Since 2000, slightly more than half the lead actor and actress Oscars (21 out of 38) have gone to portrayals of real-life individuals. It’s a bias that dates back to George Arliss and “Disraeli” (1929), although award-winning impersonations have become increasingly stark, even critical, in the latter years.
Notwithstanding Oliver Cromwell’s plea to “Paint me as I am, warts and all!,” early Hollywood awarded acting honors to a near-dozen respectful, even adoring bio-pics. Arliss turned the moody, depressive Disraeli into a matchmaking Dutch uncle. Charles Laughton went cute, not cruel, as Henry VIII. Paul Muni sidestepped Louis Pasteur’s alleged data tampering, just as James Cagney’s George M. Cohan in 1942 ignored the opposition to Actors’ Equity that earned Cohan actors’ enmity.
Honoring real-life subjects virtually dried up for the next 40 years, with the rare exceptions going easy on the likes of George Patton, Thomas More, Fanny Brice and Annie Sullivan. (Who was going to ask Jennifer Jones to dwell on the darkness in St. Bernadette?)
Then came 1980 and “Raging Bull,” with Robert De Niro’s fearless, Oscar-winning, no-holds-barred embrace of boxer Jake LaMotta’s violence and lack of emotional intelligence played at top volume — its biographical subject still on the scene, to boot. That same year, Sissy Spacek forthrightly portrayed Loretta Lynn’s drug problem and nervous breakdown (again, with the subject’s blessing) to win an Oscar for “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Thereafter the floodgates opened, and stars began to bring home the bacon by directly confronting their subjects’ feet of clay. The misbehaviors, neuroses or just plain quirks of musical legends from Antonio Salieri and Edith Piaf to Ray Charles and David Helfgott emerged with unflinching candor. Portraits of beloved figures — Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Harvey Milk, Queen Elizabeth II — took pains to bring out the problematic as well as the praiseworthy. Meryl Streep’s evocation of “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher celebrates the political success without holding back on her imperiousness and mental decline (to the likely astonishment of her predecessor Disraeli, were he around to witness it).
Going forward, whether or not Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland) or Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis) triumphs this year, expect many an actor to be drawn to complex, difficult real-life figures in search of award gold. Warts and all.