15 Memorable Movie Performances Based on Real People

When I was in middle school, I used to watch my VHS copy of The Audrey Hepburn Story about once a month. The made-for-TV movie tells the story of Audrey’s rise to fame, throwing in snippets of her ballet beginnings and involvement in WWII. It kept me enthralled throughout its 3-hour running time (!) with tons of behind-the-scenes looks at her most famous movies and love affairs. Oh, and it also happens to star Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Am I proud of the fact that hours of my formative tween years were spent watching JLove sing “Moon River”? Meh. To this day, I am kind of obsessed with watching famous people act like other famous people. Movie biopics have almost become a requirement for any actor’s resume, either launching stars to Oscar-winning glory (see: Lincoln, The Iron Lady, The King’s Speech) or complete ridicule (see: every Lifetime movie ever made). Either way, the star-making power of portraying real people on film, particularly people with troubled childhoods or drug addictions, is undeniable.

With so many new Hollywood biopics about to hit theaters (including films about Princess Di, Nelson Mandela, and Walt Disney), let’s take a look at some biographical roles that actors have become known for over the years — for better or worse. Here are 15 particularly memorable examples of the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude. Happy make-believe!

15 Memorable Movie Performances Based on Real People:

  • Memorable Movie Performances Based on Real People 1 of 16
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    Click through for 15 biopic performances we'll never forget!

  • Johnny Depp as Ed Wood (Ed Wood) 2 of 16
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    Ed Wood is often considered to be the worst film director of all time, backing such notorious bombs as Plan 9 From Outer Space. However, this biopic based on his life is arguably the best work of both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Depp brings his signature quirkiness to the role, perfectly capturing the director's energy and optimism.

     

    Most memorable scene: Bela Lugosi fighting the octopus. You can totally get a sense of Ed Wood's endless enthusiasm, which is equal parts funny and heartbreaking in this clip.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner’s Daughter) 3 of 16
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    Musical biopics have become a Hollywood staple, and we can think Coal Miner's Daughter for that. The film chronicles the life of country legend Loretta Lynn, and Sissy Spacek is downright uncanny in her Oscar-winning role. In fact, Lynn handpicked Spacek to play the part based solely on a photograph of the actress.

     

    Most memorable scene: In the midst of extensive touring and a rise to fame, Loretta has a breakdown and refuses to walk out on stage for her set. This scene could have been melodramatic and cliche, but Sissy Spacek's subtle collapse is extremely effective.  

     

    Photo credit: Amazon

  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes (The Aviator) 4 of 16
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    Howard Hughes was all about big-budget filmmaking and setting world records, but The Aviator shows us a quieter and more vulnerable side to the billionaire (namely his struggle with OCD), which is exactly what makes it a great biopic. It's not exactly my cup of tea, what with its emotionally draining running time of 169 minutes and all, but Leonardo DiCaprio's ability to portray the highs and lows of Hughes' life cannot be denied.

     

    Most memorable scene: Hughes' slow but steady mental downward spiral is the driving force of the film, and DiCaprio chillingly wraps it up in the very last scene. We see the character's OCD finally take control of him as he frantically says "the way of the future" over and over and over.

     

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette (Marie Antoinette) 5 of 16
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    Marie Antoinette disappointed a lot of people when it was released (it was even booed at the Cannes Film Festival), perhaps because it's nowhere near a true-to-life depiction of the infamous Queen of France. Did Marie Antoinette have an American accent and wear Chuck Taylors? Of course not. What Kirsten Dunst and Sophia Coppola really tried to do was tell a story of a young woman coping with suffocating loneliness — and they more than succeeded.

     

    Most memorable scene: Marie Antoinette celebrates her 18th birthday with scads of people and debauchery, looking every bit the grown up monarch. But once the festivities die down, she escapes with a small group of friends to watch the sunrise and comments, "Isn't that the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" This scene captures a truly genuine moment and proves that Marie is still a wide-eyed child deep down.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Robert Downey, Jr. as Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin) 6 of 16
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    Robert Downey, Jr. has become so synonymous with the Iron Man films (which, sadly, are not biopics), it's easy to forget that he once portrayed one of the greatest actors of all time in 1992's Chaplin. While the film itself is often criticized for concentrating too much on Charlie Chaplin's romantic life, Downey's performance gained him universal acclaim and earned him his first Oscar nomination.

     

    Most memorable scene: The first time we see Chaplin as an adult in the film is when he appears on a London stage, acting like a drunk old man as part of a slapstick routine. Downey doesn't say a single word in the scene, but his mannerisms are perfect — what better way to honor a legendary silent film star?

     

    Photo credit: Amazon

  • Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) 7 of 16
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    I could seriously fill a novel with all the reasons why I adore and respect The Social Network, but for now I'll just concentrate on Jesse Eisenberg's performance. He portrays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with fast-talking insensitivity, but he also has moments of such loneliness and sadness that I dare your heart not to break. It's always amazing when a movie takes a persona and turns it into a person, and that's exactly what The Social Network does so brilliantly.

     

    Most memorable scene: In the middle of a deposition, Mark gives the prosecuting attorney the minimal amount of his attention. This scene illustrates the natural tendency towards condescension that Eisenberg pulls off throughout the entire film.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest) 8 of 16
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    Oh, Mommie Dearest. Faye Dunaway won a Razzie Award for Worst Actress for her diva-tastic depiction of actress Joan Crawford, and in his review of the film, Robert Ebert began, "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie." Today, however, this outlandish biopic has become a major cult classic, and Dunaway's performance is the stuff of campy legends.

