Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover. All of them heading to our screens in the next few weeks, all of them looking to join the long list of actors to strike Oscar gold for playing real-life figures.
It’s a list that’s grown particularly rapidly in recent years: in the past decade alone, 12 of the 20 winners in the lead acting categories have triumphed for biopics. Meanwhile, you have to go all the way back to the 1997 Oscar race to find a year where all four acting winners played fictional characters. It’s a trend that often prompts complaints from hardened Oscar-watchers like myself: it’s no less difficult to create a character from scratch than it is to embody a previously existing one, but voters don’t all seem to agree.
Still, biopic bait needn’t always be bad news: for every actor who coasts to victory for doing a superficially impressive but soulless impersonation of an iconic figure, there’s at least one other who accepts the challenge to craft a fresh, inspired character from a real-life source, and succeeds. Which is what today’s list is about: I’ve rounded up the 10 Oscar-winning biopic performances that most excitingly avoid the obvious, and most insistently stick in my memory.