Celebrity biopics are inevitably dicey. Be too nice and you wind up with sanitised guff like Bohemian Rhapsody. Entirely avoid approval from celebrities themselves and prepare to face their eternal wrath.
In some cases, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s dislike of The Social Network, upset is rooted less in the biopics being bad and more their own less-than-flattering depictions. Other times, such as Lil’ Kim’s condemnation of the terrible Biggie Smalls movie Notorious, are more justified.
Sometimes it’s their celebrity friends you need to worry about. On Sunday (16 May), Courtney Love publicly admonished a forthcoming limited series about the theft of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s infamous sex tape. Lily James, who portrays Anderson in the series and has recently left the internet in awe at her physical transformation for the role, came in for a particular bashing.
“I find this so f***ing outrageous,” Love wrote. “[The tape] destroyed my friend Pamela’s life. Utterly. It CRUSHED her and her kids … My heart goes out to Pammy further causing her complex trauma. And shame on Lily James whoever the f*** she is.”
Love, who has since deleted her post, wasn’t the first star to call out a biopic, and she certainly won’t be the last. From Madonna’s outrage at an unauthorised tell-all to Julian Assange’s desperate plea to convince Benedict Cumberbatch to drop out of his WikiLeaks movie, here are 14 other times celebrities and their descendants went scorched earth on the Hollywood biopic factory.
Ike Turner vs What’s Love Got to Do with It
The celebrated Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It earned critical raves in 1993 and an Oscar nomination for star Angela Bassett. Telling the story of Turner’s rise to fame and her escape from a violent and abusive marriage to husband Ike, the film proved conscientious to only one party: Ike himself.
“I’m real angry about it,” Ike told The Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t go see it and I didn’t read her book either, but from what I hear they’re both full of lies. I guess they needed some drama, they needed to make somebody into the bad guy and this time it was me.”
Ike also said that he “only” punched his former wife with his fist once, and that his “little slaps” during previous fights “were all just about attitude”.
“It was always because she was looking sad and wouldn’t tell me what was wrong with her,” Ike explained. “She would take that attitude with her onto the stage and that would really depress me. So after the show, I’d end up slapping her or something. But then we’d be OK.”
Contrary to Ike’s claim, it was reported as recently as March this year that Turner is “still haunted” by her relationship with him.
Madonna vs Blond Ambition
Madonna was left furious in 2017 when Universal Pictures picked up a buzzed-about script inspired by her early life and career. On her Instagram, Madonna dubbed those trying to make the film, titled Blond Ambition, as “charlatans and fools” adding: “Nobody knows what I know and what I have seen, [and] only I can tell my story.”
Coincidentally or not, Madonna announced last year that she was co-writing and directing her own biopic... for Universal Pictures. Blond Ambition, meanwhile, is assumed to be dead in the water.
Jada Pinkett Smith vs All Eyez on Me
The maligned Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me, which was released in 2017, proved most offensive to one of its major characters: Jada Pinkett Smith, who grew up with Shakur and played a prominent role in the movie.
On Twitter, Pinkett Smith hit out at the film for distorting her history with the late rapper and making up several encounters between the pair for dramatic purposes. “Forgive me … my relationship to Pac is too precious to me for the scenes in All Eyez On Me to stand as truth,” the actor wrote. “The reimagining of my relationship to Pac has been deeply hurtful.”
She did, however, say that the untruths were “no fault” of actors Demetrius Shipp Jr and Kat Graham, who played Shakur and Pinkett Smith in the film, respectively. “You both did a beautiful job with what you were given,” she tweeted.
David Letterman vs The Late Shift
The 1996 TV movie The Late Shift dramatised the one-time rivalry between US talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno – both of whom fought it out to replace Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show. The real Letterman was very displeased with the film, however, and regularly used his talk show to condemn his portrayal and actor John Michael Higgins.
