One important thing to note about great casting in a biographical film is that it does not always result in a great biopic. One of the strengths of film is that it’s such a collaborative medium, but this is also why uninspired directing or a staid screenplay can so easily threaten an inspired performance. There are a few examples of that on this list, but in every case the exceptional work of the star still makes the picture worth watching. It’s also worth noting that while Hollywood has a long history of producing biopics, there are many more instances of actors portraying real people in films that aren’t strictly about that person. This list is limited to genuine biopics.
10. Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line (2005)
Interchangeable with this performance is that of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, another American musician of the same era, in Ray, released a year earlier. But Walk the Line is compulsively watchable in a way that Ray is not. And while it was easy to imagine Foxx as Charles, Phoenix — an inscrutable, even weird actor — portraying Johnny Cash made no sense. Even Phoenix admitted several other actors were better suited for the role as “The Man in Black.” But Phoenix nailed it, from Cash’s body language, his guitar held up high on his chest, to the voice; Phoenix did all his own singing. He received an Oscar nomination for his performance, but Reese Witherspoon won an Academy Award for her portrayal of June Carter. She’s terrific, full of life, the best thing about the movie, but Walk the Line is not her movie.
9. Tom Hulce in Amadeus (1984)
The movie was a phenomenon. It was nominated for, or won, just about every film award available. Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s rival composer Antonio Salieri, both received Oscar nominations for Best Actor, with Abraham winning. But every performance in Amadeus is in orbit around Hulce’s portrayal. The film, rigorous in its attention to detail, is perhaps a bit dry by today’s standards, but Hulce livens it up with his interpretation of impetuous, almost accidental, genius. There are scenes in the movie that still crackle, as when Mozart humiliates Salieri in front of the emperor, improving on a musical composition of Salieri’s seemingly without effort. Hulce, previously known only for a role in the 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House, would act for another 10 years, without much success, before retiring.
8. Dustin Hoffman in Lenny (1974)
The name of Lenny Bruce isn’t heard much these days. This film is hardly ever seen. And it’s difficult to imagine the Dustin Hoffman we know today playing the acerbic comedian — although it shouldn’t be if his Ratso Rizzo character from Midnight Cowboy (1969) is fresh in your mind. Odder still is that Lenny was directed by Bob Fosse, who we know for flashy stuff like Cabaret and All That Jazz. Hoffman may have been more diminutive in stature than Bruce, but the words he spits out here are just as cutting. He captures the frustration of a man who may have been the only one in the room to realize he was ahead of his time, a frustration that led him to die from an “overdose of police,” as Newsweek put it, at the age of 40. Hoffman does what he does best; the actor’s in there somewhere, but who you see is Lenny Bruce.
7. Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006)
Gone are the days, at least for now, of cradle-to-grave biopics, when a film about a famous figure would attempt to dramatize an entire life, from formative childhood experiences to the final deathbed utterance, requiring a series of child actors who may or may not resemble the adult star, followed by lots of bad aging makeup. Helen Mirren, who has always been a sensual, vivacious actor, still had to transform herself mightily to portray Britain’s reigning monarch, the supremely buttoned-up Queen Elizabeth II. The result is not chameleon-like, it’s not as though Mirren is submerged in her character. Rather, we see the actress playing a character, and playing it very well. The Queen focuses only on the period surrounding Princess Diana’s death in 1997, opening a window on behavior that had previously been closed, and it’s fascinating as a result.
6. Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin (1992)
More than most, perhaps more than anyone else on this list, Downey had a wealth of video archives from which to draw for his role. Imitation was the easy part. It was Downey’s ability to tap into the innate sadness of Charlie Chaplin that gives his performance its richness. A physical resemblance to the “Little Tramp” didn’t hurt either. Unfortunately, despite Downey’s portrayal and a great supporting cast, the movie is a dog. Director Richard Attenborough indulges in every cliché that’s made biopics such a tough slog to sit through for so long. But the picture made Downey a star. A long and tortuous detour into substance abuse may have delayed him from reaching his full potential until recent years, but as Chaplin makes abundantly clear, there was never any question about the actor’s talent.
5. Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Who said biopics have to be about famous people? Sadly, Brandon Teena’s fame was tragic, arising after the transgender man was killed in 1993. Boys Don’t Cry shows what can result when enough care is taken. Writer/director Kimberly Peirce spent years researching Teena’s life, and considered and rejected 100 actresses before settling on newcomer Hilary Swank. To get inside her character, Swank took a Method approach, which may or may not help to explain why her performance is the most intense on this list. She certainly didn’t do it for the money. Swank was paid $3,000 on Boys Don’t Cry, but the bonus was an Oscar win that launched her career, which included another Oscar win five years later for Million Dollar Baby. While the actress’s on-screen stardom has faded of late, her portrayal of Brandon Teena will stand the test of time.
4. Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
It’s a performance that today largely serves to remind us of the actor Busey once could be. Most acting careers have an eventual downward trajectory, but few have been as sharp as his. A performer who is seemingly incapable of much of anything today, Busey once went above and beyond to portray a musician from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. The movie itself didn’t make much of a splash at the time. The cast isn’t exciting, and the script doesn’t attempt anything that could be considered innovative. But the fullness of Busey’s performance is all that matters. He didn’t just lose several pounds to play the 146-pound Buddy Holly. He did all his own singing, and he and all the musicians in the film played their own instruments. Maybe someday someone else will take on the Buddy Holly story, but why bother? They couldn’t do it any better.
3. Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982)
If ever there was a case of an actor getting lost in a role, this is that. Kingsley wasn’t literally lost in his performance, quite the opposite, but audiences of the film can be forgiven for perhaps losing track of him. Kingsley didn’t just play Mahatma Gandhi, he became synonymous with the famous figure. A portrayal such as this is what the Oscars were made for, and Kingsley of course received one. The film as a whole won eight Academy Awards, including one for director Richard Attenborough, who made a snoozer out of Charlie Chaplin’s life story and didn’t exactly inject this motion picture with an abundance of life. Kingsley’s great challenge for years afterward was to convince audiences and filmmakers that he was more than just Gandhi. It took some time, but he finally succeeded in other roles.
2. Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
It wasn’t a role she was born to play — that cliché virtually never rings true — but the manner in which this part landed in Spacek’s lap is certainly singular. Loretta Lynn actually chose Spacek to play her, by picking from among photographs and without knowing anything of Spacek’s work. While flattered by the offer to play the country singer, who got married at age 13 and had four kids by the time she was 19, Spacek had by no means agreed to take on the role when Lynn announced on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show that the actress was playing her. Hearing the film’s title song on the radio in a random moment ultimately sealed the deal for Spacek, who would go on to win an Oscar for her performance. Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn’s husband and Beverly D’Angelo’s rendition of singer Patsy Cline also got raves.
1. George C. Scott in Patton (1970)
This portrayal typically finds itself at or near the top of lists like this, and there remains no reason to alter that thinking. But there are any number of reasons why this performance shouldn’t have worked to the degree it does. Gen. George S. Patton’s family wouldn’t cooperate with the filmmakers. Gen. Omar Bradley, no friend of Patton’s at all, did. Scott’s voice was nothing like his character’s, and Patton never wore all his medals as he does in the film’s opening scene, the speech to troops in front of that giant American flag. Scott feared that iconic moment would overshadow the rest of the film, so the director promised to end the movie with it instead. He didn’t keep his word, and the opening scene does just what Scott said it would, although the rest of the film is quite fine. That this performance was an instant hit in the Vietnam era says a lot.