Kino Lorber; William Gray/Showtime
Autumn is often synonymous with Oscar-bait biopics at the movie theater. While much in pop culture has changed in 2020, this season's slate of films and series is still brimming with projects based on real-life figures — everyone from Nikola Tesla and Gloria Steinem to lesser-known luminaries such as paleontologist Mary Anning and screenwriter Harold J. Mankiewicz. Check out this handpicked watch list of new movies and TV shows that are pure biopic pleasure, and where to watch them.
The biopic: Tesla
The historical figure: Ethan Hawke as inventor Nikola Tesla
What to look for: Before his name became synonymous with electric cars, the Serbian American scientist was one of this country's most brilliant minds, and his invention of alternating current famously put him at odds with Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan, 61). Directed by the boundary-pushing Michael Almereyda, 61, the film turns the biopic formula on its head, thanks to postmodern stylistic choices (outdoor scenes take place in front of obvious backdrops), weird anachronisms (characters use iPhones and laptops) and whimsical musical interludes. Where else can you hear Nikola Tesla sing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World"?
Has he been biopic-ed before?: Many times, including portrayals by David Bowie in The Prestige, John C. Reilly, 55, on Drunk History and Nicholas Hoult in The Current War.
Where to watch: Out now on demand, including Amazon Prime
The biopic: I Am Woman
The historical figure: Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Australian singer Helen Reddy
What to look for: Can you read that movie title without at least humming a few bars of the second-wave feminist rallying cry? This charming origin story traces the rise of the Melbourne-born singer as she moves to New York in 1966 and becomes one of the biggest-selling pop stars of the ‘70s. After you watch, be sure to cue up the movie soundtrack, which includes such hits as “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby."
Have she been biopic-ed before?: Nope.
Where to watch: Out now on demand, including Amazon Prime
The biopic: The Comey Rule
The historical figures: Jeff Daniels, 65, as James Comey and Brendan Gleeson, 65, as Donald Trump
What to look for: One of the first dramatizations of the Trump presidency, this two-night miniseries is based on the former FBI director's 2017 book and costars Holly Hunter, 62, as Sally Yates and Peter Coyote, 78, as Robert Mueller. Writer-director Billy Ray, 57, has found success before while adapting the stories of real people: His screenplay for Captain Phillips was nominated for an Oscar, and Richard Jewell and Shattered Glass earned raves.
Has he been biopic-ed before?: On SNL alone, Trump has been played by Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond (64), Taran Killam and Alec Baldwin (62), who won an Emmy for the role, while Johnny Depp, 57, took on the challenge in the 2016 parody The Art of the Deal: The Movie.
Where to watch: Coming Sept. 27 to Showtime
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The biopic: The Glorias
The historical figure: Julianne Moore, 59, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson and Ryan Kira Armstrong as feminist icon Gloria Steinem
What to look for: Broadway director Julie Taymor, 67, of The Lion King fame, found cinematic success with her imaginative, Salma Hayek–starring biopic Frida, and now she's turning to Steinem's 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road, for inspiration. If the pluralized title isn't a dead giveaway, the film stars four actresses playing the Ms. magazine founder at four different ages. Rounding out the cast of historic feminists are Bette Midler (74) as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Lorraine Toussaint (60) as Florynce Kennedy.
Has she been biopic-ed before?: Yes, most recently by Rose Byrne in this year's Mrs. America miniseries.
Where to watch: Coming Sept. 30 to Amazon Prime
The biopic: The Good Lord Bird
The historical figure: Ethan Hawke as abolitionist John Brown
What to look for: Historians are constantly assessing and reassessing the merits of the notorious abolitionist, who argued that violence was the only effective way to end the evils of slavery. Draw your own conclusions as you watch this surprisingly raucous adventure, which is based on the National Book Award–winning novel by James McBride and costars Hamilton's Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass.
Has he been biopic-ed before?: Canadian actor Raymond Massey played Brown twice, in Santa Fe Trail (1940) and Seven Angry Men (1955).
