With the Netflix trailer for Blonde dropping recently, Ana de Armas’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe looks set to blow previous biopics of the star out of the water when it’s released in September. We count down a dozen other notable performances in a variety of films depicting cultural icons
12 Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nowhere Boy (2009) You might know him as Kick-Ass, but others will always see him as a young John Lennon. With a cheeky persona masking a deep-seated well of loss and longing, Taylor-Johnson not only brought Lennon’s teen self to the silver screen, but he also learned how to play the banjo, the guitar, and the harmonica in order to give his rendering more gravitas.
11 Robert Downey Jr in Chaplin (1992)
It may not be a biopic that immediately springs to mind as one of the all-time greats, but it’s worth remembering that Downey Jr’s performance earned him an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t all about the bowler hat, the cane swivelling and the questionable gait, you know.
10 Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (2004)
This wasn’t a biopic about Katherine Hepburn — in fact, it wasn’t even a leading role — but Blanchett won an Oscar for her efforts, which is more than the film’s actual star, Leonardo DiCaprio, managed for his portrayal of Howard Hughes. Of course, Blanchett had it somewhat easy on account of golden-era siren Hepburn being notoriously private, so there was plenty of room for improvisation.
9 Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
While Malek fully embodied the majesty of Freddie Mercury, one couldn’t help but be a bit miffed that it was a rather sanitised depiction of the Queen frontman. Instead of exploring a huge part of what made Freddie, Freddie — such as his reportedly rampant antics at Ibiza’s infamous Pikes Club Tropicana Hotel — the film-makers opted for a more PG13 approach to proceedings. Still, it was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, and Malek took home the Best Actor gong.
8 Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993)
From the rather sanitised to a starkly graphic portrayal — this film captures the hellscape Tina Turner endured at the hands of her husband and manager, Ike. Based on Turner’s biography, I, Tina, Bassett’s embodiment of the physical and mental abuse is jaw-dropping. And, unfortunately, all too familiar for the time.
7 Austin Butler in Elvis (2022)
Unlike Marilyn (and Jim Morrison, Tupak Shakur, Ray Charles, Elton John, plus many more) the iconic presence of Elvis Presley had never been given the big-screen treatment until this year. I know what you’re thinking, “sure didn’t Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Val Kilmer, Jack White, and Kurt Russell all play Elvis at one point?” Correct, they did, but not to this scale — it was always TV movies/series or bit parts in the likes of True Romance. Therefore, it’s a bit irksome that Austin Butler’s depiction of The King has to share almost equal screen time with Tom Hanks’s Colonel Tom Parker. After all, it’s called Elvis — not Colonel Parker’s Deathbed Ramblings.
6 Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992)
Another pivotal biopic featuring Angela Bassett, Spike Lee’s 1992 homage to African-American activist Malcolm Little has stood the test of time and also garnered Washington his first of many Best Actor Oscar nominations.
5 Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006)
Jane Alexander, Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton, Emma Thompson, Claire Foy, SNL’s Fred Armisen — it’s nigh impossible to keep track of all the famous faces who have played Queen Elizabeth II. There is only one, however, who has won an Oscar for her 2006 depiction of Her Majesty. And before you start saying, “Yeah, but Judi Dench” — that was for her incarnation of Queen Elizabeth I.
4 Will Smith in Ali (2001)
In terms of physical transformation, Smith went above and beyond when it came to portraying the renowned boxer over a 10-year period. The film spans not just his bouts in the ring, but all the life-changing episodes in between, including his conversion to Islam and his return to boxing after his ban. This work earned Smith his first Oscar nomination in 2002, but also gave him the skills to deploy a stinging slap on stage exactly two decades later.
3 Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line (2005)
There was a time when Joaquin Phoenix was merely known as River’s younger brother, a conduit to carry on his sibling’s tragically short legacy. It’s fair to say, however, that Joaquin’s body of work in the years since has been prolific. An unconventional upbringing — his parents were travelling missionaries — coupled with the untimely loss of a loved one seems to have given him a vat of blackness he can mine when required. While this is patently true for his representation of Joker in the eponymous 2019 movie for which he won the Best Actor Oscar, it was far more nuanced when he tapped into the dark side of Johnny Cash.
2 Renée Zellweger in Judy (2019)
Icons don’t come much bigger than Judy Garland. Therefore, when Bridget Jones was cast in the titular role of this biopic, more than a few eyebrows were initially raised. Over the course of her career, however, Zellweger has continuously surprised audiences (look no further than her appearance in Cold Mountain) and therefore brought the necessary old Hollywood glamour melded with pathos, resulting in her second Oscar win.
1 Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything (2014)
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s early years through to his decline from motor neurone disease involved painstaking research across every facet of the man. The actor didn’t just get grinds in physics and read the scientist’s books and papers, he also immersed himself in neurological clinics while collaborating with a choreographer to convincingly showcase a gradual physical decline. Needless to say, it was an Oscar-winning performance. There will undoubtedly be those who quibble over whether Stephen Hawking qualifies as an ‘icon’. In such instances, you need to apply The Simpsons Test. In addition to being directly referenced in approximately 10 episodes, Hawking also appeared as himself in the ‘Mr Lisa’s Opus’ episode. Ergo, he is iconic not only in the science world but also across pop culture.