With Steven Spielberg's Lincoln arriving in theaters this month, the United States' 16th president is in the spotlight again more than 150 years after he first took office. The new film is the latest in a long line of headline-grabbing, big-budget biopics that earned lots of Oscar buzz long before their public premieres.
Assuming Hollywood has the itch to continue adapting the lives of famous historical figures for the big screen, here are 10 amazing people who deserve a big-budget biopic of their own.
The biography of the 26th president of the U.S. is almost too packed with movie-worthy moments to fit them all into a single film. A sickly child who went on to become one of the most robust icons of both physical and mental toughness the nation has ever known, “Teddy” Roosevelt was a vocal, idealistic bastion of political activism and a rugged leader of men who was constantly challenging himself in life, politics and the great outdoors.
Roosevelt made a name for himself early on as a published author, a Harvard University scholar, and a cowboy in the badlands of North Dakota before becoming one of the most influential New York City police commissioners of all time and a war hero who commanded the nation's first volunteer cavalry (“The Rough Riders”). He was also one of the most prolific big-game hunters of all time, to name just a few of his accomplishments. This was all in addition to the time he served as vice-president then as president – a term which began when his predecessor was assassinated and continued through his landslide victory in the 1904 presidential election. Throw in some of the fascinating personalities that Roosevelt counted among his friends over the years – including famous Deadwood Sheriff Seth Bullock – and toss in a few iconic moments like his “speak softly and carry a big stick” speech, and you might as well give this one the Oscar the day they finish filming.
Sure, everyone knows about the famous law-enforcement agent's time as the leader of “The Untouchables” during Prohibition, thanks to a famous television series and Brian DePalma's movie based on Ness' pursuit of gangster Al Capone, but what happened after his time in Chicago is just as interesting. In a career filled with highs and lows, Ness parlayed his “Untouchable” fame into a job as the city of Cleveland's "safety director" – a position that put him in charge of the entire city's police, fire departments, and various other personnel.
During that time, he declared a war on organized crime that saw some success, but found himself stumped during a high-profile investigation of one of the country's first serial killers. The story of Ness' investigation of the “Torso Murderer” (aka “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run”) is dramatic enough on its own, but when combined with his time in Chicago and his well-known struggles with alcoholism and other personal demons that saw him pushed out of the spotlight and turned into a shadow of his former self, the story has all the makings of a captivating biopic.
Her role in shepherding slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad is well known, but it's Tubman's time as an armed scout and spy for the Union army during the Civil War that adds an entirely new dimension to the story of a woman whose life was already the stuff of inspiring legend. Born into slavery, she escaped to Philadelphia and later made countless trips back into the southern states to free her family and other slaves, and also led armed expeditions into Confederate territory to raid military targets and free hundreds of African-Americans from plantations and other slave-owning establishments.
On top of all that, her tireless work as an advocate for women's suffrage paved the way for major shifts in the country's electoral process and only added to a long list of accolades that make her life more than appealing for a proper big-screen memorial.
The Wright Brothers
What's not to like about a film that chronicles the lives of the world's first airplane aviators, Orville and Wilbur Wright? A story of dedication, innovation, years of trial and error, eventual triumph, and a near-constant quest to prove the legitimacy of their accomplishments seems like a no-brainer for big-screen drama, and the two-man cast necessary for the film is ripe for Oscar-worthy performances.
From the brothers' ever-present focus on building the world's first flying machine to their epic 1903 flight and all of the effort required to prove their success, Orville and Wilbur's story is filled with the sort of drama and climactic moments that turn an average movie into a cinematic achievement.
The wild inventions of this Croatian engineer have gained quite a bit more prominence lately, so there's no time like the present to see the inventor of alternating current get the big-screen biopic he deserves. A genius whose achievements with electricity set the standard for many practices still in use today, Tesla walked the line between brilliant futurist and mad scientist, and had few rivals when it came to both his inventions and his showmanship in presenting them to the public.