Where to watch: Coming Oct. 4 to Showtime
The biopic: The Right Stuff
The historical figures: Jake McDorman as Alan Shepard, Patrick J. Adams as John Glenn and more
What to look for: If you're a fan of the 1983 epic movie about America's first astronauts, you'll love this gritty eight-episode retelling, also based on the Tom Wolfe book. You may recognize some of the actors playing the test pilots turned Mercury Seven astronauts from their work on other shows: McDorman (Shepard) stepped into the role of Murphy Brown's adult son for the 2018 reboot, Colin O'Donoghue (Gordon Cooper) played Hook on Once Upon a Time, and Adams (Glenn) starred for nine seasons — and married Meghan Markle — on Suits.
Have they been biopic-ed before?: The cast has big spacesuits to fill. The 1983 version included acting heavyweights such as Ed Harris, Sam Shepard and Dennis Quaid.
Where to watch: Coming Oct. 9 to Disney+
RELATED: If you love movies based on books, we've got your whole fall reading (and watching!) list right where you want it. Check it out: Dear Book Lovers: Have We Got a TV Watch List for You!
The biopic: The Trial of the Chicago 7
The historical figures: Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden and (many!) more
What to look for: For his second film as director, Aaron Sorkin, 59, takes on the Chicago Seven, antiwar protestors charged with inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Much like his TV shows, such as The West Wing, the film stars an impressively deep bench of award-winning talent that — in addition to Cohen, Redmayne, and Succession's Jeremy Strong as three of the namesake defendants — includes Mark Rylance (60), Frank Langella (82), William Hurt (70) and Michael Keaton (69).
Have they been biopic-ed before?: The summer of ‘68 is well-trod cinematic territory, but Abbie Hoffman's life has been dramatized more than most; the Yippie founder was played most famously by Vincent D'Onofrio in 2000's Steal This Movie!
Where to watch: Coming Oct. 16 to Netflix
The biopic: The Crown
The historical figures: Gillian Anderson, 52, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Emma Corrin as Lady Diana Spencer
What to look for: The Crown may already be your favorite show, but its aging-up recasting strategy makes it feel fresh every season. Joining last year's newcomers, Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter, 54, for Season 4 will be Anderson as the Iron Lady and Corrin as the future princess.
Have they been biopic-ed before?: Meryl Streep, 71, earned her third Oscar playing Thatcher in 2011's The Iron Lady, while Diana, starring Naomi Watts, 51, was critically panned two years later. A Diana musical, starring Jeanna de Waal, was set to premiere on Broadway this spring before the pandemic put performances on indefinite pause.
Where to watch: Coming Nov. 15 to Netflix
The biopic: Ammonite
The historical figure: Kate Winslet as 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning
What to look for: Anning may not be a household name, but her fossil discoveries along the English coast had an incredible impact on the way we think about prehistoric life.
Fun fact: Some even believe she was the inspiration for the tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.” In this melancholy period romance, Anning strikes up a forbidden relationship with a young married woman played by Saoirse Ronan. They have 11 Oscar nominations (and one win) between them, so expect the acting to be as rock-solid as the fossils Anning is unearthing.
Has she been biopic-ed before?: Yes, surprisingly! Indie filmmaker Sharon Sheehan recently wrote, directed and starred in a two-part feature Mary Anning & the Dinosaur Hunters.
Where to watch: Coming Nov. 19 at locations/on platforms to be named
RELATED: Like some of the season's most intriguing films, Ammonite just previewed at an international film festival (Toronto!). Want to get a first look at great new films along with the critics? This year you can — virtually, that is — and we've got the inside guide on how: You Can Virtually Attend the Season's Best Film Festivals
The biopic: Mank
The historical figure: Gary Oldman, 58, as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz
What to look for: Oldman — who recently won an Oscar playing Winston Churchill — stars as the famed Hollywood writer, as he battles with Orson Welles over screenplay credits for Citizen Kane. Director David Fincher, 58, based the film on a script written by his late journalist father, Jack.
Have they been biopic-ed before?: John Malkovich, 66, earned an Emmy nomination for playing Mankiewicz in the 1999 HBO made-for-TV movie RKO 281.
Where to watch: Coming soon to Netflix