It seems like one of the surest ways to score an Oscar nomination is to play a real, flesh and blood, human being of historical significance, preferably a singer. Whether they were after that elusive gold gent or not, we've seen some pretty remarkable transformations over the years that have illuminated many a treasured existence.
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures
The trick with this list was selecting celebrities that have been captured on film or video enough to provide a viable comparison. So...delightful as their performances were, anyone playing Mozart, Spartacus, T.E. Lawrence, or Butch Cassidy has to wing it when it came to true authenticity. We graded the 10 below on raw accuracy. Did they make you believe?
By Brandon Jones
10. Denzel Washington as Malcom X in X
Just one look at the poster and you can tell Spike Lee wanted someone that not only preached passionately like Malcolm X but an actor that stared intently like him too. The film was its own media movement, sparked off the fired-up careers of Lee and Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington. Denzel actually joined other heavyweights like James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman in playing the irreplaceable African-American idealist. But there was something about Washington's intensity that made musicians and fans embrace Malcolm's Islamic message, not to mention fashion trends.
9. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida
Source: Miramax Films
Considered more of a traditional Hollywood beauty that the exotic and often misunderstood Kahlo, Salma Hayek bore a bold brow to completely immerse herself in the Mexican artist's world. If there's one thing that the surrealist icon and Hayek have in common, they're both obsessed with Frida Kahlo, and it showed. Both their boyishness and sultriness were the same, but above all else, their passion for her life was indistinguishable. Most celebrities of Frida's magnitude would be ashamed or disinterested in the story of their life, but Hayek and director Julie Taymor's fiesta would have made its true creator proud.
8. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland
Source: Fox Searchlight Pictures
It takes a larger-than-life performance to upstage the actor technically cast as the lead in the film to upgrade from Best Supporting to Best Lead Actor at the Academy, Golden Globe, and SAG Awards. Sadly, the movie theater lobbies were not buzzing about James McAvoy. It would have been easy for the atrocities of Idi Amin to define any one actor's take on the outspoken dictator, but there's something about how Forest Whitaker can seem completely taken - mind, body and soul - by his work. To mimic the mind of madness you have to be a little mad yourself.
7. Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi in Gandhi
Source: Columbia Pictures
Sir Kingsley has made himself known to the masses on more than one occasion throughout his epic four-decade acting legacy. Looking back most don't remember it was the 1982 biopic (his second feature film) that gave him the choices to mold the future of his career...along with a shiny Academy Award. Gandhi's visage is visually married to peace and patience, but to break through vague perceptions and stereotypes and humanize such a gifted thinker has got to be as intimidating as it gets for an actor. Both critics and audiences agreed that Kingsley made it look effortless.
6. Jennifer Lopez as Selena Perez in Selena
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures
Most of these actors would consider it an incredibly humbling experience to step into the shoes of these characters that changed the course of our history. In the case of Jennifer Lopez, however, she was just getting started when she slipped on the denim and sequins of the young Latina pop sensation. Lopez didn't revitalize Perez's legacy, she nearly displaced it. This happened even after the late singer's fans were outraged that a New York City native born to Puerto Rican parents was the new face of the Mexican superstar. After they saw the film, most of these cries faded into the crowd.
5. George C. Scott as General George S. Patton in Patton
Source: 20th Century Fox
Scott playing a hardass named George is not a giant stretch. Historians even noted the actor had a more gravelly voice than the high nasally pitch of the decorated General. But the rest of Scott's dedication was loud and proud down to the authentic ivory-handled revolvers on loan from the Patton museum. Family members confessed at being moved to tears after simply being around him, and the opening scene made a Patton pre-war pep-talk one of the most referenced monologues in cinema. The film also opened audience's eyes to the refreshing frankness possible in war flicks, especially involving their most revered heroes.
4. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray
Source: Universal Pictures
More than anyone on this list, Jamie Foxx's uncanny resemblance to Ray Charles should be noted, even with the ambiguous assistance of thick black glasses. It was one of those moments where you question if Foxx's career has been building, or was even started, to see him play this role. And this is the same Jamie Foxx from Any Given Sunday and Booty Call. It took fifteen years to gather the independent funds to produce the film on a script printed in Braille and approved by Ray, but it gave Foxx enough time to share the music icon's last moments. There was arguably no better way to celebrate Ray's life.
3. Toby Jones as Truman Capote in Infamous
Source: Arclight Films
Truman Capote was definitely an odd egg, so it would have to fall on another mold-breaker to either recreate that eccentricity or generate his own. Toby Jones had only been seen onscreen a handful of times, among them The Messenger and Finding Neverland, and the advertising budget of Infamous lost out to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Capote, and Jones watched Hoffman pick up an Oscar and Golden Globe. For this list one performance wasn't necessarily "better" than the other, but Toby Jones virtually disappears in the role. Critics praised Hoffman's impression of Capote, but honored Jones for opening the man's soul.
2. Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose
Source: Légende Films
It's one thing to re-capture a moment in pop culture history, and quite another to see almost full life evolve in the span of two hours. Most of the entries on this list finally found their first Oscar or universal acclaim by playing a historical figure, but Cotillard burst into the mainstream and nabbed a golden prize on the same night. Her devotion to the late French singer was gut-wrenching; with desperate eyes burning through all those pounds of masterfully layered makeup. She dragged Edith out of obscurity and into the hearts of millions.
1. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors
Source: TriStar Pictures
The surviving band members made it very clear following the 1991 film that Val Kilmer's portrayal was more Jimbo the drunkard than Jim the poet, but most of that blame can be directed at Oliver Stone for his choice of moments to highlight from Morrison's life. Kilmer's performance was filled with more than enough of the raw aggression Stone needed to make the story compelling, as Kilmer stared down the rock star's inevitable death at 27. He had to carry the legacy, the band, and the whole two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie. Kilmer sent in a demo of himself singing Doors songs and asked Stone to choose which songs were him, and which songs were really Morrison. When Stone replied with his guesses, Val confessed they were all him. The rest was the heavily dramatized retelling of music history where Kilmer seemed to channel the "it" factor that made Jim relevant decades after his death.
Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days
Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster
Dan Hedaya as Richard Nixon in Dick
Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Lenny
Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon
Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story
Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia
Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus
Robert De Niro as Jake Lamotta in Raging Bull
Robert Downey Jr. as Charles Chaplin in Chaplin
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk
Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in Ali