Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Oscar: His True Life Story

George Arliss as Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli
The First Biopic Oscar Winner


If you want to win an Academy Award for acting, here's my advise: play a real-life figure. 

Biopics are catnip to the Academy.  Oscar voters have some bizarre weakness for actors who play historic or at least famous people.   They seem to think that if one plays a figure from history, you are doing something more extraordinary than playing either a character already created (say, a Hamlet) or one created by the screenwriter. 

I can't explain why the Academy has this weird fixation for awarding acting prizes for biopics, but there it is.  The odds of one winning, or at least receiving an acting nomination for playing a real person are considerably high.  I have some evidence to prove that theory.

You know I stretched as an actor.
I played a Texan.

When it comes to the Best Actor category, this is the one where if you are playing a real person, your chances are winning (or getting a nomination) are tremendous.  In the 86 years of the Best Actor category, there have been 87 winners (one year a tie was declared).  Out of those winning performances, an incredible 23 were for portrayals of real-life men; the first in the Second Academy Awards: George Arliss won for playing the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli.  The most recent?  Well, this year (alright, alright, alright). 

In total, 70 performances (not specifically 70 actors, as people like Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and more recently Leonardo DiCaprio received multiple nominations for playing historic figures) that were based on real people earned nominations, making a total of 83 times the Academy has acknowledge biopics with wins or nominations (sometimes both the same year).

That's a remarkable success record.  If one looks at the last ten years (2003 to 2013), SEVEN of the ten winning performances went to actors in biopics.  They are:

2004: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (Ray)
2005: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (Capote)
2006: Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland)
2008: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (Milk)
2010: Colin Firth as King George VI (The King's Speech)
2012: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln)
2013: Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff (Dallas Buyers Club)

Seven out of ten. 

Then there are the ones in the same time period which didn't win.

2004 was a bountiful year for nominated biopics.  There was Foxx in Ray, then there was Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina (Hotel Rwanda), Johnny Depp as Sir J.M. Barrie (Finding Neverland), and DiCaprio as Howard Hughes (The Aviator).  Only Clint Eastwood's performance in Million Dollar Baby was from a fictional source. 

Then there was:

2005: Joaquin Phoenix and David Strathairn as Johnny Cash and Edward R. Murrow in Walk the Line and Good Night, and Good Luck respectively.

2006: Will Smith as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness.

2008: Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon.

2009: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus.

2010: Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco as Mark Zuckerberg and Aron Rolston in The Social Network and 127 Hours respectively.

2011: Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball.

2013: Leonard DiCaprio and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Jordan Belfort and Solomon Northup in The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave respectively.

Only in 2003 and 2007 were all five Best Actor nominees from non-biopic films. 

Funny Girl Meets Dower Duchess

The Best Actress, perhaps unsurprisingly given how Hollywood has been to women, is not as big on biographical films as their male counterparts.  Here, we have a mere 18 wins and 49 nominations.  Interestingly, while the first actress to win for a biopic wasn't until the Ninth Academy Awards when Louise Rainer won for her portrayal of Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld, the Best Actress' only tie came with both winners winning for playing real-life figures.  Barbra Streisand won for playing Broadway comedienne Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Katharine Hepburn won for playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter

If we look back at the last ten years, surprisingly SIX of the ten wins for Best Actress went to a biopic.

2003: Charlize Theron as Aileen Wournos in Monster
2005: Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line
2006: Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen
2007: Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose
2009: Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side
2011: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

If we look at the nominees in this decade, we have the following:

2005: Dame Judi Dench as Laura Henderson in Mrs. Henderson Presents
2007: Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age*
2008: Angelina Jolie as Christine Collins in Changeling
2009: Helen Mirren, Carey Mulligan, and Meryl Streep for playing Countess Tolstoy, Jenny Mellor (pen name for Lynn Barber), and Julia Child in The Last Station, An Education, and Julie & Julia respectively
2011: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn
2012: Naomi Watts as Maria Bennett (in real life, Maria Colon) in The Impossible
2013: Dame Judi Dench as Philomena Lee in Philomena

This isn't to say that the men and women didn't deserve to win (though I would debate Whitaker, Streep, Day-Lewis, McConaughey and especially Bullock).  I think some of the winning performances were truly deserving.  It just seems to me that, when it comes to winning Oscars, those who appear as someone else seem to have a leg-up on the competition.

And this doesn't cover fictionalized versions of real people, like Broderick Crawford's win for All the King's Men, playing a character based on controversial Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long, or Gene Hackman's win for The French Connection, where Popeye Doyle was based on a real New York City detective. 

Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Alfred Dreyfus
in The Life of Emile Zola

The Supporting Actor and Actress don't have nearly as much luck in winning for playing real people as their Lead counterparts.  For Supporting Actor, the record is 12 wins, 53 nominations (pretty poor I think).  Supporting Actress is much better: 15 wins and 26 nominations.  Now, the Supporting Actor/Actress categories weren't established until 1936, so they are a few years behind. 

However, in these past ten years only one actor has won the Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a real-life figure.  Christian Bale won for playing Dicky Eklund in The Fighter.  In the past decade, there have been a total of 13 nominated performances based on actual people (Jonah Hill's two nominations, inexplicable as they may be to humanity, stem from his playing real people, though their names were changed).  Out of all the categories, the Supporting Actor has the worst track record for biopic wins.

Lupita Nyong'o for 12 Years a Slave.
Technically, she's the first
Mexican woman to win.

The Supporting Actress has a similarly spotty record in the last ten years, even though it can claim three wins compared to the Supporting Actor's sole victory: Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Melissa Leo as Alice Eklund-Ward in The Fighter, and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.  There have been only seven nominated performances for real-life performances this decade.
Granted there are other factors to winning an Oscar apart from the genre.  There's the actual performance, the popularity and critical acclaim of the film, and your competition (McConaughey, for example, had been rolling over DiCaprio and Ejiofor for months). 

As I look at this list, however, it seems clear that if one is a male in a biopic or at least playing a real-life person, you have a better chance of at least being nominated if not winning if you are the lead.  If you're the supporting role, your chances go way down.  For women, the odds are pretty good regardless of category.  They might actually be slightly better if you are the Supporting player.

Word to the wise should you want to win an Oscar.

We Are Not Amused...
*It should be noted that Blanchett had been nominated previously for playing Elizabeth I in 1998's Elizabeth, making her one of the few people to be nominated for playing the same role in both a film and its sequel.

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