In an era where IP and name recognition are everything, biopics provide filmmakers a unique opportunity to examine the figures with whom the audience may already be familiar while delivering riveting stories of human drama and exploring the times in which the events took place.
Biopics have evolved over the years from the cradle-to-the-grave model to ones that often tell the stories of their subjects by focusing on a specific period of time in their lives that effectively illuminates their life story. And, of course, biopics remain a durable genre for awards season, with recent films like Mank, The Two Popes, Judy, Harriet, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Bohemian Rhapsody, Bombshell, Vice, Green Book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Darkest Hour, Loving, Jackie, Hidden Figures, and I, Tonya finding success at the Oscars in just the past five years.
Here, then, are the major biopics of 2021, all of which have delighted audiences and critics alike over the past year.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Being the Ricardos stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the iconic couple behind the 1950s TV show I Love Lucy. Being the Ricardos showcases one particular week in the production meetings and on the set of an I Love Lucy episode that happens to be rife with challenges, as Lucy finds out that she’s pregnant, strongly suspects Desi of infidelity, and tries to cope with an incendiary newspaper report alleging that she is a member of the Communist Party. Flashbacks showing Lucy and Desi’s history are interspersed in to further explore who these two legends were in real life. Supporting work is provided by J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy.
Greville Wynne might be one of the great unheralded heroes of the 20th century, and the information he acquired as a British spy dealing with Soviet agents in the 1960s became crucial to the de-escalation of tensions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Benedict Cumberbatch brings Wynne to life in this tense espionage thriller by director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach), which also stars Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, and Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky, the Russian information source who was arrested with Wynne by the KGB in 1962.
In one of the most prolific years of his career, Benedict Cumberbatch has portrayed a cowboy, a sorcerer supreme, a spy, a marine prosecutor, and a… cat artist? As the titular Louis Wain, Cumberbatch helps bring to life the eccentric artist of Victorian England whose strange and delightful paintings of cats not only enchanted the populace, but also helped popularize keeping cats as household pets. Claire Foy gives a supporting performance as Wain’s no-nonsense romantic partner, and Olivia Colman is the narrator of Wain’s story.
Jessica Chastain both produced and starred in this biopic of the infamous televangelist, whose complicated life was told with the nuance it deserves in this Michael Showalter romantic drama. Despite a marriage that was wrecked by a financial scandal and an appearance that was constantly mocked, Tammy Faye Bakker was beloved by many for her earnestness, and for her important work in helping to spearhead LGBTQ acceptance in the Christian conservative mainstream. Chastain’s performance brings all of these disparate sides to life, and Andrew Garfield provides supporting work as Tammy’s ambitious husband, Jim Bakker.
Lady Gaga and Adam Driver play the volatile couple at the center of this stranger-than-fiction tale of ego, divorce, backstabbing, and murder. The Ridley Scott crime drama depicts the relationship between Patrizia Reggiani and Maurizio Gucci, and the leadership of Gucci from the 1970s to the 1990s. Oscar winners Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Jared Leto provide supporting work as eccentric members of the wealthy Italian family, and Salma Hayek plays an opportunistic psychic who might as well be the three witches whispering in Macbeth’s ear.
After earning rave reviews at Sundance last year, Judas and the Black Messiah went on to receive six Academy Awards nominations last year, winning two Oscars, one for Best Original Song and another for Daniel Kaluuya for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his memorable performance as Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader cruelly murdered by the FBI at the age of 21 after being deemed a radical threat to the country. Dominique Fishback and Lakeith Stanfield also turn in heart-wrenching performances, with the latter earning his first Oscar nomination for playing FBI informant Bill O’Neal.
Two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith plays Richard Williams, loving father and persistent tennis coach of Venus and Serena Williams. Raising his precocious daughters in Compton – south of downtown Los Angeles – during the 1990s, Williams had a detailed plan to turn them into tennis champions. The film makes a point to show that no matter how unlikely and downright ludicrous this idea seemed to those around him, Richard Williams never wavered. As sports fans know today, every aspect of that plan worked perfectly. Aunjanue Ellis plays Brandi Williams, the girls’ mother, Saniyya Sidney plays Venus, and Demi Singleton plays Serena. The film was written by Zach Baylin and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green.
Kevin Macdonald directs this charged story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent over a decade detained by the U.S. government at Guantánamo Bay without being charged. French actor Tahar Rahim (known for Asghar Farhadi’s The Past and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet) plays Slahi, Jodie Foster plays Slahi’s attorney, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays the military prosecutor assigned to the case.
Jennifer Hudson portrays the woman Rolling Stone once called the greatest singer ever, Aretha Franklin. Hudson is no stranger to combining the power of her voice with her acting – she won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for acting and singing in the 2006 Bill Condon musical drama Dreamgirls. Here, in Liesl Tommy’s musical drama, Hudson plays Franklin during her rise to stardom. The film co-stars Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, and Forest Whitaker.
Acclaimed Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, who directed the 2016 drama Jackie, returns to tell another story of an iconic woman. . Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in the early 1990s at a turning point in her life when she must decide what kind of woman and mother she wants to be. The film, written by Steven Knight, co-stars Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Jack Farthing, who plays Prince Charles.
JR Moehringer’s 2005 memoir about growing up on Long Island and learning life lessons from his loving uncle was adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed). In this coming of age film, produced and directed by George Clooney, Moehringer is portrayed as both an adolescent (Daniel Ranieri) and a college student (Tye Sheridan) on his way to a career as a writer. Growing up with his mother in the home of his grandfather, Moehringer tries to cope with having an absent father by bonding with his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a caring and deceptively wise bartender.
2021 saw numerous major musicals bring that long-dormant genre back to the zeitgeist, and one of them was this adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage play, detailing the Rent creator’s early struggles to make it on Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and In the Heights fame) makes his feature film directorial debut, and Andrew Garfield portrays Larson in New York City at the beginning of the 1990s at a time in his life when he is struggling with financial worries, relationships, and meeting deadlines, all while dreading his looming 30th birthday. The film, written by Steven Levenson, co-stars Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens, and Bradley Whitford.
After taking several years away from making films to focus on TV projects (such as Empire), Lee Daniels returns to films with this biopic about Billie Holiday’s struggles with addiction and FBI persecution following her controversial-at-the-time recording of the now-classic song “Strange Fruit.” Andra Day earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (in the first major film role of her career) for her powerful portrayal of the legendary singer.