Garland both leans into the myth … and slyly subverts it, with moments of self-aware humor.”