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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Have the Oscars fallen out of love with the Bio-Pic?

Updated: May 5, 2023

Bio-Pics or films based on a true story have traditional had a strong strong presence at the Oscars in recent years, but in its 90th Academy Awards does this trend seem to be on the wane?

Only 2 of the 9 best pictures fell into this category (Darkest Hour and The Post), and 5 of the 20 actors were nominated for playing real people. But unlike previous, the majority of awards on the night went to films with no connection to real lives. Two actors were awarded: Alison Janney and Gary Oldman, but both nominations and wins down on previous years, read on to see which actors have won an Oscar for playing a real person, since 2005.

From 2005 - 2016 at least one of the four best acting awards went to someone playing a real person, and although 2017 had plenty of nominees none won!

Congrats to Alison Janney (I, Tonya), Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World), Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) and Meryl Streep (The Post).

Tracing more recent nominations and wins it is clear how important this genre has become in mainstream cinema, but is its power waning?

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 roles inspired by real people and incidents. 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.

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.

Sadly Eddie Redmayne didn't make it a double in 2016, although nominated for his role in The Danish Girl, the award went to Leonardo DiCaprio. However, Redmayne's co-star Alicia Vikander did pick up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

2017 was a historic year, and not just for the Best Picture faux pas, as NONE of the acting Oscars went to those playing a real person. However there were notable nominations, including three of the five in Best Actress: Ruth Negga for Loving, Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins and Natalie Portman for Jackie. Andrew Garfield was nominated in Best Actor for Hacksaw Ridge, Dev Patel in Supporting Actor for Lion and in Supporting Actress were Nicole Kidman for Lion and Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures.

So perhaps the tide has turned, and playing a real person is not the shoo-in it was once.

I do love a bio-pic, so much so I wrote the book! You can buy a copy of Bio-Pics: A Life in Pictures by Ellen Cheshire, published by Columbia University Press here.

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.

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).

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