Emma Stone (“Battle of the Sexes”) could make Oscar history this year as the first actress to be nominated for taking on the challenge of playing a real-life athlete. In her well-regarded new film, Stone portrays legendary tennis great Billie Jean King, who trounced Bobby Riggs in an 1973 match that was a victory for the women’s movement too. Steve Carell plays King’s foe and would be the ninth actor recognized at the Oscars for his role as a real-life jock.
The first actor to achieve this feat was Gary Cooper, nominated in Best Actor for his portrayal of beloved New York Yankee Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942). Cooper, who won this prize the year prior for “Sergeant York” (1941), would lose to James Cagney (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”) on Oscar night.
Remarkably, not a single actor was nominated for portraying a real-life athlete over the rest of the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s.
In 1970, James Earl Jones became the second African-American (after Sidney Poitier) to garner a Best Actor bid with his turn as Jack Jefferson (real-life boxer Jack Johnson‘s last name was changed for the Broadway play and film adaptation) in “The Great White Hope.” While Jones came up short to George C. Scott (“Patton”) at the Oscars, his portrayal of the boxer had scored him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 1969.
Also recognized for playing a real-life boxer was Robert De Niro, winning the Best Actor trophy for his startling portrayal of self-destructive middleweight Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” (1980). The prize marked De Niro’s second Oscar win after prevailing in Best Supporting Actor for “The Godfather Part II” (1974).
Another pair of Best Actor Oscar nominations for portraying real-life boxers came at the turn of the century, as Denzel Washington landed a nomination for his turn as the wrongfully convicted Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane” (1999) and Will Smith received a nomination for playing incomparable heavyweight Muhammad Ali in “Ali” (2001). Neither actor would triumph for these performances, as Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”) defeated Washington and Washington (“Training Day”) then prevailed over Smith two years later.
Toward the end of the decade, Matt Damon received his third career Oscar nomination, this time for taking on the role of South African rugby player Francois Pienaar in “Invictus” (2009). Ultimately, however, that year’s Best Supporting Actor prize would go to Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”).
In 2010, Christian Bale scored the Best Supporting Actor trophy for his turn as Dicky Eklund, the crack cocaine-addicted former professional boxer and half-brother of up-and-coming athlete Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), in “The Fighter.”
Most recently, Mark Ruffalo garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for portraying Dave Schultz, the Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler and brother of fellow Olympian Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), in “Foxcatcher” (2014), who is slain by millionaire John du Pont (Carell). Ruffalo fell short on Oscar night to J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”).
Do you think Stone, who took home Best Actress last year for “La La Land,” will win again this year? Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.