Everyone loves a true story, and Hollywood has certainly taken note of how mining a person’s life can pay dividends both at the box office, and in the Nielsen ratings. On film, we got Tonya Harding, Katherine Graham, and (yet another) Winston Churchill. On television, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is scoring a ratings win – just like Ryan Murphy did last year with his exploration of O.J. Simpson which earned 22 Emmy nominations – while smaller miniseries on subjects like Ted Kaczynski on Discovery Channel and David Koresh on the newly launched Paramount Network have been an attempt to compete with the headier shows on premium services.
2018 is shaping up to be no different. Tom Hanks has been cast as Mister Rogers, Ryan Gosling has already agreed to portray astronaut, Neil Armstrong, Saoirse Ronan is Mary Queen of Scots, Christian Bale revs up as Enzo Ferrari, and Tom Hardy will portray Al Capone.
Despite the established development slate, there are still a number of celebrities and important figures we would still like to see get the biopic treatment. There are slew of entrepreneurs, politicians, actors, fashion designers, and freedom fighters that have captured the public imagination, but still haven’t seen their story told on the silver screen.
Here are our picks for some of the most compelling stories Hollywood has yet to tell.
Played by: John Boyega
Now that new names like LeBron James and Steph Curry have come to dominate the NBA, it may be time to look back at the most dominant performer of a previous generation: Michael Jordan. Jordan’s sheer talent was never in question, and he was among the most revered Americans in his heyday. As a six time NBA champion, six time finals MVP, and five time league MVP, he will always be in the conversation at one of the best basketball players and most dominant athletes of all-time. He hit various historic marks on the offensive and defensive side of the ball during his storied career. His early struggles against elite Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons teams, and his abrupt retirement and near immediate comeback also offer more than a story of unchallenged excellence.
What got less attention in his prime were some of the demons that that lurked on the fringes of his career. A known womanizer and gambler, a rumor persists that Jordan’s “retirement” in the midst of his prime was actually a secret suspension for gambling. Even if that isn’t true, he is an admittedly voracious gambler. His less dubious off-court behavior is no less interesting: his relationships with Nike and McDonalds set legendary precedents, as did his part ownership of the Washington Wizards and subsequent majority ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Enough time may have passed for us to take an uncritical look at Jordan. Now that we are fifteen years out from his retirement, we might just have enough distance to start trying to figure out who Michael Jordan was, and what Michael Jordan meant.
Though we were tempted to cast Michael B. Jordan as His Airness, John Boyega looks a little more like Young Jordan. He has shown that he can do competitive intensity in Star Wars and Attack the Block. He has that mixture of playful swagger in intimidating focus that gets to the heart of Jordan’s character.
Played by: Michael Stuhlbarg
It is hard to fathom just how much of an impact Walt Disney ultimately had on the world. With Disney now in charge of Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox, the company that bears his name has established itself as one of the most significant companies, let alone media companies, of all-time.
He is best known for creating Mickey Mouse and the cartoon world he inhabits, but Walt Disney did far more than that. He is credited with revolutionizing several industries, most notably, animation and theme parks, and holds the record for Oscars with 22 wins and 50 nominations.
It all began with the 1928 creation of Mickey Mouse. The lovable mouse launched Disney’s career to new heights, allowing him to embark on the four year-long production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1934. The film was a smash hit, leading to perhaps the greatest four year run of any studio in Hollywood history, which produced dozens of shorts and the features Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo.
It wasn’t all easy for Disney from there. His harsh approach to his staff led to the 1941 Animators’ Strike. During World War II, Disney produced a variety of U.S. propaganda for the war effort. Disney also grew more conservative later in life, naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A fervent anti-Communist, Disney is also often accused of anti-Semitism and racism.
A complicated man who carefully build a public persona different than his private self, Disney in many ways has as much depth as the worlds he created. Our pick to portray the complex man would be ubiquitous character actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, who has been seen in everything this year, including Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name.
Played by: Bradley Cooper
With the election of Donald Trump, and the culture wars that have erupted in the first year of his presidency, Vince McMahon has found himself back in the news. His wife Linda was appointed to Trump’s cabinet, and he has plans to bring back the XFL (his failed attempt to compete with the NFL). With the media’s renewed interest in McMahon, now might be the perfect time to tell his story. Vince transformed professional wrestling from a regional small-time amusement into a massive world-wide entertainment industry. Colorful and unapologetic, McMahon has created a lot of fireworks along the way.
