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.
As I compiled the list, two patterns immediately became clear to me: first, the scarcity of supporting performances that wound up in consideration, and second, the emphasis on relatively recent work. The former isn’t that surprising, given how it’s predominantly star turns that impress voters in biopics.
The latter, meanwhile, is evidence of how much the Academy’s preference has tilted in this direction over the years: we think of biopics as evergreen Oscar bait, but look through the list of early winners, and it’s surprising (and pleasing) how much fictional characters dominate. (Many of the biopic performances that did win, meanwhile, aren’t exactly ones for the ages: apologies, fans of “Sergeant York” and “The Story of Louis Pasteur.”)
As always, it’s a subjective business, and I myself am disappointed by some of the names I had to leave out, from George C. Scott to Marion Cotillard to Christian Bale. But them’s the breaks. Take a look at my list in our new gallery, and share your thoughts and favourites in the comments below.
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