15 Women Who Deserve Their Own Biopics

By Benjamin F. Powelson, Swann Galleries, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Benjamin F. Powelson, Swann Galleries, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

If the success of female-centric biopics like Hidden Figures has taught Hollywood anything, it's that there are riches to be found in the lives of history-making women. Well, as lovers of a good true story, we've got a slew of suggestions for heroines who deserve their own big biopics.

1. Sadie the Goat // Pirate of the Hudson

Sure, she's nowhere near as well known as Anne Bonny or Grace O'Malley, but Sadie the Goat's pirate story would make for a thrilling action-comedy. This petite thief was a tiny terror of 1860s New York, earning her nickname by head-butting those she mugged. But when a brutal brawl with a female bouncer named Gallus Mag ended with Sadie's ear being bitten off, she fled to the Hudson River with a makeshift crew. Sadie's summer was made up of swashbuckling, pillaging waterside mansions, and an eventual reunion with her ear. (Mag had preserved it in a pickling jar for her trophy collection.) What more could you ask for?

2. Amalie "Emmy" Noether // The Woman Einstein Called a "Genius"

The Oscars love a good tale of overcoming adversity, so how about the story of this German Jewish mathematician? Today she is celebrated for her contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics, but in 20th-century Bavaria, Amalie Noether had to fight for every bit of education and academic achievement. Women were not allowed to enroll at the University of Erlangen, so Noether had to petition each professor to attend classes. She later found academic employment similarly unwelcoming.

Noether secured work as a teacher, but on the condition that she wouldn't be paid—a condition that lasted for 15 years. Still, she dedicated herself tirelessly to mathematics. She also fled the Nazis, and befriended Albert Einstein, whose eulogy for Noether would make for a marvelous introductory monologue: "In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

3. Kittie Smith // The Armless Dynamo

For a stirring drama about the tenacity of the human spirit, consider the story of this sideshow performer. Smith rose to fame for her abilities to write, paint, sew, play piano, and even do woodwork—all with her feet. But aside from being beloved, she was inspiring. Smith's lack of arms came at the hands of her abusive father, who basically burned them beyond repair when she was just 9 years old. However, Smith persevered, focused on her education and rehabilitation, and made a life for herself as a performer and author, penning a memoir in which she forgave her deeply flawed dad.

4. Naziq Al-Abid // The Sword of Damascus

The life of the "Joan of Arc of the Arabs" would make for a thrilling political drama. Abid was born into the lap of luxury, the educated daughter of an affluent Damascene aristocrat at the turn of the 20th century. But rather than spend her days reveling in wealth and its privileges, Abid became an outspoken and frequently exiled advocate, most notably for fighting for national independence and women's rights. But her biggest battle was a literal one: She fought against the French invaders in the the bloody Battle of Maysaloun, of which she was said to be the only Syrian survivor. In honor of her service, King Faisal made her an honorary general. But the French ultimately overthrew Faisal, forcing Abid into exile. She would return to Syria to help advance feminist causes. When she died in 1959, it was within the bounds of her homeland, which was now free as well as a place where women were thriving under the social changes Abid helped enact.

6. HEDY LAMARR // BRAINS AND BEAUTY


Getty Images

Show biz comedy-meets-discovery drama in the life of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood glamour girl by day, world-changing inventor by night. Her tale not only includes fame, but also an escape from a brutish, arms-dealing husband, and her quest to defeat the Nazis through applied science.

With the help of her friend, avant-garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr developed "frequency hopping," an advancement in torpedo systems that aimed to make them jam-proof. Though the Navy didn't take advantage of this tech until the 1960s, Lamarr's contributions to spread spectrum technology later won recognition from the science community as her discoveries preceded the widespread adoption of wireless communications, like cell phones and Wi-Fi. At 83, Lamarr was honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award as well as the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, also regarded as "the Oscar of Inventing." A celebratory biopic is long overdue.

7. STEPHANIE "QUEENIE" ST. CLAIR // THE QUEEN OF HARLEM

Want a good gangster tale? After emigrating to the U.S. in 1912, this woman of French and African descent made her home in Harlem. By the 1930s, "Queenie" St. Clair was not to be trifled with, running a crew that fiercely protected their neighbors. St. Clair got corrupt cops booted from the police force. And when Bronx crime boss Dutch Schultz tried to push in on her turf, she made alliances that helped lead to his assassination.

Memorably, she sent a letter to his deathbed that read, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." And yet St. Clair has only been a supporting character in films like Hoodlum and The Cotton Club.

