Biographical movies are released all the time. Few things are as compelling as a true story dramatized with flair. Plenty of actors have won Oscars for playing real people in these films, too. Jamie Foxx got one for playing Ray Charles in Ray, Meryl Streep got one for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and so on.
More rare, but infinitely more fascinating, is when people play themselves in autobiographical movies. Audiences get an added level of authenticity in these cases. Of course, there are all kinds of pitfalls involved in making this happen. If the film isn't well-made, for example, it can come off as nothing more than a vanity project. Conversely, when a celebrity with a distinct personality or specific talent brings their own life events to the screen, believing in the story becomes easier.
The following famous people all played themselves in movies that were either true stories or very thinly veiled versions of their lives. Who did it best? Vote up your picks.
- 120 VOTESPhoto: ABC
Patty Duke received many accolades during her acting career. At age 15, she won the Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Other notable films include Valley of the Dolls, The Swarm, and Prelude to a Kiss. For three seasons in the 1960s, she played twin sisters on TV's The Patty Duke Show. Tons of other television work followed, as did three Emmy awards. Duke was also once the president of the Screen Actors Guild. Off the screen, she engaged in advocacy and education regarding bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with in 1982. Using her fame in that regard helped to open up the public conversation about mental illness in important ways.
Part of that was playing herself in Call Me Anna, a 1990 made-for-TV movie that dramatized her struggle with bipolar disorder. At that period of time, a stigma was still attached to it. The general public didn't fully understand what it entailed, how it could afflict a person, or how it was treated. Duke called upon her own experiences in depicting the vacillation between bursts of manic behavior and “crashes” of crippling depression. Call Me Anna helped put a face on this particular mental health condition.
- Age: Dec. at 69 (1946-2016)
- Birthplace: Elmhurst, New York, USA
- 217 VOTESPhoto: NBC
A lot of talent ran through the Cole family. Natalie Cole's father, Nat King Cole, was a phenomenally successful recording artist. But she, too, had an amazing career as a singer, cranking out four gold and two platinum records. Sales-wise, she sold 30 million records worldwide and won seven Grammy Awards. “This Will Be,” “Pink Cadillac,” and “Miss You Like Crazy” are among her biggest hits. She also recorded a posthumous duet with her famous dad, “Unforgettable,” that was a Top 20 hit on the Billboard chart.
In 2000, director Robert Townsend helped Cole bring her life story to TV screens. Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story was based on her memoir Angel on My Shoulder. Theresa Randle plays the younger Natalie, but the singer takes over in the section that depicts 1984 and later. The movie portrays her struggle with drug addiction, conflict with her mother (Diahann Carroll), and efforts to escape the shadow of her father to prove herself a worthy singer in her own right. Although she had dabbled in acting before Livin' for Love, Cole said that she initially had some nervousness about playing herself. In the end, though, she decided to dive right in, telling the Los Angeles Times, “All I can say is that I tried to be as honest as I could with what I did.”
- Age: 72
- Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States of America
- 391 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
Audie Murphy was a true American hero. The most decorated U.S. soldier of WWII, he fought the Germans valiantly, reportedly killing more than 200 enemy soldiers, and was wounded in combat three times. During his military career, he was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, and a Medal of Honor. After coming home, Murphy was put on the cover of LIFE magazine, which attracted the attention of Hollywood star James Cagney, who suggested a post-war movie career. That proved successful, with Murphy starring in more than 40 films, including The Red Badge of Courage, The Cimarron Kid, and Ride a Crooked Trail. Songwriting was another passion. Dean Martin and Charley Pride recorded some of his compositions.
In 1949, Murphy's autobiography To Hell and Back was published. It became a best-seller, with Universal Pictures buying the rights to adapt it for the screen. Of course, the suggestion was made that he play himself. Initially, he balked at that idea, worrying that the public would think he was trying to cash in on his war hero status. A fair amount of deliberation changed his mind, and he decided to recreate his combat experiences onscreen. Far from being viewed as a sell-out, the public embraced To Hell and Back. It was Universal's highest-grossing picture until Steven Spielberg's Jaws supplanted it in 1975.
- Age: Dec. at 45 (1925-1971)
- Birthplace: Kingston, Texas, United States of America
- Photo: Eagle-Lion Films
Jackie Robinson was, and still is, a hero to many. He was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. For years, Black players had been relegated to the Negro Leagues. Robinson broke that barrier, paving the way for countless others. An eventual inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Brooklyn Dodger played in six World Series, winning once. He was also a six-time All Star and, in 1949, the National League Most Valuable Player. Between his baseball success and his activism off the field, Robinson was so widely admired that his number, 42, was retired across the MLB after he stopped playing.
As if all that wasn't enough, Robinson even added acting to his resume, playing himself in 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story. The film details how he attempts to break into Major League Baseball. Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) agrees to let him play, with the provision that he can't defend himself if anyone - in the league or in the stands - makes any kind of racist comment or action toward him. Deciding to play, he holds things together in the face of prejudice, eventually winning people over with his amazing talent. There was criticism in some quarters that the movie downplayed the severity of the racism Robinson faced, which is to be expected from cinema in the ‘50s. Nevertheless, Robinson’s participation in the film allows its overall themes to ring loudly. The New York Times raved that he “displays a calm assurance and composure that might be envied by many a Hollywood star.”
Because of his busy schedule, The Jackie Robinson Story was made during MLB's 1949 off-season.
- Age: Dec. at 53 (1919-1972)
- Birthplace: Cairo, Georgia, United States of America