The Best (and Worst) Portrayals of Real People in Films and TV Shows

From left: Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story'. (Ray Mickshaw/FX)
From left: Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’. (Ray Mickshaw/FX)

 

When it comes to acting, a certain amount of respect is given to those actors who perfectly embody real-life figures. That could be in the way the actor or actress nails that person’s unique accent, or simply how much they look like that person. Oftentimes, the strongest castings lead to Oscar and Golden Globe wins.

Of course, there’s also the other side of the coin: Sometimes, casting directors really do a terrible job finding the right person to attempt to re-mold reality. Below is a list of 12 of the best and worst casting jobs for biopics and true story–inspired TV shows (six of each).

 

The Best of the Best

(1) Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray – There’s no denying how well Foxx ended up portraying the blind piano-playing prodigy in the film, and Oscar voters agreed: He won best actor honors for the gig. He’s also soon to produce and act in yet another biopic, this time on the life of Motown god Marvin Gaye. We’re guessing that he’ll probably have no problem embodying Mr. “Mercy, Mercy Me.”

Best and Worst Casting of Real-Life People in Film and TV
(Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

(2) Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line – If Phoenix’s career were a music catalog, this role would be his masterpiece. It was easy to leave the theater believing you’d just witnessed the reincarnation of The Man in Black himself hopping off the screen.

Best and Worst Castings of Real-Life People in TV and Movies
From left: Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash opposite Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in ‘Walk the Line’ (20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

 

(3) The Ensemble Cast – The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story – My G-d, the casting director did a good job with this Golden Globe–winning TV series! With silver-screen stalwart Cuba Gooding Jr. making the jump to the small one as the title “character,” everyone from David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian to Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran looked and sounded just like the real McCoy. Bravo. (For those who missed this one, the series just landed on Netflix this month.)

Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in 'The Peope v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story' (Prashant Gupta/FX)
Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ (Prashant Gupta/FX)

 

(4) Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster – If you ponder the transformation the modelesque Theron had to go through to “become” serial killer Aileen Wuornos, it’ll make total sense why she killed it (no pun intended) and won the best actress Oscar for the role.

Best and Worst Casting of Real Life People in TV and Movies
(Newmarket/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

(5) Paul Giamatti as John Adams in John Adams – Rare has there been a television show about a Founding Father and former president that was so well received (the HBO show garnered four Golden Globes). While there’s no video evidence of what Adams actually looked (or sounded) like on film, obviously, Giamatti seems to be about as close as we’ll ever get to the actual man. (You can catch the show streaming on HBO Go, by the way.)

Best and Worst Casting of Real People in TV and Movies
(Kent Eanes/HBO)

 

(6) Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus Hulce as Mozart is nothing short of a revelation; like Giamatti’s Adams, Hulce breathed life into a figure who’s best known in painted/drawn portraits and for his historical sonic output. Although Hulce didn’t win best actor at the ’86 Oscars for his portrayal of the lead character, his was truly a tour de force.

The Best and Worst Casting of Real-Life People in TV and Movies
(Orion/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

 

The Worst of the Worst

(1) Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in Urban Myths – Whomever’s idea it was to cast a white British man as an African-American pop superstar should crawl back into the cave in which he or she was dwelling. Poor taste doesn’t even begin to describe this casting choice—it eventually led to this episode getting nixed. Watch the show’s ridiculous trailer here.

Best and Worst Casting of Real People in TV and Movies
(Sky Arts)

 

(2) Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can – Not a bad movie. Not a bad plot. But guess what? The real Frank Abagnale looks about as much like Leo DiCaprio does as a skunk does a snake.

Best and Worst Castings of Real People in Movies and TV
(DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

(3) Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon – There’s no denying that Hopkins’ performance as Nixon was incredibly well-researched and -executed. But take away the makeup and the hair dye, and what you’ve got here is President Hannibal Lecter, with a side of fava beans and nice chi-yan-ti.

Best and Worst Casting of Real People in TV and Movies
(left to right) Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon in 1995’s ‘Nixon’ (© Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

(4) Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network – Jesse Eisenberg is a gifted actor, for sure, but all of the movies he’s in, he’s basically the same guy: quirky, dorky, bookish Jesse Eisenberg. Which probably got him cast as King Dork Zuckerberg for this exact reason. But did is he actually playing Zuckerberg? Or himself?

Best and Worst Actor Portrayals of Real People in TV and Movies
(Merrick Morton/©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

(5) Frederick Weller as Brian Wilson in The Beach Boys: An American Family – On the TV miniseries from 2000, actor Weller (seen above in USA’s In Plain Sight) was cast as bandleader/genius Brian Wilson. As is evidenced in the photo, he has the high forehead, but that was about all he had to offer the role. And it only took 14 more years for Hollywood to get Wilson right in Love & Mercy via Paul Dano.

Best and Worst Castings of Real People in TV and Movies
Frederick Weller as Marshall Mann in ‘In Plain Sight’ (Cathy Kanavy/USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

 

(6) Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There Really? Cate Blanchett?

Best and Worst Castings of Real People in TV and Movies
(Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection)

 

—Will Levith for RealClearLife


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