Oscar flashback: Playing a politician is a great way to get elected Best Actor

In the 90 years of the Oscars, 11 leading men have earned nominations for portraying real-life politicians and five have won an Academy Award for their efforts. This year, a past Oscar winner and Oscar nominee will vie to join this distinguished group of actors. Christian Bale, who won an Oscar for playing a real-life fellow in “The Fighter,” takes on the role of former Vice President Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s “Vice.” And Hugh Jackman, who reaped a bid for the musical “Les Miserables,” headlines Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner” as U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart.

The first performer to earn a Best Actor nomination for portraying a real-life politician was George Arliss, honored for his turn as former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in “Disraeli” (1929). Arliss, who was also nominated in Best Actor for his performance in “The Green Goddess,” emerged triumphant for “Disraeli.”

In the following decade, two actors scored Oscar nominations for playing U.S. presidents. First, there was Raymond Massey, earning his lone career Oscar nomination for portraying Abraham Lincoln in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940). Four years later, it was Alexander Knox up in Best Actor for his turn as Woodrow Wilson in “Wilson” (1944). Neither actor prevailed.

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Remarkably, it would be another three decades before a performer reaped a Best Actor bid for playing a real-life politico. That actor was James Whitmore, in a one-man tour-de-force as U.S. President Harry S. Truman in “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” (1975). Twenty years later, Anthony Hopkins earned a nomination for portraying the disgraced Richard Nixon, in “Nixon” (1995). Neither Whitmore nor Hopkins were triumphant.

Over the two decades to follow, however, several leading men took home Oscars for playing real-life politicians.

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First, there was Forest Whitaker, who won the Best Actor Oscar for playing notorious Ugandan President Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006). Two years later, Sean Penn won his second trophy for portraying a much different political figure, the late San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, in “Milk” (2008). Among Penn’s rival Best Actor nominees was Frank Langella, following in Hopkins’ footsteps in taking on Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008). The following year, Morgan Freeman scored a nomination for his turn as South African President Nelson Mandela in “Invictus” (2009).

In 2012, Daniel Day-Lewis secured his third Best Actor Oscar, this time for portraying President Lincoln in “Lincoln” (2012). Last year, Gary Oldman became the latest leading man to achieve this feat, triumphing for his turn as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in ”Darkest Hour” (2017).

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