As a new decade has dawned, it is a good time to take a look back at an Oscar trend that became firmly entrenched when it comes to leading men. Namely, the majority of brand-name top-billed actors who have claimed an Academy Award over the past 10 years portrayed real people. Biopics and truth-based stories have been the rage of late, perhaps feeding our hunger for heroes from the past or capitalizing on our addiction for 24-hour cable news.
This embrace of real-life characters began to take hold in the 2000s, starting with Adrien Brody in 2002’s “The Pianist,” Jamie Foxx in 2004’s “Ray,” Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2005’s “Capote,” Forest Whitaker in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland” and Sean Penn in 2008’s “Milk.”
As for this decade, seven out of 10 Best Actor winners came from biopics: Colin Firth in 2010’s “The King’s Speech,” Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012’s “Lincoln,” Matthew McConaughey in 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” Eddie Redmayne in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything,” Leonardo DiCaprio in 2015’s “The Revenant,” Gary Oldman in 2017’s “Darkest Hour” and Rami Malek in 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.
One theory I have? Playing a famous person often provides a measuring stick on how a performance reflects the well-known entity that a fictional role doesn’t provide.
But the 92nd Academy Awards veered away from reality despite the wealth of biopics in 2019, given that Best Actor Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) won as a fictional comic book villain. Adam Driver in “Marriage Story,” played a sort of variation of the film’s director/writer Noah Baumbach. Similarly, Antonio Banderas channels a version of his director/writer and longtime collaborator Pedro Almodovar in “Pain and Glory.” Leonardo DiCaprio‘s role in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a composite of old-school Western TV stars who went out of style in the era of peace, love, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The only lead actor who was nominated for a real-life role was Jonathan Pryce as the future Pope Francis in “The Two Popes.”
Voters, however, decided to bypass four potential contenders who better fit the mold of an actual biopic character: Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”), Christian Bale (“Ford v Ferrari”), Eddie Murphy (“My Name is Dolemite”) and Taron Egerton (“Rocketman”).
In fact, the Best Actress category had more biopic action what with Charlize Theron up for her transformation into Fox TV host Megyn Kelly and Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.” The cherry on the top of that line-up, of course, was Best Actress winner Renee Zellweger for magically bringing Judy Garland to life in “Judy.” Last decade, only two lead actress winners played a real-life person, Meryl Streep as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s “The Iron Lady” and Olivia Colman as Britain’s Queen Anne in 2018’s “The Favourite.”
Be sure to vote today for our Gold Derby decade awards featuring the best of the best from 2010 to 2019. You can keep changing your ballot as often as you like until the event closes on February 21. All 1,500 candidates you’ll see across 22 categories were nominees at either the Oscars, annual Gold Derby Film Awards or both. And join in the fun debate over these contenders taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.