     

    Most memorable scene: "No wire hangers ... EVER!" If you don't know whether to laugh or cry during this scene, trust me — you're not alone.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) 9 of 16
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    Raging Bull may make me feel uncomfortable and nervous every time I watch it, but it also happens to be one of the best movies ever made — biopic or otherwise. Robert DeNiro brings an equal mix of humanity and terror to his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta, and he put everything he had into preparing for the film. He trained with LaMotta himself to get in shape for the big fight scenes, and then put on a staggering 60 pounds to play the older LaMotta in later scenes. DeNiro is 100% the reason why I always return to this movie, despite the anxiety it causes me.

     

    Most memorable scene: The movie ends right back where it began — in a shabby dressing room. The closing scene features Jake reciting the famous "I could have been a contender" monologue from On the Waterfront. After seeing the way his life played out in the film, these legendary words take on an entirely new meaning, and DeNiro is 100% flawless.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor (Liz & Dick) 10 of 16
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    Well, I never expected to put Lindsay Lohan adjacent to Robert DeNiro in a slideshow, but here we are. I wanted to include a Lifetime biopic here on account of them being awesome, and Liz & Dick just so happens to be the biggest standout in recent memory. At this point in her life, LiLo's notoriety eclipses any film she appears in, so this flick is less about honoring the lives of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and more about banking on the starlet's popularity. And let's be real — this is about as entertaining as it gets. 

     

    Most memorable scene: There are SO many to choose from, but I'm quite fond of the sequence where Elizabeth and Richard have their simultaneous affairs plastered in the newspapers. Mainly because it involves Lindsay Lohan trashing a hotel room and switching in and out of her "accent" with every other word. Ugh, I just love Lifetime so much.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (Milk) 11 of 16
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    True story: I have NEVER cried harder in a movie theater than when I saw Milk back in 2008. The film tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the US. Sean Penn completely transforms into the charismatic politician, going on to win a well-deserved Oscar. Seriously though, bring tissues to this one.

     

    Most memorable scene: Harvey speaks to the entire nation at the San Francisco Pride Parade, despite receiving death threats warning him not to. During the speech (and for most of the movie), you actually forget that you are watching Sean Penn — that's how realistic his portrayal is. 

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Meryl Streep as Julia Child (Julie & Julia) 12 of 16
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    Meryl Streep has portrayed tons of real-life people over the years, including Margaret Thatcher and Karen Silkwood, but her turn as Julia Child in Julie & Julia is hands-down the most delightful. Meryl breathes life and heart into the larger-than-life television personality, and she is undoubtedly the film's shining star. Although let's face it — she could play a spatula and still be the best thing the world has ever seen. 

     

    Most memorable scene: At a Valentine's Day dinner party, Julia and her husband share a lovely moment across the table. The scene doesn't involve cooking at all, but it's exactly the opportunity Streep needs to add dimension to the character. After all, Julia Child wasn't only a chef; she was also a woman in love.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Brad Pitt as Billy Beane (Moneyball) 13 of 16
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    I never expected to connect with, or even really enjoy, a movie about baseball statistics. But Moneyball totally threw me for a loop, thanks in large part to Brad Pitt's turn as general manager Billy Beane. His talkative and humorous scenes are just as good as his quiet scenes, which is quite a testament to Pitt's acting chops. This is definitely his best performance to date, in my severely unprofessional opinion.

     

    Most memorable scene: Pitt is impossibly charismatic during all of the trading and managing scenes, but it's when Billy spends time with his daughter in a music store when his talent really shows. It's the sweetest moment in the whole film, and it's the one I left the theater remembering the most.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabeth) 14 of 16
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    Cate Blanchett is a goddess, and I will never get over the fact that her performance in Elizabeth lost the Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow in 1999 (I hold weird grudges). The film takes many liberties with history, but who cares? It's mainly an outlet through which Blanchett can shine, and shine she does. I can't imagine anyone more intelligent and ethereal ever playing this part.

     

    Most memorable scene: After discovering that her lover Robert Dudley is secretly married, Elizabeth publicly denounces any form of subservience, shouting, "I am no man's Elizabeth!" The scene marks Blanchett's transition from lovestruck girl to assertive monarch, and it makes me want to rejoice in girl power glory every single time.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Russell Crowe as John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) 15 of 16
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    I saw A Beautiful Mind when it first came out in 2002, and there are still a few moments that continue to stick with me, all of which involve Russell Crowe. He translates John Nash's brilliance and instability so perfectly, I'm almost willing to forget about the disaster that was his Les Miserables performance. Almost.

     

    Most memorable scene: Russell Crowe has tons of crazy scenes in this movie, but in case you haven't noticed by now, I tend to go for the more stoic moments. For example, John's attempt to seduce Alicia on their first date is charming and funny ... and yes, it's a little bit crazy as well.

     

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

  • Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great (Alexander) 16 of 16
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    You might expect a big-budget Oliver Stone film starring some of Hollywood's most famous stars to be wonderfully epic, but Alexander falls hilariously short of greatness. Colin Farrell, in the titular role, had to deal with a jaunty script and the worst blonde hair ever captured on celluloid, but he tries his darndest, bless his soul. Is it a good movie? Not so much. But is it memorable? Absolutely.

     

    Most memorable scene: The big confrontation between Alexander and his mother is particularly remarkable. Not only do you get to witness Colin Farrell in all his miniskirt-wearing, temper tantrum-throwing splendor, but you also get to hear the full extent of Angelina Jolie's weird Dracula accent. 

     

    Photo credit: IMDB

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