Oscar voters have shown from the beginning that they love actors who portray historic people. Perhaps it’s because they can make easy comparisons. Or, more likely, it’s because they are often heroic figures. Tour our photo gallery of every single woman who has won the Best Actress category at the Academy Awards for playing a true life character.
The very first woman to win the illustrious prize for stepping into a real person’s shoes was Luise Rainer, who portrayed entertainer Anna Held in the biopic “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936). Rainer, who died in 2014 at the age of 104, was the first performer to win back-to-back Oscars for acting, taking this prize the very next year for “The Good Earth.”
Since then, actresses as varied as Olivia Colman (“The Favourite” in 2018), Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady” in 2011), Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side” in 2009), Marion Cotillard (“La vie en Rose” in 2007), Helen Mirren (“The Queen” in 2006), Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line” in 2005), Charlize Theron (“Monster” in 2003), and Nicole Kidman (“The Hours” in 2002) have all triumphed for effortlessly disappearing into the role of a recognizable figure.
Renee Zellweger was the latest actress to mine Oscar gold for playing a real life person with “Judy,” a biographical drama about the last days in the life of legendary performer Judy Garland. The role brought her a second Academy Award sixteen years after her first for “Cold Mountain” (Best Supporting Actress in 2003).
Tour our photo gallery of every woman who won Best Actress for playing a real life person.
Renee Zellweger (“Judy”)
Zellweger won her second Oscar for playing troubled singer-actress Judy Garland, who spends her final months performing to sold-out crowds for a concert tour in London.
Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”)
Colman won her first Oscar for playing a frail Queen Anne, who governs while two cousins (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) vie for her affections.
Meryl Streep (‘The Iron Lady’)
Oscar’s most nominated actress won her first statue in 29 years for her role as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was Streep’s third Oscar win overall, and her second win in this category.
Sandra Bullock (‘The Blind Side’)
Bullock won her Oscar for playing Leigh-Anne Tuohy, a southern woman who adopts an impoverished black teenager and guides him to a successful NFL career.
Marion Cotillard (‘La vie en Rose’)
The actress won her Oscar for her portrayal of famed French singer Edith Piaf, becoming only the second actress to win for a non-English-speaking performance.
Helen Mirren (‘The Queen’)
Mirren triumphed as Queen Elizabeth II, who struggles with a monarchy facing public ridicule following the death of Princess Diana. Mirren won a Tony for playing the same character on Broadway in 2015’s “The Audience.”
Reese Witherspoon (‘Walk the Line’)
Witherspoon plays June Carter Cash in this drama that chronicles the rise of legendary Country singer Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and the beginnings of his relationship with June.
Charlize Theron (‘Monster’)
Theron’s first nomination and win came for her role as famed serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a performance that critic Roger Ebert called “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.”
Nicole Kidman (‘The Hours’)
Kidman won Oscar gold for her portrayal of writer Virginia Woolf as she struggles with mental illness while completing her novel, “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Julia Roberts (‘Erin Brockovich’)
The star of “Pretty Woman” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” won her Oscar for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, a single mom turned consumer advocate who takes on a large energy corporation that is poisoning local residents.
Hilary Swank (‘Boys Don’t Cry’)
Swank’s first Oscar was for her performance in the true story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who is the victim of a vicious hate crime when he moves to a small Nebraska town.
Susan Sarandon (‘Dead Man Walking’)
After four previous nominations, Sarandon won for her portrayal of anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean in this drama directed by Sarandon’s then-partner, Tim Robbins.
Jodie Foster (‘The Accused’)
Foster won her first Oscar for her portrayal of a rape victim struggling to have her attackers face justice. The film was loosely based on the story of Cheryl Araujo, a rape survivor whose case became national news.
Sissy Spacek (‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’)
Spacek won for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in this drama about the legendary country singer’s rise to stardom.
Sally Field (‘Norma Rae’)
Field’s first Oscar was for her role as a factory worker who fights to create a labor union at a North Carolina textile factory.
Katharine Hepburn (‘The Lion in Winter’)/Barbra Streisand (‘Funny Girl’)
This was the only time in Oscar history that an exact tie occurred in an acting category – and both won for playing real people. For her film debut, Streisand won for playing real-life entertainer Fanny Brice in this adaptation of the Broadway musical. Hepburn won her third Best Actress prize — she had also won the year before — for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who conspires to steal the English throne from her husband.
Anne Bancroft (‘The Miracle Worker’)
Bancroft won for reprising her Tony-winning role of Annie Sullivan, a teacher working with a young Helen Keller in this adaptation of the hit Broadway play. Joan Crawford accepted the Oscar for an absent Bancroft as a way to spite Crawford’s “Baby Jane” co-star, Bette Davis.
Susan Hayward (‘I Want to Live!’)
After four previous Best Actress nominees, Hayward scored a win for her portrayal of Barbara Graham, a prostitute who faces execution for murder.
Joanne Woodward (‘The Three Faces of Eve’)
Woodward won for her portrayal of a young woman with multiple personalities. The film was based on the story of Christine “Chris” Costner Sizemore. Woodward was relatively unknown at the time, but went on to earn three more nominations over the course of her career.
Ingrid Bergman (‘Anastasia’)
Bergman won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing an amnesiac who is mistaken for a long-lost Russian Duchess.
Jennifer Jones (‘The Song of Bernadette’)
Jones won her Oscar for her role in this true story of a young French woman who claims to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary and later becomes a Catholic saint.
Luise Rainer (‘The Great Ziegfeld’)
Rainer won her first Oscar for playing real-life entertainer Anna Held, who was the common law wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, the famed Broadway impresario.