8. KATE CHOPIN // WIDOW-TURNED-WRITER

Numerous works of this 19th century American author have earned screen adaptations, but Chopin's life is the stuff of compelling and heartwarming drama. In the 1880s, she was a happily married mother of six, living on a plantation in Louisiana. But when both her husband and mother died within the same year, Chopin fell into a deep depression. A doctor advised her to use writing as a tool to work through her grief. Chopin's short stories and essays proved not only to be a saving passion for her, but also a career that saved her family from financial ruin. Though her novel The Awakening was scorned when first published in 1899, it's now highly regarded as a masterpiece, and a landmark in early feminist literature.

9. OLIVE THOMAS // THE FLAPPER GHOST

Looking for a fanciful ghost story about the girl whose charm and fashion sense helped popularize the word flapper? This all-American ingénue made the leap from Ziegfeld Follies showgirl to Hollywood starlet, even marrying the brother of America's Sweetheart Mary Pickford. At 25, Thomas was gone too soon. Yet her story lived on, as rumors spread that her sassy ghost took up residence in her old haunt, the New Amsterdam Theater. To this day, stagehands keep this party girl happy by wishing her goodnight before they leave the theater.

10. SARAH BREEDLOVE WALKER // THE MILLIONAIRE HAIRDRESSER

Hollywood loves a tale of a self-made mogul, so why not tackle that of the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire? Walker came from humble beginnings, born to recently freed slaves on a cotton plantation in 1867. By 14, she was married. By 20, she was a widow and single mother. Yet Walker overcame, finding work in her brothers' barbershop as a washerwoman, where she noticed that her hair was falling out. She developed a tonic that helped re-grow her hair, and began marketing it across the country, and even into Latin America.

Rebranded as Madam C.J. Walker, she'd tour the U.S. selling her products and growing her empire. As her company expanded to factories and beauty schools, so did her philanthropic efforts toward the advancement of African Americans. Her story is not just one of personal success, but of drive, community, and advocacy.

11. BIG BERTHA HEYMAN // THE CONFIDENCE QUEEN

They called her "The Confidence Queen," and what better name for a crime-drama about this Prussian immigrant with a twisted take on the American Dream. In 1880s New York, Heyman repeatedly exploited people's thirst for wealth to line her own pockets. Not even arrest could cage her. She continued to scam from her prison cell, and repeatedly convinced the cops to let her leave for outings to the theater and carriage rides around Central Park.

12. TRIỆU THỊ TRINH // THE TITAN OF VIETNAM

Perhaps you'd prefer an incredible epic about an unparalleled warrior? Well, this Vietnamese heroine's legend is overflowing with flashy details. It's said the 20-year-old was 9 feet tall with a voice that sounded loud as a temple bell. Dressed in vibrant yellow and wielding two swords, she rode into battle on a war elephant as she fended off the relentless Chinese forces.

But best of all, Trinh delivered the kind of speeches made for big movie moments, like: "I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whales of the Eastern sea, clean up our frontiers, and save the people from drowning. Why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial housework?" And the music soars!

13. JOSEPHINE BAKER // BLACK PEARL

You might know this Creole triple threat for her saucy dance routines and dazzling persona. But a biopic about Baker would be incomplete without an espionage angle. During World War II, Josephine Baker was recruited by the French Resistance to be a spy. Her acceptance is the stuff of great screenplays:

"France made me what I am. I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything. They have given me their hearts, and I have given them mine. I am ready, Captain, to give my life. You can use me as you wish."

Baker's beauty and fame served as a great cover for her covert ops. Her international acclaim gave her access to high-ranking Axis officials, allowing her to secure information. In secret, she trained in karate, and supposedly became such a skilled marksman with a pistol that she could shoot out the flame on a candle. She hid her notes in her unmentionables, and delivered messages on music sheets using invisible ink. There was also a narrow escape from Nazi forces, a torrid romance with her intelligence contact, Jacques Abtey, a false report of her demise, and being decorated for valor by General Charles de Gaulle. And all the while, Baker kept her career as a performer. Not even James Bond could pull all that off!

14. THE NIGHT WITCHES

For a World War II adventure complete with edge-of-your-seat action sequences, turn to the tale of the all-female Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Forces. Over the course of three years, these young women (ages 17 to 26) flew 30,000 missions and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the invading Nazi forces. Even more remarkable, these fighter pilots favored the cover of night for their attacks, and flew planes made of plywood and canvas—all the better to silently sneak up on German bombers. It's for the soft whooshing of their planes and their nightly assaults that these patriots won their fantastic name.

