12 Oscar-season True Stories and the Real People Behind Them

Bryan Cranston Dalton Trumbo - Real People Biopics

During the awards season, biopics and those stories that have been inspired by true events do exceedingly well, bringing a clear realism and tangibility that is understandably lacking in more fictional and fantastical works. Movies like Ray, about musician Ray Charles, or The King's Speech, about King George VI of England, have done extraordinarily well at the Academy Awards in the past, not in the least because of the actors who played those figures with an uncanny sense of their personalities and demeanors.

For better or worse, projects like these test the mettle of an actor or actress, because we have a time, a place, and often a real person to compare them to. Screen Rant can’t wait for the next Oscars, so in the meantime we have crafted a list of 2015’s major releases that are based on real people, so you can compare them with the actors who play them.

Here is Screen Rant's list of 12 Oscar-season-True Stories and the Real People Behind Them.

12 Black Mass

Johnny Depp White Bulger - Real People Biopics

In the 1970s, James "Whitey" Bulger led the Winter Hill Gang, a notorious Irish mob that ran most of South Boston. The FBI tracked the criminal enterprise of the gang’s only rival, the Angiulo Brothers, and FBI Agent John Connelly was tasked with finding more evidence against them. A family friend of Whitey and his brother William, the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Connelly tried to entice Whitey into becoming an informant against the Angiulos. The mobster refused to work with him, but his mind changed once one of his guys was found dead.

Whitey took full advantage of his newfound preferential treatment, using his cover as a government-fostered informant to help him further his own criminal ends. Soon, with Whitey's information, the government was able to take down the Angiulos, but in doing so, they unwittingly wiped out Whitey's only real competition. Eventually, Whitey's actions become more flagrant, and the feds built a big case against him. Whitey went on the run, living under the radar for sixteen years before finally being arrested in 2011 for murder, racketeering, narcotics distribution, and more.

In Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Johnny Depp brings a great deal of weight to his role as Whitey, physically transforming himself into the character of the frumpy gangster using facial prostheses. Depp carries the film with ease, and is supported by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Bulger, and Joel Edgerton as John Connelly.

11 The End of the Tour

Jason Segel - Real People Biopics

David Foster Wallace was a great author who we lost far too young. With his collections of essays and his epic postmodern novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace’s work was extremely detailed, humorous, and insightful. One of his trademarks was to amend seemingly trivial words and details with lengthy corresponding footnotes; many found a great deal of enjoyment excavating the ornate text. As a writer, Wallace represented an intellectual counterweight for millennials, writing a great deal about society and culture with great humor, self-deprecation, and cynicism. His work was at once very intelligent, very self-conscious, and very likable.

The film The End of the Tour circles around Wallace (Jason Segel) taking part in a multi-part interview with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). The film shows Wallace in all of his tics and eccentricities, in how he moved, thought, and spoke. It is a great film for anyone interested in the author's lore, from newbies looking for a primer, to die-hard fans, to everyone in between.

10 Experimenter

Peter Sarsgaard Stanley Milgrim - Real People Biopics

One of two psychology films on this list, Experimenter recounts the important and highly provocative study done in 1961 by Dr. Stanley Milgram, where he tested the reactions of people to commands from authority figures. Milgram devised the study brilliantly: the subject would sit in a room in front a set of gauges and dials, with an experimenter in the same room, and another person supposedly hooked up to an electric shock device in another room. The subject was asked to teach the learner in the other room sets of word pairs, and if the person got the answers wrong they would administer an electric shock by the subject. If the subject refrained from giving the shock, the experimenter would command them to do so. The test would go on this way, with the voltage level rising with each successive shock. The person in the other room wasn’t actually receiving any real shocks in this lab test, but the subject did not know that. What Milgram was testing was to see how far the subjects would go with peremptory "experimenters" sitting behind them and telling them what to do.

