Walter Huston, Abraham Lincoln (1930): Because most people don’t look like attractive movie stars, biopics rarely wind up starring people who look like them. Erin Brockovich doesn’t look like Julia Roberts, Virginia Woolf didn’t look like Nicole Kidman and Salvador Dalí looked nothing like Robert Pattison. That said, apply the right makeup to Meryl Streep and she’ll look like Margaret Thatcher, as happened with The Iron Lady. Likewise, throw the right beard on Walter Huston and doesn’t he look like Honest Abe. In his first sound film (of two), D.W. Griffith did just that, with Huston making for a more believable Lincoln than Joseph Henaberry in a previous Griffith production, The Birth of a Nation.
Val Kilmer, The Doors (1991): Val Kilmer looks exactly like Jim Morrison. That’s about the only thing this Oliver Stone movie got right.
Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin (1992): Kilmer’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star looks exactly like the younger Charles Chaplin. RDJ’s expert pantomime is about the only part of Dickie Attenborough’s doddering biopic—perhaps the poster child for all that is wrong and insufferable about the genre—that’s actually entertaining.
Stephen Fry, Wilde (1997): The British comic legend was born to play Oscar Wilde. Why he got stuck with this paint-by-numbers biopic while the less deserving Rupert Everett scored the Wilde-standby roles in An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest is a question for the ages.
Toby Jones, Infamous (2006): For one of his least interesting performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman scored an Oscar for impersonating Truman Capote, even as he more closely resembled Ralphie from A Christmas Story. This performance and film wound up entirely overshadowing the Capote -circa-In-Cold-Blood project made at the same time, which starred an actor who actually looked like Truman Capote, and wasn’t as ponderous or tiresomely self-satisfied to boot.
Ben Kingsley, Hugo (2011): Of part Indian descent, British-born Ben Kingsley made a shockingly credible Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi. But the person of historical importance he most truly resembles is Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-cinema pioneer. Lucky for him, a major studio was convinced a $170 million extravaganza about his obscure latter life was a sure bet.