Biography movies (also known as biopics) come in all kinds of flavors, but most of them tend to be focused on musicians, politicians, soldiers, and geniuses. What about actors?
Even though Hollywood loves making movies about itself, the majority of them are fictional. If you dig around a bit, however, you'll find several great biography films about real actors and actresses.
Here are our picks for the best biographical movies that give us a peek into the Hollywood industry, where famous actors toil behind the scenes with work, love, heartbreak, family, and addiction.
15. Mommie Dearest (1981)
A quick Google search might show you that Mommie Dearest is considered one of the worst films ever made, but hear us out! For this movie to be labeled so extremely is proof of its lasting impact.
In fact, Mommie Dearest is so bad that it's good—if you watch it as a comedy rather than a drama—even if lead actress Faye Dunaway still regrets taking the part, haunted by the soul of Joan Crawford who's "just hanging around... as if she couldn't rest."
While Mommie Dearest doesn't show Crawford's whole life, it does show the part where she becomes an abusive, controlling mother. And while her daughter Christiana has said that Joan deserved to go to jail, even she found Frank Perry's depiction over the top...
14. Blonde (2022)
Everybody was excited for the release of Blonde. The crisp black-and white shots, the vintage square ratio, and the illustrious Ana de Armas promised a stylish biopic of the legendary Marilyn Monroe.
Although director Andrew Dominik didn't quite meet expectations, Blonde is still a refreshingly unconventional biography that's held together by visual prowess and keen acting from Armas.
Critics were mainly divided on Blonde's fictionalization of true events. Although it certainly kept things interesting, some found the filled-in gaps of Monroe's memoirs to be exploitative.
13. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
Peter Sellers was an English actor known for his caricature style of comedy, often embodying more than one role at a time (which he did in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove).
Sellers is most famous for portraying the clumsy French detective in The Pink Panther movies. His specific techniques made him a master of comedic timing, parody, and improvisation, although we won't condone his use of brownface in The Party.
Years later, Geoffrey Rush embodied Peter Sellers in Stephen Hopkins's TV movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. It might not capture the entirety of Peter Sellers's creative genius, but it does give us a curious look behind closed doors.
12. Mahanati (2018)
There's more to Indian cinema than just Bollywood. Mahanati is much closer to the narrative arcs we see in Western biopics: a rise to fame, a complicated love life, then alcoholism, illness, bankruptcy, and fall.
However, Nag Ashwin doesn't present us with just another rise-and-fall story. Instead of reducing actress Savitri to her struggles, she's celebrated and enlivened through popping colors and an acclaimed central performance from Keerthy Suresh.
Mahanati was a dazzling success, not just in India but across the globe (even if the runtime is a tad lengthy). The film isn't perfect, but the good parts were great enough to earn it multiple awards.
11. Life (2015)
Director Anton Corbijn offers a small snippet into the life of James Dean, who was basically the male equivalent of Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s.
The first James Dean biography movie on our list, Life centers on Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), a photographer for LIFE Magazine. We get to see how his iconic photoshoot of James Dean came about, with Dean himself played by Dane DeHaan.
Like those actual photos—which are cleverly woven into the film—Life is an artistic sliver of Dean's life, with poetic narrations and a bang-on performance by DeHaan as the sensitive, soft-spoken, chain-smoking rebel without a cause.
10. My Week With Marilyn (2011)
My Week With Marilyn depicts one segment of Marilyn Monroe's glamorous life: the time when she was visiting London with her famous playwright husband Arthur Miller.
She was there to film The Prince and the Showgirl but kept forgetting her lines and leaving the set. She couldn't connect to her character or her husband, so she confided in fresh-faced Oxford graduate Colin—one of many men who got to spend a week with Marilyn Monroe.
Michelle Williams and Eddie Redmayne star as the unexpected couple, taking in the British sights alongside Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, and Dominic Cooper.
9. Elvis (2022)
Elvis Presley was obviously more of a musician than an actor, but he starred in more films than pretty much anyone else on this list. After all, he was first and foremost a performer (which is why he was taken in by circus huckster Colonel Tom Parker).
After breaking racial barriers and rocketing to stardom, Elvis naturally transitioned to Hollywood and churned out an impressive 31 movies that started out as fun but gradually ended up soulless.
Austin Butler embodies the King of Rock in Baz Luhrmann's biopic that's even more glittery than Presley's outfits. We see the light fade from his eyes as he fake-surfs through various movie productions, pill-popping his career away to a hotel prison sentence.