“It’s just bizarre,” Letterman said in 1995. “The guy who’s playing me – and I’m sure he’s a fine actor – but his interpretation seems to be that I’m, well, a circus chimp. He looks like he’s insane, like he’s a budding psychopath.”
Hank Williams III vs I Saw the Light
The forgotten 2015 biopic I Saw the Light saw Tom Hiddleston portray the late country star Hank Williams, with his fellow Marvel star Elizabeth Olsen playing Williams’s wife. While the film itself seemed to pass by unnoticed by cinemagoers, it did provoke controversy among Williams’s descendants.
The star’s grandson Hank Williams III claimed in 2015 that Hiddleston had no “soul” in his voice and was a poor choice for the role. “To do a Hank Williams movie the way it should be done, you need certain aspects in the mix to make it right,” he explained. “It goes way beyond having [an] American play the role of Hiram Hank Williams, Sr. For it to be somewhat natural, [it] needs to be [an] American from the South who has eaten, lived and breathed these kind of roles before.”
He added that he always thought Matthew McConaughey would have been a better choice.
Joni Mitchell vs Girls Like Us
It’s yet to get off the ground, but a Joni Mitchell biopic titled Girls Like Us has been in the works for close to a decade. Mitchell herself, however, isn’t keen on it, nor the rumoured casting of Taylor Swift.
“I squelched that!” Mitchell said in 2014. “I said to the producer, ‘All you’ve got is a girl with high cheekbones. It’s just a lot of gossip, you don’t have the great scenes.’ There’s a lot of nonsense about me in books: assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.”
A year later, Mitchell once again addressed Swift’s rumoured involvement in the movie. “I’ve never heard Taylor’s music,” she said. “I’ve seen her. Physically, she looks similarly small hipped and high cheekbones. I can see why they cast her. I don’t know what her music sounds like, but I do know this – that if she’s going to sing and play me, good luck.”
Lil’ Kim vs Notorious
The legendary rapper spent more than a decade deriding the decision to cast former pop star turned actor Naturi Naughton as her in the 2009 Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious.
In 2009, Kim dubbed Naughton “tasteless and talentless”, adding: “She doesn’t have a Lil’ Kim aura at all! She looks nothing like I looked back then. We have no similarities. Watching her on-screen was so ‘dreadful’, as Simon Cowell would say.”
In 2019, Kim reiterated that she “hated” the movie. “To me, it was like a spoof,” she added. “It was something that I would have never approved. I didn’t like who played me. No. No, no, no, no.”
Mark Zuckerberg vs The Social Network
In 2014, the Facebook founder finally addressed the Oscar-winning 2010 film The Social Network, which dramatised the birth of his social media company. Zuckerberg said that the film “tried” to get some details correct, “like the design of the office”, but that much of the rest of it was untrue.
“In terms of why we’re building Facebook to help connect the world, or how we did it, they just kind of made up a bunch of stuff that I found kind of hurtful,” he said. “I take our mission really seriously, and we’re here not primarily to just build a company, but to help connect the world.”
Zuckerberg also appeared to shrug off actor Jesse Eisenberg, who played him in the film. “I met the guy who played me in the movie one time when I was on Saturday Night Live,” he said. “I think he was a little afraid to meet me after his portrayal, but I tried to be nice.”
Julian Assange vs The Fifth Estate
The WikiLeaks founder sent a 10-page email to actor Benedict Cumberbatch the day before production began on The Fifth Estate, a biopic of his life. In the email, Assange said the film’s script was based on “a deceitful book” written by someone with a “vendetta” against him, and urged Cumberbatch to drop out of the movie.
Cumberbatch later admitted that the email did give him pause, but that he eventually chose to stick with the film and that he explained his reasons in his own email response to Assange.
“I said listen, this film is going to explore what you achieved, what brought you to the world’s attention, in a way that I think is nothing but positive,” Cumberbatch told The Guardian. “I admit to doing work because I’m a vain actor… yet I’m not acting in a moral vacuum. I have considered this, and whatever happens I want to give as much complexity and understanding of you as I can.”