Whatever you may think of McMahon, it is undeniable that he transformed professional wrestling. In his storied career, he has been a promoter, commentator, referee, and performer, and of course, rose to become its unrivaled business magnate. After his father’s death in 1980, he broke the cardinal rule of professional wrestling, aggressively expanding outside of his “region” of the country, and embarking out for nationwide dominance with his star wrestler, Hulk Hogan. McMahon also leveraged television (Monday Night Raw) and pay-per-view (Wrestlemania) to grow his business beyond his competitors.
In the 1990s, Ted Turner’s WCW mounted opposition to McMahon, but McMahon beat the WCW at their own game, pivoting from a family friendly business model to the grittier “Attitude” era. WWE would buy WCW in 2001.
McMahon is also no stranger to controversy. Obviously, his aggressive business tactics in the 1980s left many smaller promoters crushed underfoot. A federal investigation involving steroid use swirled around him in the 1990s. His treatment of Bret Hart prior to his defection to WCW has been remembered as one of the cruelest moments in entertainment history. A number of wrestlers have met unfortunate ends on his watch. He also has had several sexual harassment claims filed against him.
It’s easy to imagine a biopic in the style of The Wolf of Wall Street or The Social Network about McMahon, though it would have to have its own added sense of gravitas and style. Rumor has it that the WWE wants Bradley Cooper to play McMahon in a biopic, and honestly, we kind of like the great showman’s instincts on this one.
Played by: Margot Robbie
One of the 2017’s best films, I, Tonya, offered a refreshing, brilliant model for a biopic: show us a tough woman breaching the decorum of a self-consciously feminine space. Margot Robbie’s tough as nails performance as disgraced figure skater, Tonya Harding, helped create the perfect tone for the film, and she could do something similar, if a bit more refined, with Martha Stewart.
Behind the veneer of the woman known for making perfect centerpieces and souffles, there was always the shrewd business woman; the real Martha Stewart. Stewart has spent her professional life launching one successful business venture after another. Martha Stewart Living magazine used to be ubiquitous in suburban homes and the accompanying TV show seemed to be on every TV. She has sold Americans everything from spatulas to table clothes. Recently, she has introduced herself to a new generation with her VH1 show Martha and Snoop. And at the age of 76, she doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Stewart’s professional life began with a strange set of jobs: model, stockbroker, and caterer. Yet, oddly enough, she would use the skills from all three for the rest of her life. While catering a book release party for her then husband’s publishing company, Stewart made the connections that would allow her to start publishing books and to launch her career. Dozens of books followed, as did a national magazine, a long running TV show, and her worldwide, multi-faceted company, Martha Stewart Omnimedia. This company would grow to handle everything from mail-order flowers to pre-fab housing. The company would ultimately make her the first self-made female billionaire in U.S. history.
Of course, the most interesting moment of any Martha Stewart biopic or limited series would be when she goes to prison for insider trading in 2004. It took several years from when she was accused of insider trader of InClone stock to when she reported to prison, and in the interim, she had one of the greatest morning TV moments of all-time. When asked about the charges against her during a cooking segment on CBS’s Early Show, she ignored the host who spoke to her, looked down at her work and said, “I want to focus on my salad.”
If that’s not worthy of the big screen, nothing is.
Played by: Tilda Swinton
From her early days as a creative partner with members of the Sex Pistols, to her position as fashion royalty (she was literally knighted, a ceremony to which she infamously went commando), Vivienne Westwood has led quite a life, to say the least.
The story of Westwood’s early work would make for one of the most interesting rom-com stories you could imagine. It was her collaboration and romantic involvement with her second husband, The Sex Pistols’ Malcolm McLaren, that would launch her career in earnest. Before meeting McLaren, Westwood was deeply self-conscious about her work, as a working class girl trying to break into the class-conscious UK fashion world. She and McLaren went on to help shape the UK’s punk rock aesthetic. Suddenly a lower class sensibility was a good thing.
