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Rob Edelman: Biopics And Oscars

This year, it is in the realm of possibility that the five performers who earn Best Actor Academy Award nominations will do so for playing real-life individuals. Actually, there are six worthy nominees. They are: Timothy Spall, cast as J.M.W. Turner in MR. TURNER; Steve Carell, playing John du Pont in FOXCATCHER; Benedict Cumberbatch, cast as Alan Turing in THE IMITATION GAME; Eddie Redmayne, cast as Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING; David Oyelowo, playing Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA; and Chadwick Boseman, playing James Brown in GET ON UP.

This likely will not happen, if only because other high-profile performances are being actively and deservedly hyped. This list begins with Michael Keaton, whose stellar work in BIRDMAN is at this juncture a betting person’s favorite to win Best Actor.

Still, starring in a biopic seems to up one’s chances of copping a nomination. In the past decade alone, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Jesse Eisenberg have earned nominations or Oscars for playing such diverse individuals as Ray Charles, Nelson Mandela, J.M. Barrie, Richard Nixon, Edward R. Murrow, Johnny Cash, Truman Capote, Howard Hughes, Billy Beane, and Mark Zuckerberg. Not all the real-life individuals whose lives are showcased onscreen have readily recognizable names. Matthew McConaughey was the 2013 winner for playing Ron Woodroof. Two of his fellow nominees were Leonardo DiCaprio, cast as Jordan Belfort, and ChiwetelEjiofor, playing Solomon Northrup.

Fewer female actors have been so honored. Perhaps this is because fewer high-quality leading roles of any kind are being written for women and this, unfortunately, has been the case for far too long. (Let me add here that I would wager that the 2014 Best Actress winner will be Julianne Moore, for STILL ALICE.

Here is where the politics of the Oscars come into play. Moore has a challenging role; she is highly respected; and she previously has been nominated four times without a win. So this honor will be as much for career achievement as for the specifics of her performance in STILL ALICE.)

But back to female actors and biopics: In recent years, Michelle Williams, Marion Cotillard, and Reece Witherspoon have been nominated or Oscared for playing Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf, and June Carter Cash. CateBlanchett and Helen Mirren have been cited for playing two different Queen Elizabeths, while Meryl Streep has flashed her brilliance as two very different individuals: Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child.

What does all this mean? Why is starring in biopics so appealing to actors? This would vary from case to case but, ultimately, one can understand why an actor might want to recreate the life of a person who is a flat-out visionary, who is talented but victimized, who perseveres to overcome strife, who is genuinely heroic, or whose life is complex and controversial. Such parts are challenging, and are attention-grabbing.

History tells us that playing them also ups one’s chances for Oscar glory. And George C. Scott and Marlon Brando aside, what actor would not want to have the world watching and listening as he or she delivers an Oscar acceptance speech?

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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