Queer Author Biopics: The Ultimate Showdown

Kidman as Woolf. Hoffman as Capote. Nixon as Dickinson. When it comes to playing our tortured literary heroes, who really slayed it?

The meltdowns! The forbidden love affairs! The writer’s block! Few things say “serious actor” like starring in a biopic as a world-renowned author. Most of these literary heroes were tortured, self-destructive artists. And if they were queer and living in a previous century, chances are their angst was fueled by the fact that they were leading some kind of closeted life.

Some of these complicated scribes are so intriguing, they’ve been portrayed on the big screen not once, but twice (or more) over the years. In the new biopic Vita & Virginia, for example, Elizabeth Debicki embodies Virginia Woolf, but who can forget Nicole Kidman donning a schnoz-thetic to channel Woolf in 2002’s The Hours?

Below, we’ve rounded up our favorite queer authors and the actors who’ve played them to determine which performances truly rose to the occasion.

Virginia Woolf

Played by Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia (2019)

Set in 1920s London, writer-director Chanya Button’s film tells the story of the chaotic romance between sassy socialite Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and emotionally fragile novelist Woolf while they are both in open marriages to men. The movie is based on the women’s love letters to each other, and Sackville-West inspired the gender-swapping protagonist in Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography. Intriguing? Not so fast. Another Gaze summed up most critics’ opinions, saying that although “Debicki plays this beautifully… Vita & Virginia is disappointing mostly because it takes one of the most beloved, influential, and strange lesbian relationships of the 20th century and makes it into something basically ordinary, a mannered cliché.”

Played by Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)

In Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, Kidman pulls out all the stops as a bipolar, unhappily married woman who’s emotionally unhinged, racked by self-doubt and depression. Woolf’s queerness is only hinted at in the movie, when she shares a passionate kiss with her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson). When the film was first released, a lot of people joked about the prosthetic nose Kidman wore, but she got the last laugh, winning pretty much every award that ever existed for her performance, including an Oscar. The New York Times raved: “In The Hours, Nicole Kidman tunnels like a ferret into the soul of a woman besieged by excruciating bouts of mental illness.”

Verdict: It’s hard to surpass Academy Award–winning A-list talent. Kidman nose best.

Truman Capote

Played by Toby Jones in Infamous (2006)

Jones’ Capote is the bitchy, gossipy gay best friend to New York socialites in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the movie (written and directed by Douglas McGrath) he exhibits signs that he might have a taste for rough trade, hardly concealing his lust for the male prisoners he interviews for his true-crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood. The kissing scene with Capote and convicted murderer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig)—Capote was reportedly infatuated with Smith—would have had some of Capote’s real-life society dames clutching their pearls, and Jones skillfully mimics Capote’s high-pitched nasal voice and signature mannerisms. The Guardian said at the time, “It’s a very good performance and Jones deserves his time in the spotlight.”

Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005)

Hoffman brilliantly shows both sides of Capote: the charismatic gadabout queen and the self-loathing artist who slides into alcoholism. Directed by Bennett Miller, the film also has Capote venturing into the minds of brutal murderers as he writes In Cold Blood. Hoffman depicts Capote’s sexual attraction to prisoner Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) with subtle but affecting inner turmoil; he knows any love affair he could have with Smith would inevitably be doomed. Empire heaped on the praise: “Hoffman does that cartoon voice (Capote sounded a lot like Tex Avery’s forlorn mutt Droopy) perfectly, but shows the canny, cold, compulsive brain working behind the sparkling eyes.”

Verdict: Jones gives a noteworthy performance, but he’s overshadowed by Hoffman, who won an Oscar and a slew of other awards for his complex portrayal.

Allen Ginsberg

Played by Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Directed by John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings takes place in the 1940s, during the celebrated poet and author’s Columbia University years, when he got to know some other writers who’d become Beat Generation stars: Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). Rolling Stone noted, “Radcliffe nails every tortured nuance in the role,” but many critics also said DeHaan, who has a steamy sex scene with Radcliffe, outshone him.

Played by James Franco in Howl (2010)

Franco is a highly creative Ginsberg during his early career in 1950s San Francisco, when he had a secret affair with married friend and fellow writer Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) before finding true love with poet and actor Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit). In Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Ginsberg is haunted by his struggles with mental illness, his rocky relationship with his estranged mother, and a past that includes a stint in a psychiatric institution, where he had to pretend not to be gay in order to get an early release. The Hollywood Reporter echoed most critics’ opinions, saying that although Howl has some flaws, “every piece of film involving Franco is terrific.”