Though some mocked her and McLaren’s punk rock designs, their collections with names like Savages, Witches, and Worlds End were international hits. Her partnership with McLaren would come to an end in the ’80s, but her rebellious spirit would remain front and center in her collections. For example, she called referred to her late ’80s collections as “The Pagan Years,” and offered collections meant to mock the upper class.
Westwood has endured her share of bumps in the course of her one-of-a-kind career, including persistent tax issues and an ebb and flow in and out of the style limelight. Through it all, she has maintained a radical political sensibility and a point of view uniquely her own. She appeared on the coverage of British magazine Tatler dressed as Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Westwood is a longstanding advocate of nuclear disarmament and has spearheaded campaigns in defense of civil liberties. She dedicated a 2013 runway show to Chelsea Manning. And these are just a handful of her dedicated, and sometimes, a bit kooky sociopolitical statements.
She is also likely one of the only fashion designers we know to release a manifesto. Her 2009 screed was titled Active Resistance to Propaganda. Yep, that sounds like a Tilda Swinton character to us.
Played by: Martin Sheen
Given the complete domination of superheroes in pop culture, it is amazing that we haven’t yet seen a biopic about Stan Lee. Though Lee’s early creative life working with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko inspired Michael Chabon’s great novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, the story of the early days of Marvel comics remains untold on the silver screen.
The 1950s would be one of the most important decades of Lee’s life, and one of the most important in pop culture history. After DC was revived the superhero genre with The Justice League, Lee was tasked with helping Marvel compete. He was more than up to the task, adding previously unknown depth to the genre, and creating the bulk of the Marvel super heroes that headline Marvel’s blockbusters today. Lee also helped solidify the modern concept of fandom, developing the dialogue between audience and creators.
The incredibly fertile period at Marvel led by Kirby and Lee ended in 1978 and Lee’s day to day work on Marvel comic books ended in 1980. Though he has remained attached to Marvel in one way or another for most of his life, his greatest cultural contributions had been made. He would continue to push the boundaries of comic books, working on the Internet, dabbling in Manga, working on graphic novels, and working on a variety of other ventures in and around comics.
The thirty years between World War II and the dissolution of his partnership with Jack Kirby could make for one of the best workplace dramas of all time. Our pick to anchor his life story would be prestige drama veteran Michael Sheen.
Played by: Viola Davis
While there is an independent project in development around the heroine of the Underground Railroad, it is unbelievable that Tubman’s story hasn’t received the blockbuster treatment. We all know the stories of her harrowing rescue of over 70 slaves and the assistance she provided to dozens more. The details of these escapes are exciting to read about: in the heart of winter, in the dead of night, she would sneak onto plantations in disguise, and lead the enslaved to freedom. All of that alone would be enough for a compelling epic film or series, but there is so much more to Tubman’s remarkable life.
Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, only to immediately turn around and go back for her family. She dedicated herself to rescuing slaves and bringing them to the North, and then later, to Canada. After a particularly long trip on the Underground Railroad, she returned home to find her husband remarried. She continued her efforts for another ten years, and subsequently worked tirelessly for the Union during the Civil War. She became the first woman to lead troops during the Civil War, and also served as a spy. She would spent subsequent years in poverty, as she was repeatedly denied assistance from the government despite her service.
This didn’t stop Tubman, though. After the fight for abolition was won, she turned her sights on women’s suffrage, crossing paths with Susan B. Anthony. She also was instrumental in the building a church and a home for the elderly. Tubman also found time to marry a man 22 years her junior, and ultimately outlived both of her husbands.
Tubman was also a no-nonsense women, known to carry a revolver with her throughout her life. Once on a slave rescue mission, one of the men she was helping got cold feet and expressed a desire to return to the plantation. Tubman pulled her gun and said, “You go on or you die.”
There are a number of great actresses in Hollywood who could play Tubman in a sweeping epic or miniseries, but our pick would be Viola Davis, who has already been tapped for the role in an as yet unreleased HBO TV movie.
Played by: Lakeith Stanfield (RZA)
Following the success of Straight Outta Compton and the strange reemergence of the Wu-Tang Clan into the public consciousness following their feud with Martin Shkreli, now might be the perfect time to do a biopic about the legendary collective. Their success story feels like a classic Behind the Music story, as a closeknit group of rappers from Staten Island rose to extremely varied careers and individual acclaim.