Whether he was lighting hundreds of lightbulbs from miles away or crafting an energy weapon capable of disintegrating airplanes and tanks with a single, powerful blast of lightning, Tesla constantly tested the limits of everything the world thought possible at the time. His ongoing, nasty and very public feud with Thomas Edison only makes Tesla's story that much more fascinating as biographical movie material.
It almost seems too easy to suggest that the person U.S. President Richard Nixon once called “the most dangerous man in America” deserves his own biopic. Anyone who's chuckled at the drug-fueled science of Walter Bishop, John Noble's character in Fringe, should know that the good doctor draws quite a bit of inspiration from the real-life purveyor of acid-influenced exploration of reality, Dr. Timothy Leary.
A Harvard professor who coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out,” Leary was a proponent of all sorts of wild concepts regarding our perception of the world and our ability to tweak the rules governing it – all with the use of high-grade LSD, of course. Over the course of his life, he spent time in nearly 30 different prisons around the world, and found himself running from the law for many of those years.
Able and Miss Baker
Why should humans get all the biopics? In 1959, a rhesus monkey named Able and a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker became the first monkeys to arrive safely back to Earth after traveling in space. Their journey occurred more than two years before any humans made the trip to space, and was a key achievement in the American space program, paving the way for successful forays beyond our planet's atmosphere.
The two monkeys, who were both born here in America at public zoos, were media darlings well before they made their trip to space and even appeared on the cover of Life magazine, but became massive celebrities after their safe return home. Their story is an American triumph worthy of the big screen, and is likely to leave few dry eyes in theaters.
Before he famously put pen to paper and gave us some of the most quotable lines in American history, Mark Twain was a riverboat pilot, a gold miner, inventor and a journalist who jumped from one job to the next before finding his true calling as a writer. One of the greatest literary figures in American history, Twain led a fascinating, unpredictable life full of ups and downs that included quite a few failed ventures that kept him from ever holding onto his fortunes for very long.
On top of all that, he was pals with everyone's favorite mad scientist, Nikolai Tesla, as well as Tesla's former mentor and bitter rival, Thomas Edison (who filmed the silent video posted here). The colleague and confidant of hundreds of notable figures from one of the nation's most colorful times, Twain is the sort of figure whose biopic would offer a unique look at our country at a time when it was changing rapidly from coast to coast.
A cultural icon whose career in cinema spanned more than six decades and 50 films, Alfred Hitchcock first gained attention in his native England, but eventually became one of Hollywood's most respected auteurs and regularly ranks among the greatest filmmakers of all time. And while the stories he told in front of the camera were fascinating, Hitchcock led an equally interesting life behind the camera, constantly challenging the status quo and pioneering new storytelling techniques for his projects.
Two upcoming films, Hitchcock and Grace of Monaco (as well as the recent HBO movie The Girl) offer peeks at short periods in the filmmaker's career, but with such a colorful history, there's more than enough room for a wider-reaching, deeper dive into his life. Hitchcock's foresight when it came to the role of television made him one of the few directors at the time to successfully make the transition from the big screen to TV, and his famous (some would say infamous) relationship with some of his actors is the stuff of Hollywood legend. A great biopic on Hitchcock would take the audience behind the camera for a broad, fascinating look at how the director ascended to the top of the cinematic ladder and positioned himself as the face of Hollywood for a generation of movie fans.
“The First Lady of the World” is long overdue for a biopic, and her life's story is the sort of dramatic saga that Oscar-winning performances are made out of. Over the course of her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt's time in office, Eleanor Roosevelt redefined the role of the first lady as more than just the president's wife, and continued to build upon her achievements long after they left the White House. One of the most prominent champions of the feminist and civil rights movements and the development of global human-rights standards, Roosevelt remained in the public eye long after her husband's death, and was a driving force behind many of the human-rights achievements that still define the global landscape.
Beneath all of those accomplishments, however, was the personal drama of Roosevelt's life and her strained relationship with her husband, whose ongoing affair with another woman nearly destroyed their marriage at several points. Eleanor Roosevelt's story is that of a woman who never let her husband – one of the most powerful men in the world – define her or limit what she could accomplish, and the decision she made time and time again to put the good of the world above everything else in her life.