Verdict: Franco has the edge because he got to play Ginsberg during Ginsberg’s creative peak, and because he’s more believable as an avant-garde writer.

Neal Cassady

Played by Garrett Hedlund in On the Road (2012)

All the characters in this movie are based on real people but have different names. Directed by Walter Salles, On the Road explores the entanglements between sexually fluid writer Dean Moriarty, also known as Neal Cassady; his writer best friend, Sal Paradise, a.k.a. Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley); poet Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge), who has a crush on Dean; and the two women who would become Dean’s wives: Marylou, a.k.a. LuAnne Henderson (Kristen Stewart), and Camille, a.k.a. Carolyn Cassady (Kirsten Dunst). Yeah, it’s a lot. Variety said that “the meatiest thesping opportunities naturally go to Hedlund, who brings a winning, boyish quality to the id-on-legs that is Dean Moriarty.”

Played by Tate Donovan in Neal Cassady (2007)

Written and directed by Noah Buschel, this little-seen movie is the story of how Cassady’s life changed because of Kerouac’s On the Road, whose fictional character Dean Moriarty is based on Cassady. It was seen so little, in fact, that there are no critic reviews of it on Rotten Tomatoes. However, audience reviews on IMDb and Amazon were decidedly mixed about Donovan’s performance as Cassady.

Played by Nick Nolte in Heart Beat (1980)

Directed by John Byrum and based on Carolyn Cassady’s memoir of the same name, Heart Beat depicts the love triangle between Neal, Carolyn (Sissy Spacek), and Kerouac (John Heard). This movie version has “Nolte ambling ruefully through 20 years of the American Dream,” said Time Out London.

Verdict: No contest. Hedlund drives it home.

Emily Dickinson

Played by Molly Shannon in Wild Nights With Emily (2019)

Shattering the image that Dickinson was meek and asexual, this dramedy written and directed by Madeleine Olnek portrays the poet as feisty and involved in a secret love affair with her longtime friend Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler), who would eventually marry Dickinson’s brother. Some critics noted that the movie, set in 1800s Massachusetts, has a Drunk History–inspired tone, and The Detroit News said that Shannon “plays Dickinson with reverence for her character and a desire to make her a living, breathing person, not a stuffy figure from a history book.”

Played by Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion (2017)

In writer-director Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, spinster Dickinson doesn’t have a love life, which leaves her sexuality open to interpretation. Nixon’s portrayal is that of an independent-minded woman who questions religious and social conventions. Most critics dug Nixon and the movie, with The Telegraph describing her performance as a “quiveringly intense bluestocking workout.” (Wow.)

Verdict: It depends. Prefer some classic dramatic flair in a traditional biopic? Go for Nixon. Want to see Dickinson gettin’ her freak on? Shannon delivers.

Oscar Wilde

Played by Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince (2018)

Wilde used to be a vibrant “life of the party” type, but you wouldn’t know it from this bleak portrayal of him toward the end of his life in 1900, when he was a disgraced, ailing ex-con, exiled in France after serving a two-year prison sentence in England for being gay. Everett starred in and directed The Happy Prince, in which he plays Wilde as a broke has-been with a thing for cocaine and twinks. Slant observed that “his performance evinces an acute understanding of Wilde’s desire to martyr himself,” echoing most critics’ opinions that Everett’s acting was better than the overall product.

Played by Stephen Fry in Wilde (1997)

In director Brian Gilbert’s Wilde, the famous London-based Irish writer—a closeted, married father of two children—is at the top of his game when he is brought down by a scandalous affair with his younger lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jude Law), a spoiled rich kid. The Baltimore Sun said that Fry was “perfectly cast” in a somewhat flawed movie—which was pretty much the consensus.

Played by Peter Finch in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960)
Played by Robert Morley in Oscar Wilde (1960)

These two movies opened a week apart in 1960, during an era when films often misrepresented queerness. The New York Times said Finch’s film was better, even though the reviewer’s main criticism was that it looked like a “whitewash” of Wilde’s fondness for rent boys.

Verdict: Fry gave the most multidimensional performance, playing Wilde both in his prime and during his fall from grace, and demonstrating a range that showcased the actor’s talent and versatility.

Vita & Virginia is playing at New York City’s Quad Cinema and opens August 30 at the Nuart in Los Angeles before expanding to select theaters nationwide.

Writer and editor whose work has appeared in AXS.com, Examiner.com, Lifetime, People, and Billboard.