This was by design. Before they released their early masterpiece, 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang made sure that their individual members could sign with other record labels, while Loud/RCA produced Wu-Tang records. This allowed Method Man, ODB, RZA, GZA, Raekwon, Ghostface, and the rest of the Clan to sign with different labels. All of this was a part of RZA’s plan, who deserves credit as the mastermind of both Wu-Tang’s sound, and its emergence as one of the first empires in rap music.
While a story about Wu-Tang should really primary concern itself with the creative contributions various members of the group made to hip-hop, there is plenty of other drama that makes this a story worth telling. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s incarceration, escape, performance while on the run, autograph signing at McDonald’s, recapture, and subsequent death alone could be a stand-alone film. Beyond ODB, there’s also the controversy that Cappadonna’s manager was a police informant, U-God’s departure from the group, and various feuds between Wu-Tang and Notorious B.I.G., Diddy, 50 Cent, Mase, and Joe Budden could provide prime cinematic material.
But, again, it is the art that should be at the front and center of this story. As such, RZA should be at forefront. Lakeith Stanfield not only looks a lot like RZA, but he is a veteran of Atlanta, a show that perfectly balances a reverence for artistic expression and the drama of day to day life.
The Dassler Brothers
Played by: Mark Ruffalo (as both Adi and Rudi)
Though you’ve probably worn their shoes at one point in your life, you probably didn’t know about the vicious feud that tore the Dassler Brothers, the German creators of Puma and adidas shoes, apart.
Adi and Rudi began their professional careers as partners in the Dassler Brothers Shoe Company. While they found professional success (Jesse Owens wore their shoes when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics), their sibling rivalry only grew more intense. Following a dispute that broke out while they were waiting out an Allied strike in a bomb shelter, the feud grew so ugly that their relationship would never recover.
After the war, the brothers bitterly split their company in two, creating adidas And Ruda (later, Puma), literally bisecting the town of Herzogenaurach, setting up shop on either side of the Aurach River. The feud was so bitter that intermarriage between opposing company employees was forbidden and citizens of the town would look down at your shoes before speaking to you. Their rivalry continued to their death, when the brothers were buried at opposite ends of the same cemetery.
A film adaptation of the brothers’ lives would almost certainly play as a dark comedy, perhaps in the style of Adam McKay or Wes Anderson’s earlier work. Playing the role of the brothers would require a gallows humor, but also a depth of anger that only a great character actor would achieve. Mark Ruffalo is our pick.
Played by: Don Cheadle
In the ’80s, Daniel Day (aka Dapper Dan) made a name for himself by making loud, vibrant streetwear brazenly branded with Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel logos. Day was inspired by the financial difficulties of his childhood. He once purchased a nice pair of second-hand loafers at Goodwill, and got made fun of by wealthier children on his block. He resolved then he would “go in through the window” of the fashion world.
Dapper Dan put himself through school and became a journalist, but throughout his young life, his love of fashion and his desire to bring high fashion to the masses stuck with him. For ten years, he worked out of a boutique on 125th in Harlem. The shop was a smash hit, often staying open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During that time, he catered to celebrity clients, including Big Daddy Kane, Eric B., Rakim, KRS-One, LL Cool J, and Mike Tyson. He worked designer logos into all sorts of streetwear items, from leather coats to car interiors.
In the 1990s, the designers that Dapper Dan had been aping ran him out of business. Though his signature style, which The New York Times described as “counterfeiting elevated to the level of art,” was one of a kind, he was still in violation of copyright law. The designers banded together to shut him down. But, as fate would have it, 25 years later, Gucci was caught stealing a design from Dapper Dan by a prominent Instagrammer. As a result, Gucci has copped to their ripoff, and decided to make amends by putting Dan back in business.
The wild story of Dapper Dan would make a great story for a limited series, and the energy around Harlem in the 1980s as hip-hop was coming into its own would make for a perfect backdrop. Our pick to play the designer is Don Cheadle, an actor who could capture the combination of smooth style and dogged tenacity of Dapper Dan.
For more movies, check out the teaser trailer for ‘Venom.’
- Words: Brenden Gallagher
- Featured/Main Image: Karwai Tang / WireImage / Getty Images; Jonathan Daniel / Allsport / Getty Images