In the past few years, it has felt almost predetermined that an actor cast as a major historical, political, or cultural figure in a biographical film will be in the running, or even the front runner, for an acting Oscar at the end of awards season. This year, we have two actors inhabiting arguably the two biggest American cultural icons nominated for both Best Actor and Best Actress, that is Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, the former of which is predicted by many to be the eventual winner in his category. It has been announced that in the coming years we can expect biopics of such Hollywood legends as Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, musicians Leonard Bernstein and Amy Winehouse, and historical figures Napoleon Bonaparte and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
This onslaught of biopics feels like a specifically modern trend, hand-in-hand with the never-ending slate of remakes, reboots, and sequels taking up space in our theaters and on our streaming services. In terms of the Oscars, is this a pattern as old as the award itself, or a trend that indicates the changing tastes of the Academy?
The first person to ever win an Oscar for portraying a real person was George Arliss all the way back in 1930, when he won for portraying British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli (1929). Arliss, a respected actor of both stage and screen, made a career of playing notable historical men, including Alexander Hamilton and Voltaire. He had in fact already played Disraeli in a 1921 silent version of the film, and holds the title of earliest born actor to win an Oscar. Though Disraeli is a name fairly unknown to 21st century Americans, we can imagine 1930 Academy voters viewing the film and man similarly to how 2018 voters would have viewed Darkest Hour and Winston Churchill.
The 1930s, a decade that largely celebrated period pieces and costume dramas in multiple categories, gave three other men the Best Actor award for their portrayals of real life people: Charles Laughton as King henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur in Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), and Spencer Tracy as Father Edward Joseph Flanagan in Boys Town (1938). Flanagan is the only of these three figures who was alive at the time of his portrayal.
1936 was the first year an actress was awarded for playing a real life person, when Luise Rainer won for playing Anna Held, the partner of Florenz Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld. This was also the year that first introduced the supporting acting categories. It should be noted that not all real life portrayals are created equal. In 1937, for example, Joseph Schildkraut won the second ever Best Supporting Actor award for playing Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the figure at the center of the Dreyfus Affair, a major, and relatively recent historical event, in the Best Picture winning film The Life of Emile Zola. That same year, Alice Brady won the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Molly O’Leary in In Old Chicago. Molly O’Leary, for those out of the loop, is the woman whose cow allegedly started the Great Chicago Fire by kicking over a lantern in 1871. It is safe to assume that 1937 Academy members were not impacted by feelings of nostalgia and familiarity when they voted for Brady in this role. That is to say that while some actors win Oscars for playing real life people, that person may not be on the same level of recognition as Dreyfus, Presley, or Monroe.
Throughout the twentieth century, actors winning Oscars for playing real people was an infrequent constant, at around 3 times per decade. Among supporting actors and actresses, that rate seems to have plateaued, with the most recent winners being Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah (2020), and Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl (2015). For leading actors and actresses, however, that number has not only increased, but skyrocketed.
In the past 22 years, 14 actors and 11 actresses have won Oscars for playing real life people. The roles themselves range in familiarity, from Queen Elizabeth II and Freddie Mercury to Erin Brokovich and Ron Woodruff. Both of last year’s leading acting awards went to real life figures: Will Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. This is, of course, not taking into account actors who were only nominated for playing real people, such as: Dick Cheney, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Tonya Harding, Muhammed Ali, Laurence Olivier, Jackie Kennedy, Fred Rogers, George W. Bush, Mark Zuckerberg, Marilyn Monroe (this time played by Michelle Williams), Leo Tolstoy, Howard Hughes, Mary Todd Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Jackson Pollock, Julia Child, Alan Turing, Nelson Mandela, Frida Khalo, Richard Nixon, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, to name a few.
The increase is clear, the reason less so. Of course, we as humans are naturally attracted to what we know, and the same can be said for the films we watch and the actors we love. It also adds a factor of simplicity when judging an actor’s performance. Instead of relying on one’s understanding of nuance or acting skill, a voter can merely assess whether or not an actor did a good enough job of portraying a historical figure accurately. If the impression is uncanny enough, they earn a nomination, so it would appear. In the case of modern socio-political figures like Erin Brockovich, a vote may be given as a declaration of support for the figure’s real-life achievements.
Of course, an actor who wins an Oscar for playing a real life person cannot always be assumed to have won based on this alone. Marion Cotillard’s performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en rose (2007) is considered one of the greatest in the category’s history, the same could be said for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s titular performance in Capote (2005). Should Austin Butler win this year for Elvis, it would be for a stunning, passionate performance well deserving of praise. While it is not the only factor that scores an actor a win, the influence of a character’s existence in reality cannot be denied. Whether or not this trend continues into the next decade has yet to be seen. With the amount of biopics set to be released in the next few years, audiences and voters may get tired of the constant presence of real life figures on their screen, and seek out original characters and material for future consideration.