It took two women, a pilot and a navigator, to man each of the Night Witches' planes—making for the perfect setting not only to explore the adventure of these fearless flyers, but also the sisterhood that helped the Soviet Union resist Nazi invasion.

15. MARY BLAIR // DISNEY LEGEND

A gifted painter with a vibrant imagination and influential use of color, Mary Blair was a concept artist whose works defined a generation of Disney animation, from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella. As a young woman she dreamed of going into the fine arts, but the Depression pushed her into animation. There, she ultimately channeled her passion for color and distinctive aesthetic into groundbreaking designs.

It's Blair who is credited with introducing Walt Disney to modern art, inciting a shift in his studio's aesthetic. Disney himself called her in to design the look of his iconic It's A Small World ride. Her rise through the Disney ranks to one of their official "legends" could be beautifully illustrated with the same kind of whimsy and color that her works were.

1. Harriet Tubman // Moses of the Underground

How has there not been a prestige pic about the life and times of Harriet Tubman? Well, there's about to be. Later this year, Cynthia Erivo is scheduled to star in Kasi Lemmons's upcoming film, Harriet. And it's about time! After nearly 30 years of abuse and subjugation, Tubman followed the North Star to escape slavery. Such a trek might, on its own, be worthy of a movie. But Tubman, of course, did so much more. A year after she fled north, she risked her freedom and her life to return and try to rescue her sisters. Then again to save her brother. And again for her husband, who in the meantime took a new wife.

By 1856, she was a notorious outlaw with a bounty of $40,000 on her head. To evade capture, she stole masters' buggies, perfected escape strategies, and effected clever disguises. Over 10 years, she made 19 trips back into the South, freeing an estimated 300 people.

10 Unforgettable Facts About The Notebook On Its 15th Anniversary

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams star in The Notebook (2004).
Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams star in The Notebook (2004).
New Line Cinema

In 1996, Nicholas Sparks published his first book, The Notebook. He would go on to write several more romance novels, many of which would be adapted into films. But 2004’s film adaption of The Notebook remains the highest-grossing Sparks adaptation, making $115 million worldwide against a $25 million budget. It was Rachel McAdams's breakout lead role (it was released just a few months after Mean Girls); it solidified Ryan Gosling as a “hey girl” heartthrob; and it swept all eight categories it was nominated for at the 2005 Teen Choice Awards, winning in categories like Choice Movie Love Scene and Choice Movie Liplock.

The book and movie follow a young couple named Noah (Gosling) and Allie (Adams) in 1940s North Carolina (the movie was filmed in South Carolina). Despite some obstacles, the couple fall in love, marry, and spend the next 60 years together. In present day, it’s revealed that Allie, now an old woman (played by Gena Rowlands), has Alzheimer’s, and her doting husband (James Garner, as an elderly Noah) helps her remember their storied past. In 2003, Sparks published a loose sequel called The Wedding, featuring the characters Allie and Noah. Here are 10 facts about the beloved romance, which arrived in theaters 15 years ago today.

1. It was based on a true story.

Nicholas Sparks’s book was based on his then-wife Cathy's grandparents, who spent more than 60 years together. Cathy was close to her grandparents, and visited them frequently. The grandparents were too ill to attend their wedding, in 1989, so the newly-married couple brought the wedding to them. They dressed up in their wedding clothes and surprised them at their house. Cathy's grandparents told the Sparks how they met and fell in love, decades ago.

“But though their story was wonderful, what I most remember from that day is the way they were treating each other,” Sparks wrote on his website. “The way his eyes shined when he looked at her, the way he held her hand, the way he got her tea and took care of her. I remember watching them together and thinking to myself that after 60 years of marriage, these two people were treating each other exactly the same as my wife and I were treating each other after 12 hours. What a wonderful gift they’d given us, I thought, to show us on our first day of marriage that true love can last forever.”

Unfortunately for Nicholas and Cathy, their love didn’t last forever—they divorced in 2015

2. Nicholas Sparks thinks the book was successful because it was relatable.


Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“It seems that nearly everyone I spoke with about the novel knew a ‘Noah and Allie’ in their own life,” Sparks wrote on his website. He also said the book was short enough (224 pages) for people to read it quickly. “I think that readers also appreciate that the novel didn’t include foul language and its love scene was tasteful and mild compared to what’s found in many other novels,” he said. “These factors made people feel comfortable about recommending it to others.”

3. The screenwriter had to work hard to make the characters seem real.

The Notebook screenwriter Jeremy Leven had the daunting task of adapting Sparks's book into a script. “The problem with the book is that it’s melodramatic and sweet, and you have to find a way to appeal to an audience that is apprehensive about yet another sweet movie,” Leven told The Harvard Crimson. “So you have to give it an edge, make it real, and make the choices the characters face real.” That “edge” probably includes the love scene in the rain.

4. Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling didn't get along—at first.


Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Even though they played lovers in the movie and then began dating in real life, the couple clashed during production. Director Nick Cassavetes told MTV a story about an incident when Gosling and McAdams weren’t getting along on the set one day: “Ryan came to me, and there’s 150 people standing in this big scene, and he says, ‘Nick come here,’” Cassavetes shared. “And he’s doing a scene with Rachel and he says, ‘Would you take her out of here and bring in another actress to read off camera with me?’ I said, ‘What?’ We went into a room with a producer; they started screaming and yelling at each other ... The rest of the film wasn’t smooth sailing, but it was smoother sailing.”

5. McAdams and Gosling's on-screen chemistry probably wasn't real.

“[Our later relationship] certainly wasn’t something that either of us had expected would come out of that filmmaking experience,” McAdams said, “which goes to show you that you can engineer chemistry on-screen just by telling the audience that these two people love each other.” She said it was attributed to the acting. “As an actor you don’t have to feel it. You don’t have to feel anything. Just imagine it.”

6. Jessica Biel was bummed she didn't get to play Allie.


Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for NBC

Unlike Gosling, McAdams had to audition for the role of Allie, and so did Jessica Biel. “I was in the middle of shooting Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I auditioned with Ryan Gosling in my trailer—covered in blood,” Biel told Elle. “That’s one that I wanted so badly. But there’s a million that get away. We’re gluttons for punishment. It’s just rejection.”

7. McAdams felt a lot of pressure to deliver a great performance.

The actress told Film Monthly she knew she had to be good in the movie, because she had to carry it. “At first I put way too much pressure on myself and realized that it wasn’t getting me anywhere,” she said. “I was just a ball of stress, and eventually the character kicked in where she’s sort of free-spirited, doesn’t care what people think, and chases down those things she wants.” She eventually found the right balance.

8. James Marsden thought the movie was going to be "schmaltzy."


Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

James Marsden played Allie’s fiancé—and Noah’s rival—Lon Hammond Jr. The actor told Out Magazine how he tries not to make a bad movie, but they sometimes turn out that way. “Then there are some movies that I’ve been in that I was sure people would laugh at, that have become huge,” he said. “I thought The Notebook was going to be a schmaltzy Movie of the Week–type thing, and here we are!”

9. Nick Cassavetes was the fourth choice to direct the movie.

New Line Cinema acquired the rights to Sparks's novel in 1995, before the book was even published. In 1998, Variety reported that Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the film. Jim Sheridan was also interested, but he decided to direct In America instead. In 2001, The Mask of Zorro and GoldenEye director Martin Campbel almost signed on, but in 2002 New Line brought Cassavetes aboard.

10. James Garner ruined his first take shooting with Gena Rowlands.


Melissa Moseley/New Line Cinema

Nick Cassavetes—son of legendary director John Cassavetes—cast his mother, the great Gena Rowlands, as the elderly Allie. Garner recalled the first day he and Gena filmed together. “She's going to come out and I’m sitting on the porch in a chair or something. And I hear Nick say, ‘Okay, mom. Action.’ Well, I ruined that take because I just broke up. That was so funny. That tickled me to death. But he showed his mother great respect. He was gentle with her and worked with her. What I loved about it is that she listened to him. Here’s a professional actress who’s one of the best ever, and she’s listening to her son tell her about things. I really admired that in both of them.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

Alexander Skarsgård Could Have Played Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Larry Busacca, Getty Images
Larry Busacca, Getty Images

Marvel fans may have trouble imagining Thor played by anyone other than Chris Hemsworth, but apparently, Alexander Skarsgård was pretty darn close to getting the role. How close, you ask? He tried on the costume, held the hammer, and even filmed an audition in the garb.

In 2009—just a year after True Blood premiered—the actor told MTV that he met with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Thor director Kenneth Branagh about the part. “Yeah, I met with Kevin [Feige] a few times and the director,” he said. “There was definitely some truth in that, yeah.”

When the MTV interviewer said he thought the actor had the perfect look to bring Thor to life, Skarsgård simply replied, “So did I.”

But before you start to feel too sorry for Skarsgård, let's not forget the number of impressive roles the True Blood alum has landed. At the moment, he’s playing Perry Wright in HBO’s Big Little Lies, for which he won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

As for the Thor role, Hemsworth went on to play the God of Thunder in multiple films, and although his future in the MCU is not certain after Avengers: Endgame, the Australian actor confirmed he’d love to keep playing the character.

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