The cast for the film is exceptional; Peter Sarsgaard comes through as a believable Milgram, with Winona Ryder, Kellan Lutz, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards, and others providing great performances as well. The film shows Milgram, his work, and how he was met with great furor from fellow academics and others.

9 The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio - Real People Biopics

In 2014, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu made a little movie called Birdman, which won four Oscars and was characterized by the ingenious cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. It was a feast for the eyes, and Iñárritu’s latest — The Revenant — brings the same technical know-how.

Lubezki’s back, this time capturing the wilderness of 1800s frontier America, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as fur trapper Hugh Glass. It’s a tale of revenge: Glass is savagely attacked by a bear, robbed by his comrades, and left for dead. And in an act of true evil, the men also kill Glass’s son. But Hugh is eventually nursed back to health, and traverses the remote territories to administer swift payback on the enemies.

The film is inspired by the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass. Co-starring are Domnhall Gleeson, Will Poulter, and Lukas Haas, with Tom Hardy as main baddie John Fitzgerald.

8 Spotlight

Michael Keaton - Real People Biopics

Spotlight expertly recounts the work accomplished by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe, as they pursue the sex scandal of the Catholic Archdiocese in their hometown. The scandal would go on to envelop the entire Catholic establishment, making international news and bringing to light decades of horrific, global crimes against children, subsequent cover-ups by governments, pay-offs of families, and more.

Robinson’s investigative clique included Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber).

The star power is strong with this one, but the biggest unknown comes down to writer/ director Tom McCarthy. You’d recognize his face from the fifth season of The Wire, when he played duplicitous journo Scott Templeton. Anyone who has anything to do with The Wire is in Screen Rant’s good graces, but let us not forget that McCarthy also wrote and directed the perplexingly bad Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler. Let us just hope that David Simon’s newsroom rubbed off a bit on McCarthy.

7 Concussion

Will Smith - Real People Biopics

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist, established a connection between the punishment endured by NFL players and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that affects many in contact sports and causes symptoms including memory loss, mood disorders, and even dementia. Omalu and his groundbreaking discovery came up against the resistance of those in the world of major sports. For his efforts, Dr. Omalu was first met with marginalization, then when that didn't work he was subjected to constant ad hominem attacks, all from a major sports institution that continued to do business as usual despite the facts.

Concussion's writer and director Peter Landesman had no lack of publicly available information from which to build his film, using for major inspiration a 2009 GQ article by Jeanne Maria Laskas called "Game Brain." Will Smith stars as Omalu, and Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, and Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje costar in the retelling of the story that continues to fuel national discussion and rewire our connection to professional sports.

6 The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne Lili Elbe - Real People Biopics

Alicia Vikander, who is all the rage now thanks to her awesome turn in Ex Machina, stars in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wagener, a Danish artist who asks her husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne) to sit for a portrait dressed as a woman. The painting soon becomes famous, leading Einar to reflect on his identity. He begins regularly dressing as a woman, changes his name to Lili Elbe, and eventually undergoes the very first male-to-female gender reassignment procedure.

The Danish Girl is an engrossing exploration of feminism and transgender pioneers, and it shows both the stigma and enlightenment that come with being on the path towards self-discovery. Vikander and director Tom Hooper bring their best to the proceedings, but Redmayne, who has already scored an Oscar nod for playing physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, is the stand out here and a good bet for the awards season.

5 Stanford Prison Experiment

Billy Crudup - Real People Biopics

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most widely known experiments in contemporary psychology. Created by psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his team, the experiment was simple in its setup. Twenty-four randomly chosen male students were divided into two groups; one group would be prisoners, and the other would be prison guards. Each group was given uniforms to wear for their roles, and a mock-prison block was constructed. The test was meant to see if the assignment of specific roles would lead to behavioral changes in the test subjects.

Not only did the test affirm the experimenters’ hypothesis — it worked far too well. The students who had been assigned the roles of prison guards started acting like them, becoming domineering and abusive towards their captives. Likewise, the men who were the prisoners became more submissive to authority and suffered from severe bouts of stress and depression. Things became so crazy that Zimbardo had to pull the plug on the proceedings earlier than planned.

