Hollywood loves a prestige biopic. It’s nearly a guaranteed Oscar nomination for everyone involved. In fact, if you check out this list from Rolling Stone, you’ll see that more than two dozen acting Academy Awards have been handed out for roles based on real-life people. Biopics are also a great way to learn about the lives of historical figures and celebrities… as long as you take everything with a grain of salt. With that being said, these are the famous figures from history and pop culture who deserve—no, demand!—the prestige biopic treatment.
How is it possible that no one has cast Ruth Negga in a biopic about Josephine Baker? Although she’s best remembered for her famous routine while wearing a skirt made of bananas, Baker was so much more than that. Born in America, she became a French citizen in 1937 after performing in Paris for a decade. During World War II, she worked with the French Resistance and was later awarded a medal for her efforts.
Baker was also a civil rights activist throughout the 50s and 60s, and she gave a speech during the historic 1963 March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She also had an extremely spicy personal life—a must for any good biopic—with multiple marriages and affairs (including a rumored liaison with Frida Kahlo). Later in life, Baker also adopted a dozen children of different nationalities!
Depending on your age, you either think of Christopher Lee as the star of Hammer Horror films such as Dracula or as Saruman from Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku from the Star Wars prequels. Lee was all of that and more, with an incredible career that spanned six decades. He was close friends with fellow horror star Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars) as well as Vincent Price. Fun fact: the birthdays of the three men were just one day apart!
Off-screen, Lee was an intelligence officer for the Royal Air Force during World War II. Later in life, he recorded a series of albums—first, fairly traditional opera records, followed by a pair of symphonic metal albums. Lee very nearly married a countess and had to ask the King of Sweden for permission, but after calling off the wedding at the 11th hour, he met and married Danish painter and model Gitte Krøncke, who remained by his side from 1961 until his death in 2015.
Has there ever been a more chaotic First Daughter than Alice Roosevelt? The oldest daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, Alice was born into wealth—but also to tragedy. Her mother died just two days after Alice’s birth, on the same day that Teddy Roosevelt’s mother died, leaving him so traumatized that he was unable to parent her. Instead, he left Alice in the care of his sister until he married his second wife. Maybe it was because of her father’s DNA, or maybe it was because of her upbringing, but Alice grew up to be a headstrong hellion.
Beautiful and rich, Alice was a trendsetter from the moment her father took office. She did not care about propriety and was known for her wild lifestyle. She kept a pet snake in her handbag called Emily Spinach, placed bets with bookies, played pranks on political visitors, buried a voodoo doll of William Taft’s wife in the front yard of the White House, and generally lived life to the hilt.
I’m not sure if she’d be up to the accent work, but doesn’t Alice Roosevelt bear a resemblance to Sophie Turner?
In Bessie Coleman’s short life, she achieved so much. Of Black and Native American heritage, she worked the cotton fields as a child, but her thoughts were always in the clouds—literally. Coleman dreamed of flying, but as a woman of color in 1915, she had no options for training in America.
Undeterred, Coleman worked multiple jobs after moving to Chicago in the hopes of saving up enough money to travel to France. Newspaper publisher Robert Abbott heard about her dreams and sponsored her trip to Paris in 1920. A year later, she became the first Black woman and first Native American to earn an aviator’s license. Coleman pursued a career as a barnstorming, performing death-defying stunts. She earned the nickname “Queen Bess” from the adoring public. Tragically, she died in a crash in 1926 at the age of 34.
Another pioneering woman in need of a biopic is Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Before deciding that astrophysics was her true passion, Ride pursued competitive tennis during college but ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right path for her. Instead, she transferred to Stanford in her junior year and earned a BS in physics and a BA in literature—quite the achievement. Ride went on to pursue a doctorate in physics, but she continued teaching tennis lessons to fund her education. She happened to graduate shortly before NASA announced a new recruitment drive for female astronauts.
Ride would end up flying aboard the Challenger in 1983 and again in 1984. After the Challenger exploded in 1986, Ride found herself at odds with NASA leadership and began a teaching career. Although her professional life is remarkable enough on its own, Ride secretly recorded another historic milestone: the first LGBT astronaut. She had relationships with both men and women, but the public had no idea that her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, was a woman until Ride’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2012.
Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong began her career in Hollywood when she was a young teenager, appearing in silent films throughout the early 20s. By the early 30s, she was a bona fide movie star and considered one of the most fashionable women in the world. While pre-Code Hollywood was decent to Wong, things took a turn in 1935. That was the year that Wong—a Chinese-American film star—was turned down for the leading role in The Good Earth, a film about a Chinese woman. Instead, white actress Luise Ranier won the role and earned the very first Best Actress Oscar for her work.
Wong became disillusioned with Hollywood and moved to Europe—a move that many other minority performers took during that era. Despite her talent and magnetic screen presence, Wong was often stuck with two choices: “Madame Butterfly” or “Dragon Lady.” She became increasingly interested in political causes and advocated for more inclusive casting and diverse roles for Chinese actors.
To be fair, Christina Ricci starred in Escape from the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story for Lifetime 2019, so it’s not as though no one has ever made a movie about the globe-trotting journalist. However, that film focused on Bly’s first big story when she went undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in 1887. I’d love to see a film about a stunt she pulled a year later when she convinced her publisher to send her on a trip to meet or beat the fictional record in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Bly made the trip—most of it solo—in 72 days. That sounds like a movie, right?
After cementing her reputation as one of the first investigative journalists of the modern era, Bly retired after marrying a millionaire. She took over his steel business when he passed away and ended up patenting a new type of milk can. When the steelworks closed, Bly returned to journalism. She reported from the front during World War I and wrote extensively about the growing women’s suffrage movement.
Although fictionalized versions of Nikola Tesla have appeared in movies—David Bowie in The Prestige and Nicholas Hoult in The Current War—there has yet to be a biopic focused solely on the inventor of alternating current. The man was so far ahead of his time that some of his ideas have only become reality a hundred years later.
Despite being a central figure in the early development of electricity, Tesla’s legacy was overshadowed by George Westinghouse and especially Thomas Edison. It’s only been in the last thirty years or so that people have appreciated Tesla’s work. Of course, his name is now most closely associated with the car brand—which is a shame, really, since Tesla Motors has no relation to the scientist or his inventions.
Tesla was the kind of idiosyncratic genius that biopics love to explore. He spoke eight languages and had an eidetic memory, and he often skipped drawing out his inventions on paper because his ability to visualize machinery was so precise. At one point, he became close friends with Mark Twain, which practically begs to be part of his biopic. Despite his smoldering looks, Tesla was kind of a mess regarding women. He believed that remaining celibate helped hone his mind and improve his work. He revered a certain kind of old-fashioned femininity and spoke out against modern women. In short, he was a complicated but fascinating person.