When Lincoln releases on November 16, Daniel Day-Lewis will don the top hat and beard of America’s most beloved president and join a proud line of actors who’ve taken a stab at recreating history. Performing as a real person is one of the more daunting challenges an actor can face, but as this list of stunning biographical performances shows, the results are often unforgettable.
Jamie Foxx, Ray
The man’s jaw-dropping recreation of Ray Charles’ onstage persona made the movie a treat, but it was Foxx’s quiet revelations of self-doubt that made us feel we were seeing Ray Charles for the very first time.
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Honestly, this list could be comprised entirely of Helen Mirren roles, since her chameleon-like ability to adopt others’ personas has made her the go-to pick for great biopic roles. Her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II caught her at the height of this idiosyncratic prowess.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Truman Capote was one of America’s weirdest celebrities—a singularly odd and complicated socialite. But Hoffman’s interpretation avoided the easy characterization, giving Capote a relatability the man himself avoided.
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
How does one approach a dimensional portrayal of Idi Amin, one of history’s most maniacal dictators? If you’re Forest Whitaker, you do it with heart, and you make sure no one can take their eyes off you every time you’re on screen.
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
This French biopic of singer and cultural icon Édith Piaf may sacrifice clarity for art, but Cotillard’s performance anchors it in truest reality. Cotillard doesn’t seem to be so much acting like Piaf as being possessed by her.