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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

And the Award Goes to … someone playing a real person!

Updated: May 5, 2023

Once again actors appearing in Bio-Pics or films based on a true story have swept the Oscar nominations for the 88th Academy Awards.

4 of the 8 best pictures fall into this category, and 12 of the 20 actors have been nominated for playing real people.

Representations of famous lives were a popular theatrical staple long before the arrival of cinema. William Shakespeare’s historical output, which included plays on Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III and Anthony and Cleopatra did not let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Yet despite accusations from critics that bio-pics are sensationalist, distorted or formulaic, viewers and award voters still embrace them.

The first bio-pic to sweep up multiple awards was David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) starring Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence. Other multiple award-winning films: A Man for All Seasons (1966), Gandhi (1982), Amadeus (1984), Out of Africa (1985), The Last Emperor (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Braveheart (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), The King’s Speech (2010) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Not only are these all bio-pics, but they are also all bio-pics of heroes and/or those who have triumphed over great adversity.

For the actor in question, they are often called to play a range of ages, emotions while directors can capture a range of moods and tones. These facts, coupled with extremes of emotion and issues such as mental illness, has seen a high number of bio-pic related Oscar wins and nominations.

The Academy Awards, although not necessarily a marker of a film’s quality, serves as a useful barometer against which one can gauge both public and industry approval of a film. Bio-pics have, understandably, been a consistent presence in the acting categories. This is a tradition that began in 1929 when George Arliss picked up an Oscar for his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli (1929).

Tracing mere recent nominations and wins it is clear how important this genre has become in mainstream cinema.

In 2005 three of the four actors nominated in the Best Actor category were for portrayals of real people. The award went to Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, beating off Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, and Johnny Depp as J M Barrie in Finding Neverland.

In 2006 Philip Seymour Hoffman swooped up the award for his portrayal of Truman Capote in Capote, beating off two other bio-pic nominees, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line and David Strathairn as Ed Morrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. In the Best Actress category Reese Witherspoon won for performance of Cash’s wife June Carter in Walk the Line despite being up against tough bio-pic alumni, Judi Dench as Mrs Henderson in Mrs. Henderson Presents and Charlize Theron for Josey Aimes in the ‘based on a true story’ North Country (both previous bio-pic Oscar winners with Iris and Monster respectively).

At award ceremonies across the globe in 2007, Forest Whitaker and Dame Helen Mirren were busy filling their mantelpieces with trophies (including Oscars) for their roles of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen.

So popular were bio-pics in 2008 that even foreign language films were being represented. Marion Cotillard won for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, whilst director Julian Schnabel was nominated for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Interestingly it was also a year of firsts with Cate Blanchett being nominated in both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories for her roles as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Also the first time a woman was cast and nominated for playing a man.

True to recent form 2009 saw two acting giants going head-to-head with their portrayals of real-life political legends: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk triumphing over Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon.

In 2010 Morgan Freeman received a nod for his role of Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Sandra Bullock won for the semi-autobiographical The Blind Side. Bullock’s competition included Helen Mirren playing Sophia Tolstaya (Mrs Tolstoy) in The Last Station and Meryl Streep for Julia Child in Julie & Julia.

In 2011 Colin Firth won for his portrayal of King George VI in The King’s Speech, beating off Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours.

In 2012 Brad Pitt missed out on winning for his role of Billy Beane in Moneyball, Meryl Streep won for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and Michelle Williams was nominated for her Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. 2013 saw Daniel Day-Lewis pick up his third Oscar for Lincoln, his second for a bio-pic, having won in 1989 for My Left Foot.

The 2014 award season featuring films from 2013/14 was once again a who’s who of screen who’s whos with three of the five actors nominated for Bio-Pics Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, with the award going to Matthew McConaughey for his performance as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. All five Best Supporting Actors were nominated for playing real people. Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips, Bradley Cooper in American Hustle, Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave, Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

And finally, in 2015 Eddie Redmayne picked up with the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, beating off competition from Steve Carell in Foxcatcher as John Eleuthère du Pont, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper as Chris Kyle and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game as Alan Turing.

This trend of award wins proves that without doubt films examining the lives of real people whether they are singers, politicians, entrepreneurs, directors or writers are a staple part of the filmic output of the industry.


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