Nina Simone’s descendants vs Nina
Guardians of the Galaxy star Zoe Saldana was engulfed in controversy in 2012 when photos emerged of her on the set of a Nina Simone biopic. Saldana, who is a light-skinned woman of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Haitian descent, wore a full bodysuit, prosthetic nose and false teeth to play the famed singer. She was also accused of donning blackface for the role, having worn dark make-up during filming.
Simone’s estate condemned the casting on Twitter, urging Saldana to “take Nina’s name out of your mouth for the rest of your life”. Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, also said that the project was “not how you want your loved ones remembered”.
Eight years later, Saldana finally expressed regret for her involvement in the film. On an Instagram Live, Saldana said: “I should have never played Nina. I should have done everything in my power with the leverage that I had 10 years ago – which was a different leverage but it was leverage nonetheless – I should have tried everything in my power to cast a black woman to play an exceptionally perfect black woman … She deserved better, and I am sorry.”
Sarah Palin vs Game Change
The infamous Alaska governor, who was John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, hit out in 2012 at Game Change, an unflattering dramatisation of the McCain campaign. Julianne Moore played Palin in the film, which also starred Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris and Sarah Palin.
“I’m not going to go see the movie, neither is the good Senator John McCain,” Palin told Fox News. “We’ve discussed this and realised that Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies. They’re going to do what they can to drum up their money and their machine, and their machine happens to be a very pro-leftist, pro-Barack Obama machine there at HBO that created this movie.”
Despite Palin’s protests, Moore ended up winning an array of awards for her performance, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Olivia de Havilland vs Feud
De Havilland, one of the longest-surviving stars of classic Hollywood, was embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit in the years before her death in 2020 at the age of 104. The Ryan Murphy limited series Feud revolved around the long-standing rivalry between actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but it was its dramatisation of De Havilland’s own rivalry with sister Joan Fontaine that got Murphy in trouble.
In the show, Catherine Zeta-Jones played De Havilland, who at one point is heard dubbing Fontaine “a bitch”. In a lawsuit against Murphy’s production company and US broadcaster FX, De Havilland accused the show of “[putting] false words in my mouth”.
“The show was designed to make it look as if I said these things and acted this way,” she added. “I feel strongly about it because when one person’s rights can be trampled on this way, the rights of others who are more vulnerable can be abused as well.”
Despite a handful of early victories in the case, De Havilland’s suit was dismissed by a California court in 2018, while an attempt to resurrect the lawsuit via the Supreme Court in 2019 also failed.
Ray Manzarek vs The Doors
Oliver Stone’s Jim Morrison biopic The Doors, starring Val Kilmer as the legendary rock frontman, drew mixed reviews upon its release in 1991. Falling on the “this movie is terrible” end of the spectrum was Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who dubbed it “over-amped and sensationalistic”.
Manzarek took particular umbrage with the film’s depiction of Morrison, who died in 1971. “The film portrays Jim as a violent, drunken fool,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “That wasn’t Jim. When I walked out of the movie, I thought, ‘Geez, who was that jerk?’ … The film isn’t based on love. It’s based in madness and chaos. Oliver has made Jim into an agent of destruction.”
John Lydon vs Pistol
In April, the Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon expressed his upset at a forthcoming limited series inspired by the band’s heyday. Game of Thrones stars Maisie Williams and Thomas Brodie-Sangster are among the cast of Pistol, which will be directed by Danny Boyle.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, Lydon said: “I think that’s the most disrespectful s*** I’ve ever had to endure. I mean, they went to the point to hire an actor to play me but what’s the actor working on? Certainly not my character. It can’t go anywhere else [but court].”
Lydon added that he had gone so far as to seek legal advice over the show, which he claimed is being made without his permission. “It’s a disgrace,” he added. “If you put me in a corner like a rat, I’m going to go for your throat.”