We all know that the academy loves when actors portray real people. Two years ago was the first time in 19 years that all four acting Oscar winners — Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”), Emma Stone (“La La Land”), Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Viola Davis (“Fences”) — won for playing fictional characters, which was frankly a minor miracle. But of the four categories, there is one where voters favor real-to-reel performances the most: Best Actor. And that love affair will continue if Rami Malek wins for his turn as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” as expected.
Malek would be the 12th Best Actor champ this century to win for playing a real person or a character based on a real person and the second in a row following Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (2017). The other 10 since 2000 are:
1. Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), “The Pianist” (2002)
2. Jamie Foxx (Ray Charles), “Ray” (2004)
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote), “Capote” (2005)
4. Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), “The Last King of Scotland” (2006)
5. Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), “Milk” (2008)
6. Colin Firth (King George VI), “The King’s Speech” (2010)
7. Daniel Day-Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), “Lincoln” (2012)
8. Matthew McConaughey (Ron Woodroof), “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)
9. Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), “The Theory of Everything” (2014)
10. Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), “The Revenant” (2015)
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For comparison, in the same timeframe, Best Actress has gone to eight real-life portrayals, the most recent being Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady,” 2011); Best Supporting has four, with Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies,” 2015) the most recent; and Allison Janney made it seven in Best Supporting Actress with her victory for “I, Tonya” last year. In all of Oscar history, 26 people have won Best Actor for characters inspired by real people; 22 in Best Actress; 14 in Best Supporting Actor; and 15 in Best Supporting Actress.
Those totals are not that high when you remember that Oscar is celebrating its 91st year this weekend. And that’s because this trend has been a recent phenomenon, like literally this century. In the ’90s, eight people total won for playing real people across all four categories. There have been long stretches in all four categories with original creations prevailing, including a 22-year one in Best Supporting Actress between Alice Brady (“In Old Chicago,” 1937) and Shelley Winters (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” 1959).
So what happened when the millennium hit, specifically in Best Actor? The business is predominantly male, so a ton of biopics about other men in history hitting the big screen is not shocking. Eerily accurate transformative performances have become the norm, aided in part by advances in prosthetics, makeup and other movie magic tools. You’re expected to look as similar as possible to — if not exactly like — the actual person you’re playing these days. And you get “degree of difficulty” points for your “commitment” to the role if you go to mind-boggling lengths to transform your body or change your voice or develop a new gait or do anything that makes you unrecognizable. Some might consider this “range.”
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And you’re in greater luck if the subject is extremely famous. Most of the aforementioned 11 Best Actor champs triumphed for playing someone who is incredibly well known, from Ray Charles to Winston Churchill. Even better if that famous person was alive in our lifetime or in recent history, thus giving voters and moviegoers a reference point to compare just how much you got “right” (though arguably it’s tougher to create a full character from scratch). Freddie Mercury was not only one of the biggest rock stars of all time in one of the most popular bands of all time, but he’s also adored. Contrast that with Malek’s closest rival Christian Bale, who as usual checks off more of these “transformation” boxes in “Vice,” but Dick Cheney is one of the most reviled figures of the last 20 years.
Malek and Bale aren’t the only Best Actor nominees who played a real person. Viggo Mortensen (“Green Book”) met the family of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga in preparation for the role and even wore the real man’s jewelry in the film, and Willem Dafoe (“At Eternity’s Gate”) embodied one of the most influential painters in history, Vincent Van Gogh. Bradley Cooper (“A Star Is Born”) is the only one playing a faux character, though there were three previous versions of him. In hindsight, Cooper was doomed from the start.
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