20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection; Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection
En español | Who does not love a biopic? Using the life of a real person — sometimes famous, sometimes less so — to illustrate grand sweeps of history and culture or illuminate underseen moments, this popular genre is built for obsessive watching (not to mention Oscar nods). Part of the thrill of a biopic is that feeling of getting inside another life for a few hours, of seeing the world through another set of eyes. Sure, they're not documentary-level accurate at times, but biopics are great entertainment and can open us up to whole new areas to explore further.
Enjoy a walk in someone else's shoes on your next movie night with these 17 fascinating films from every decade from the 1970s to now.
Best actor Oscar-winner George C. Scott led the pack of seven wins — including best picture — for this rousing World War II drama. He slays and speechifies as the famed, controversial, cigar-chomping iconoclast Gen. George C. Patton, with Karl Malden in strong support as Gen. Omar N. Bradley.
RELATED: Isn't it hard to believe that Patton was made 50 years ago? Check out 11 more memorable films all notching a half century in 2020, here: You Won't Believe the Movies That Are Turning 50 in 2020
20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection
Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field, 73, won the Oscar for playing the titular spunky North Carolina factory worker who stood up on the shop table and rallied her mill colleagues to unionize in this inspiring, well-acted and fact-based entertainment.
Where to watch: Hulu
Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
Sissy Spacek, 70, sings her heart out as Loretta Lynn, 88, the “Queen of Country Music” — and nails an Oscar-winning performance. The biopic follows her rags to riches story from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, to the spotlight of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. Tommy Lee Jones, 73, plays her husband, manager and father of their six children.
RELATED: Did Loretta Lynn put you in a country music mood? Check out our latest playlist of new country singers, ready to stream right from your favorite device, here: Try AARP's New Country Music Playlist
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In a bit of casting that would be considered insensitive in the current climate, English actor Sir Ben Kingsley, 76, portrays the Indian lawyer and activist whose nonviolent movement helped to end British rule on the subcontinent. Helmed by the late Richard Attenborough, the epic drama scored eight Oscars, including Kingsley's best actor, Attenborough's best director, and best picture.
The Last Emperor (1987)
Legendary director Bernardo Bertolucci crafts an epic tale of China's final emperor, Pu Yi, played as an adult by John Lone, 67, alongside fellow cast members Joan Chen, 59, and the late Peter O'Toole. It won a mammoth nine Oscars in 1988, including best picture and best director.
Malcolm X (1992)
Denzel Washington, 65, delivers a powerful, multilayered and memorable star turn in Spike Lee's drama about Black minister, visionary and civil rights activist Malcolm X, who was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965. (The Academy nominated Washington for best actor, but he lost to Al Pacino, 80, for Scent of a Woman.)
Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection
What's Love Got to Do with It? (1993)
Angela Bassett, 61, got the role of her career — and an Oscar nomination — as the indomitable Tina Turner née Anna Mae Bullock in Brian Gibson's inspiring biopic based on the memoir I, Tina. The singer, dancer and force of nature struggles to find her own footing, escaping her abusive marriage to her husband and musical partner, Ike (Laurence Fishburne, 58), in this deeply affecting film.
This brilliant biopic directed by Julie Taymor, 67, demands a second look. The colorful period drama stars Oscar nominee Salma Hayek, 53, channeling Mexico's most famous female artist whose body was also a canvas for her self-expression. Alfred Molina, 67, plays her soulmate, genius artist and unfaithful husband, Diego Rivera.
Comedian Jamie Foxx, 52, displayed his singing and acting chops — and won the best actor Oscar — for his portrayal of the vibrant, blind musician Ray Charles. Directed by Taylor Hackford, 75, it also stars award-winning actors Regina King and Kerry Washington.
Walk the Line (2005)
A turbo-charged Joaquin Phoenix courted Oscar in his transformative performance as country music legend Johnny Cash, but it was his costar Reese Witherspoon playing the love of his life, June Carter, who scored an award win for best actress. Another American beauty from Ford v. Ferrari director James Mangold, 56.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Sophia Coppola's irreverent and candy-colored biopic is a royal girls-just-wanna-have-fun period piece. The delightful Kirsten Dunst plays the famed “let them eat cake” queen like a Kardashian from her arrival as a foreigner to the Court of Versailles until the fun ends when she meets the guillotine. It's a female-directed, female-driven pic that takes mad liberties with the source material years before The Favourite — and won a best achievement in costume design Oscar for its flamboyant and gorgeous attire.
The Queen (2007)
In this spellbinding chamber biopic directed by Stephen Frears, 79, Dame Helen Mirren, 74, humanizes and charms as Queen Elizabeth II. The movie concentrates on the period when the English monarch was coping with her life and legacy in the wake of the premature death of her hugely popular former daughter-in-law Princess Diana. Mirren won the best actress Oscar, natch.
Method actor Sean Penn, 59, earned his second best actor Oscar for channeling landmark gay politician Harvey Milk. The fast-talking, outspoken New Yorker moved west, where he found his political power in San Francisco's Castro District. In 1977, Milk became California's first openly gay elected public official — only to be assassinated the following year by Dan White (Josh Brolin, 52). In 2009, the Academy nominated the potent period piece directed by Gus Van Sant, 67, for eight Oscars, including best picture.
RELATED: Milk is just one of many excellent films about LGBTQ lives and experiences. Check our latest critics’ picks for more: 12 Great LGBTQ Movies to Stream Right Now
The King's Speech (2010)
More English court drama as the stuttering King George VI (Oscar winner Colin Firth, 59) overcomes his disability and unexpectedly ascends to the throne in 1936 when his Nazi-sympathizing older brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce, 52), abdicates to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Geoffrey Rush, 69, plays the unconventional speech therapist who gives the good-hearted “Bertie” the vocal confidence to lead a nation and an empire in trying times. Can four Oscars — best picture, best actor, best director and best screenplay — be wrong?
Darkest Hour (2017)
Gary Oldman, 62, almost unrecognizable beneath facial prosthetics and sporting a fat suit, won his 2018 best actor Oscar playing Winston Churchill under the direction of period pro Joe Wright. The English prime minister confronts the biggest challenge of his career, the Second World War, and his fiercest enemy, Adolf Hitler, while battling his “black dog” of depression and alcoholism.
Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
Eddie Murphy, 59, was robbed — robbed! — by not getting a 2020 Oscar nomination for his unselfconscious portrayal of comedian, singer, actor and film producer Rudy Ray Moore, who could be considered the Ed Wood of comic Blaxploitation films. Murphy sings, dances, carouses and wisecracks in this generous 1970s period film that will stand the test of time.
Where to watch: Netflix
Renée Zellweger, 51, earned her comeback best actress Oscar in Rupert Goold's heartrending biopic. The weepy musical drama focuses on the 1968 last London hurrah of singer and movie star Judy Garland — and the drug, drink and eating-disorder demons that foreshadowed her death only months away.