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Stand-Out On-Screen Artists

By Cecilia Cygnar

There are many movies made about real-life creative visionaries, be they writers, musicians, or visual artists. Not all feature tour de force performances, however. Here are some films based on the lives of artists made special by tremendous performances.

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy

    1965 by Carol Reed

    Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur! As Moses! As Michelangelo? Not exactly the kind of role for which Heston is most known, but somehow his performance in this film works and might even be one of the strongest of his career.

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  • Basquiat

    1996 by Julian Schnabel

    Jeffrey Wright's portrayal of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was not only one of the best performances of the 1996, but one of the most convincing and unfettered performances of all time.

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  • Carrington

    1995 by Christopher Hampton

    Made before Emma Thompson was a household name, she stands out here as Victorian painter Dora Carrington. Brilliant and subtle, Thompson gives one of her best performances in this gem of a film.

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  • Frida

    2002 by Julie Taymor

    Salma Hayek gives by far the most passionate and vivid performance of her career as Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who was known as much for her art as for her tumultuous relationship with fellow painter Diego Rivera.

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  • Lust for Life

    1956 by Vincente Minnelli

    Kirk Douglas portrayed many memorable characters over his decades as an actor, but none as memorable as his turn as Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. Though it was Anthony Quinn who won an Oscar for his performance as van Gogh's friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, I feel it's Douglas' performance that really stands out in this film.

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  • Maudie

    2016 by Aisling Walsh

    Based on the life of Canadian artist Maud Lewis, this true tale depicts Maud's struggle with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and how she overcomes it to become a highly successful folk artist. British actress Sally Hawkins breathed life into Maud with intensity but also a delicate, nurturing touch. A good movie on the whole, but for Hawkins' performance alone, I think it's a must see.

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  • Mr. Turner

    2014 by Mike Leigh

    In this biopic of British painter J.M.W. Turner, veteran actor Timothy Spall gives the best performance of his long career. A slow and deliberate film, Spall's fantastic performance is by far the best reason to watch this one.

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  • My Left Foot

    1989 by Jim Sheridan

    The story of Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy and learned to paint and write using his left foot. Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the finest performances ever captured on screen, winning the first of his two Oscars (Brenda Fricker also won for playing Brown's long-suffering mother).

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  • Pollock

    2000 by Ed Harris

    Ed Harris directs and stars in this biopic about abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Marcia Gay Harden won an Oscar for her portrayal as Pollock's wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner, but Harris' performance as the volatile painter is equally, if not more, brilliant. Harris brings forth Pollock's troubled, crazed nature with unprecedented passion and vitality.

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