When Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival late last May, the buzz for its young star Austin Butler grew quickly to a deafening din. The film’s reception was capped by a 12-minute standing ovation, and the conventional wisdom was that the Oscar and potentially the Screen Actors Guild Award as well was Butler’s to lose. As of this writing, the 31-year-old is the second choice in the Academy Awards lead actor race as well as in the SAG Awards actor competition on Gold Derby behind Brendan Fraser for “The Whale,” positions that have rarely shifted since last fall. Colin Farrell of “The Banshees of Inisherin” is solidly in third place in both odds.
But the history of both the Oscars and SAGs tells us that Butler may be underestimated. He follows, after all, in the grand tradition of actors who have transformed themselves into real-life music legends, having delivered an incandescent performance as Elvis Aaron Presley in “Elvis.” If actors are nominated for those roles, more often than not they win.
The latest example for male actors was Rami Malek’s win at the Oscars and SAG Awards (as well as the Golden Globes) as lead actor in 2019 for his dynamic portrayal of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The following year, in 2020, Renee Zellweger also his a triple, capturing the Academy Award for Best Actress along with the SAG and Globe for her performance as tragic songstress Judy Garland in the biopic “Judy.”
Jamie Foxx also went three for three in 2005 with his transformation into soul legend Ray Charles in “Ray,” earning the Oscar, SAG Award and Golden Globe. And the year after that, Reese Witherspoon likewise took home the Academy Award, SAG honor and Globe for her work as the legendary singer-songwriter June Carter Cash in the biopic “Walk the Line.” (Joaquin Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar and a Globe for the same film – portraying Johnny Cash – but lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote” (another real-life figure).
In 2022, Jennifer Hudson earned a SAG Awards nomination for lead actress for her transformation into the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, in the biopic “Respect,” but lost.
Reaching back a bit into history, Sissy Spacek landed Academy Awards and Golden Globe wins in 1981 (The SAG Awards didn’t yet exist) for her performance as the late country superstar Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” while Gary Busey scored Oscar and Globe bids in 1979 for his portrayal of pioneering rocket Buddy Holly in the biopic “The Buddy Holly Story.” But Busey took home neither.
In any event, this generally bodes well for Butler’s chances both at the SAG Awards on February 26 and the Oscars on March 12. Not every performer earns nominations for their musical icon portrayal, but those who do more often than not end up victorious.
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