8. Frances (1982)
Frances Farmer was one of those celebrities who was more famous for her private life than her professional one. The American actress appeared in a string of movies during the 1930s, but her hospitalization was the main thing to reach headlines.
Jessica Lange gives a driven performance as Frances, who was a controversial figure since childhood. As a kid, she wrote anti-God essays. As an adult, she refused to play the Hollywood game.
Frances cheats, drinks, refuses to wear makeup on screen, and is eventually committed to Kimball Sanitarium after her abusive mother becomes her legal guardian.
7. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
Bruce Lee is the champion of martial arts movies. The actor/filmmaker moved from British Hong Kong to Seattle at 19 years old to open his own martial arts school before entering the film industry.
Bruce Lee was nicknamed Dragon (or "Little Dragon" when he was young) since he was born in the hour and year of the Chinese zodiac Dragon. His dual identity is explored in Rob Cohen's biography, and thankfully Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story goes beyond skin-deep.
Jason Scott Lee stars as the chiseled karate icon, delving into his Hollywood career and his relationship with Linda Lee Cadwell, all of it flourished with elements of mysticism.
6. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (2017)
"We never expected Gloria Grahame in our kitchen, necking a bacon butty, asking for tommy sauce." Absolutely true! We wouldn't expect the Oscar-winning starlet of Hollywood's Golden Age to be staying in a humdrum area of rainy Liverpool.
Whether or not she really did scarf down bacon butties at the local boozer, we can't be sure. However, we do know that Grahame (played by Annette Bening) spent a lot of her final years in Liverpool.
Initially there for work, she strikes up an unexpected relationship with an amateur actor 30 years younger (Jamie Bell). In Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, director Paul McGuigan shows us how age is just a number.
5. Man on the Moon (1999)
Andy Kaufman was a very different kind of actor. The "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion" purposefully went out of his way to annoy people. Indeed, there were no Oscar ceremonies for him—but there were quite a few wrestling matches (with women only).
In Man on the Moon, Andy Kaufman is played by Jim Carrey, who famously stayed in character and went around annoying everyone on set. A whole documentary—Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)—was even made about Carrey's behavior.
Andy Kaufman was initially a stand-up comedian who made people laugh by being terrible. His Tony Clifton character was particularly grating, and he later featured in the sitcom Taxi with Danny DeVito (who plays Kaufman's manager in Man on the Moon.)
4. Stan & Ollie (2018)
Laurel and Hardy were an infamous comedy duo of the silent film era, mixing with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Their slapstick gags were beloved around the world, with Stan Laurel playing the clumsy man-child and Oliver Hardy the mean bully.
By the 1950s, this type of cinema was dwindling. The pair were starting to age and—having spent so much time together—their friendship even started taking a toll. Clutching at straws, they embarked on a less-than-easy UK musical hall tour.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly flesh out the men in Stan & Ollie, moving with humor and humility. Jon S. Baird's biography doesn't try to be too heavy. It's simply sincere.
3. James Dean (2001)
James Franco's depiction of another actor named James is what effectively put him on the map. Mimicking such a specific personality as James Dean? A tightwalk situation that, thankfully, worked out.
Dean's elusive and cool exterior occasionally breaks away to the chaos and anger underneath in Mark Rydell's biopic. Nobody believed Dean could make it big, but he proves them all wrong.
Dean's own indifferent father likely fueled his emotive performances in East of Eden (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which Franco recreates seamlessly here in James Dean.
2. Judy (2019)
Actress Judy Garland starred in hits like A Star Is Born (1954) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but she remains most famous for playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Most people already know that Judy Garland had a hard life, but few of us really understood how bad it was until we watched Judy. Heaps of horror stories have since come out about the production of The Wizard of Oz, and that's where all the trouble began for Garland.
For starters, MGM forcing her to take drugs as a teenager is likely what propelled Garland into early-life substance abuse.
While Garland's troubles are at the center of Rupert Goold's drama, Judy switches between the start and end of Garland's life (played by an unrecognizable Renée Zellweger).
1. Chaplin (1992)
Charlie Chaplin is a name everyone's heard of. Even if you took the title off Chaplin's poster, you'd know what this film was about! The silhouette of a bowler-hatted tramp is recognizable anywhere.
Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his honorable portrayal of this timeless figure. Looking eerily similar to the real Chaplin, Downey takes us on his literal rags-to-riches journey. (Chaplin went from homelessless to being one of the richest men in the world.)
Chaplin's character of The Tramp was revolutionary for many reasons—mainly for blending pathos and humor during the Keystone days—but he wasn't always so innocent in real life.