"The Duchess." "W." "Changeling." "Defiance." "Frost/Nixon." "Milk." "Valkyrie." "Che." What do these films have in common, other than succinct titles? All are based on real people and events, and all happen to have release dates timed to award season.
Unknown or notorious, martyr or criminal, weak or powerful, when it comes to the Oscars, it pays to get real.
Historical figures have been fodder for award-winning portrayals since George Arliss won the Oscar in 1929-30 for playing the title role in "Disraeli." Characters both noble and troubled, artistic and political have been lauded, such as James Cagney as the spirited George M. Cohan in 1942's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and Jeremy Irons' twisted Claus Von Bulow in 1990's "Reversal of Fortune." From Oscar's early days to the mid-1990s, at least 18 top acting honors have gone to actors interpreting real people.
The numbers have increased of late; just since 1999, 11 of those roles garnered acting gold. Consider: Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry," Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich," Adrien Brody in "The Pianist," Nicole Kidman in "The Hours," Charlize Theron in "Monster" and Jamie Foxx in "Ray."
And even those good odds have gotten better recently. In the last couple years, both the actor and the actress trophies have gone to true-life portrayals. In 2006, Oscars went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his title character in "Capote" and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line." In 2007, actors playing two wildly different heads of state were recognized: Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II in "The Queen" and Forest Whitaker, who startled audiences as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." The February 2008 awards broke the doubles streak -- sort of. While Marion Cotillard did win for portraying Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," the actor award went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his fictional heartless oil baron in "There Will Be Blood" (although that character was based on the Upton Sinclair book "Oil!" which was loosely based on the life of 1920s oil tycoon Edward Doheny, so there you go -- it kind of counts).
And we're just talking winners here. If you factor in nominations for lead and supporting roles, which just last year included Casey Affleck for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Hoffman for "Charlie Wilson's War," and Cate Blanchett for her takes on Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There" and the queen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (note that she won a supporting award in 2004 for portraying Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator"), then the list grows exponentially. The Golden Globes took it even further with nominations for Angelina Jolie as the real-life Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart," Denzel Washington as Harlem hood Frank Lucas in "American Gangster" and Tom Hanks as the titular congressman in "Charlie Wilson's War," among others.
So what is the draw of true stories? If the characters are famous, the audience has a built-in connection even before sitting down to watch -- a marketer's dream. And if they are unknown, battling demons from within or without, viewers feel a stronger bond knowing the fight actually happened.
For the actor, though, portraying a real person without simply imitating them is an enormous challenge. When a great actor finds a great figure to embody, the merger is indelible -- and award-worthy -- as with Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi," or Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot." And any story, real or imagined, has to be realized on all fronts to succeed as a film. That's why so many of the movies that won acting awards also received nominations and wins in the other major categories as well ("Gandhi," for example, also won best picture, screenplay and directing).
Those past winners often feature political types, military members, a few raging windmill tilters and the occasional evil (or misunderstood) individual. And artists are big. What does all this mean for this year's crop? Just that the field is crowded with hopefuls: Political leaders are out in force, with Harvey Milk, Richard Nixon, Che Guevara, the Duchess of Devonshire and President Bush all represented, and those "Norma Rae" fighters of the system can be found in "Changeling," "Defiance," "Flash of Genius" and "Valkyrie." So the majority of nominations this time around will very likely be for fact-based portrayals.
But there aren't really any artists in the picture this time. Maybe that spot had been reserved for "The Soloist," the film about a musician and a journalist (played by Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., respectively). But it was recently moved to a March 2009 release. Still its credentials are good; Downey was nominated for an Oscar for "Chaplin," Foxx won for "Ray," and writer Susannah Grant was nominated for "Erin Brockovich." Which leads one to wonder, is March too early for 2009 contention?