In the eponymous film, Billy Crudup takes on the role of Zimbardo, and he and the supporting cast deliver powerful and surreal performances. It is an endlessly fascinating study, that has led generations of people to think about the implications for society at large.

4 Steve Jobs

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs - Real People Biopics

Take the iPhone out of your pocket and ponder for a minute what a neat little device it is. The little machine has revolutionized everything from talking and texting, to multitasking, our work, music, and more. The iPhone, iPod, and Apple computers that dot our lives have turned the company into one of the most successful and influential in world history. And unlike most modern businesses, much of the company’s genius comes down to one innovator, Steve Jobs.

Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) brings an understated elegance to the aptly titled Steve Jobs, and Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing) pens the snappy dialogue. Michael Fassbender provides an excellent performance that allows the enigmatic character to breathe. We get a real sense of the man as a person, not just as the mythic corporate juggernaut. Seth Rogan, Kate Winslet, and Jeff Daniels costar.

3 Straight Outta Compton

NWA Straight Outta Compton - Real People Biopics

Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are two of the biggest names in rap music. They’ve sold millions of records each and have influenced countless musicians. But before their ridiculously successful solo careers, both men were teenage buddies in rap group N.W.A. With fellow group members Eazy-E, MC Ren, and others, the group debuted in 1988 with Straight Outta Compton, an album that pioneered gangster rap. The crew eschewed clean vocals and simple beats for much more bawdy yet technically proficient lyricism, lush and heavy beats, and an anarchic social message that never apologized.

The film Straight Outta Compton is very well-made, featuring sensitive and layered representations by the cast as the group goes through its meteoric rise, countless controversies, and eventual disintegration. Entertaining and clearheaded, it is a great movie for music lovers and fans of compelling drama.

2 The 33

Antonio Banderas Super Mario - Real People Biopics

In 2010, thirty-three Chilean workers were excavating gold and diamonds from the San Jose mine when part of the structure collapsed, sealing all of the men underground with little food and no means of communication with the surface. For sixty-nine days, the men below fought against panic, despair, and infighting as rescue crews backed by the Chilean government attempted to find and extract them.

Antonio Banderas stars as Mario “Super Mario” Sepulveda, the de facto leader of the miners, who helped the men keep their heads and was the voice of the group when the rescuers sent down television equipment for regular correspondence. The men received food and supplies, and Edison Pena (Jacob Vargas) even enticed their friends topside to send down music as a morale booster.

Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne, James Brolin, and Lou Diamond Philips costar in the real-life drama The 33. It is the dramatic true story of survival in the face of disaster, and the bravery of regular people when they are placed in incredible circumstances.

1 Trumbo

Bryan Cranston Dalton Trumbo - Real People Biopics

James Dalton Trumbo was an American writer who, shortly after the end of the second world war, became entangled in the US government’s pursuit of alleged Communist members in the American movie industry.

As a young man, Trumbo was a struggling writer who worked at a bakery. By 1937, he was one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood. In 1947 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) with nine others and asked to provide information about Communist sympathizers planting propaganda in American media. Trumbo refused to give any information, at which point Congress convicted him of contempt and blacklisted him. In 1950, he served eleven months in federal prison for his conviction. During the remaining twenty-five years of his life, Trumbo was able to make a reasonable comeback thanks to the disintegration of the HUAC, but he never stopped struggling against the stigma that the government had branded him with. His story is an incredible one, showing one person’s courage in the face of extraordinary persecution.

For his role in the film that charts the writer’s most troubled years, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston turns in Walter White’s porkpie hat for Trumbo’s signature mustache and round glasses. The ensemble supporting cast includes Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis CK, and Michael Stuhlbarg.


Have a biopic you really love? Think you know who will win in the upcoming awards season? Let us know...

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