When an actress portrays a real-life person in a biopic, the result is usually one of two: great triumph or monumental failure.
Biographical movies present one of the greatest risks for any performer because they demand far more. Unlike a normal movie, in which the actress has creative license in how they appear on screen, biographical performances must capture the spirit of an actual person.
Throughout cinema history, viewers have been drawn to movies that bring high-profile figures to life on screen—and the aspect that draws us is the opportunity to witness the intricate details of a person whom we know so much about, yet also know so little about.
Here are the Hollywood actresses who gave the best biographical movie performances and successfully made their marks with wholly resonating commitment.
8. Natalie Portman in Jackie (2016)
The soft-spoken widow of former President John F. Kennedy is a woman who’s become an icon of the 20th century.
The footage of her trying to help her husband just moments after he’d been assassinated will remain in the public consciousness long after the event itself passes from living memory.
One can only imagine the daunting challenge of playing the former First Lady. And yet, as Jackie Kennedy, Natalie Portman found her place in her shoes. She understood the gentle nature of the woman while bringing across her painful past with vivid emotional depth.
For her performance, Portman garnered a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress, which has only looked better with age. Many now believe she should have won it.
7. Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011)
With her acting record of 21 Academy Award nominations, Meryl Streep is widely considered one of the finest actresses in history. However, many heads turned when she confirmed she’d be playing the part of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher isn’t a beloved figure in the UK, and her legacy is one that’s quite divisive across the nation. The idea of an American stepping into the shoes of Britain’s first female Prime Minister? Risky.
But Streep delivered a powerhouse performance as the eponymous Iron Lady, successfully portraying Thatcher’s rage, her toughness to those around her, and her ability to bring others to her side.
Streep swept awards season and won her third Academy Award, proving herself to be as versatile as any actor before her.
6. Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006)
As one of the most iconic figures in British Royal history, the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is a difficult one to get right… given that the real-life monarch still breathes and reigns on the throne.
However, Helen Mirren’s intricate performance as the Queen—set during the rise of new Labour after the death of Princess Diana—is an astounding look at a woman who’s rarely made mistakes.
Mirren captures her soft nature and the knowledge she holds for the constitution she’s sworn to uphold. However, in her character, she also finds room for self-doubt and change, which is brought across with perfect Royal demeanor by the Dame.
Mirren won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth II in The Queen, which has remained the quintessential portrayal of the iconic monarch.
5. Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn (2011)
Marilyn Monroe has inspired many movies over the years as a Hollywood superstar with a tragic death. Various actresses have attempted to channel Monroe’s spirit and energy into performances that get to the heart of the troubled icon.
But none have done better than Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, which depicts the troubled production of The Prince and the Showgirl. Williams embodies the duality of Norma Jean and her alter-ego, which causes nothing but pain and confusion for the star.
Through Williams, Marilyn Monroe becomes a fully-rounded character, one who’s trapped in a bad marriage and desperately looking for an escape from the complications it brings her.
Michelle Williams garnered an Academy Award nomination for her work, which dug down into the depths of the famed actress.
4. Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000)
The unsure swagger of Erin Brockovich is what Julia Roberts best captured about the famous legal figure; her forthright attitude and sharp tongue were cherries on top of that.
Julia Roberts made a career shift in portraying Erin Brockovich. Not since Pretty Woman had Roberts taken a character as far as she took Erin, and it paid off handsomely.
In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts gave a resonating performance that highlighted the incredible work done by the real-life Brockovich.
For her performance, Roberts won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and her career hasn’t yielded a role as definitive since. Sure, she’s enjoyed success in other ways, but she still hasn’t equaled the emotional depth she found in Erin’s shoes.
3. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
As one of the greatest actresses and performers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Cate Blanchett has made a career out of versatility. That was proven by her breakout role as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth.
As the near-mythic Queen, Blanchett casts off the shackles of contemporary womanhood to depict a Queen who’s willing to push herself harder and further than any before.
She dominated the screen and her co-stars with her performance, giving the iconic monarch a place in modern cinematic history and inspiring renewed interest in the real-life figure.
For her role, Blanchett rose to international fame while garnering an Academy Award nomination.
2. Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)
From what little we truly know about Queen Anne, Olivia Colman was able to take that and spin it into a beautifully woven piece that brings the person to vivid life in The Favourite.
As the Queen of England, in a time of Empire, she commanded great power—but she herself was unfit to command.
The multiple losses that Queen Anne endured had clearly destroyed her mental health, and that’s at the core of Olivia Colman’s deeply troubled performance. Colman used every scene to set her co-stars on uneven footing, portraying Anne as a vessel of wildly erratic behaviour.
It marks an astonishing performance by the actress, who deservedly won an Academy Award for her role.
1. Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)
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In order to convincingly portray convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Charlize Theron transformed herself at every level to show a woman who murdered several people an odd sense of sympathy.
As the famed killer, Theron became a woman traumatized by her life, who reached a point where she couldn’t take any further punishment from those around her.
Through that, Theron found her Aileen—and committed herself to a dedicated performance that few have ever matched. We feel for Aileen even as she commits these heinous crimes before our eyes, all because of the visceral depth that Theron gave her.
The film made Theron’s career and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, proving that—along with her other performances throughout the years—she’s capable of a versatility that few possess.