Based On A True Story: Real-Life Portrayals Now A Way To Oscar Glory

February 5, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

This year, two actors have been nominated in the lead role category for playing real people: Frank Langella as President Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in “Milk,” and one actor in the supporting category, Josh Brolin as Dan White, also in “Milk.” This follows an interesting trend in the movies of the past decade or so — where the portrayals of historic figures has often paved the way toward Oscar gold.

Are we getting to the point in history when we only recognize good acting when we think we know the person on which the character is based? Or is it getting harder to recognize just good old plain acting when the character is wholly fictional?

Well, the facts don’t lie. You decide:

In the past nine years (since 2000), here’s a tally of Oscar winning roles based on real people: Julia Roberts has won for “Erin Brockovich”; Marcia Gay Harden for playing painter Lee Krasner in “Pollock”; Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote”; Forrest Whittaker won top brass for portraying Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland”; Helen Mirren for “The Queen”; Cate Blanchett for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” (who was also nominated for playing “Bob Dylan” in “I’m Not There”; Marion Cotillard for “La Vie En Rose” — playing Edith Piaf; Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”; Jim Broadbent as John Bayley in “Iris”; Adrian Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in “The Pianist”; Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster”; Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” and Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Those are some of the winners.

How about nominations? Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock (who was also nominated as the real-life Gene Kranz in “Apollo 13” in 1995); Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, And Good Luck”; Catherine Keener as Harper Lee in “Capote”; Will Smith as Muhammed Ali; Russell Crowe as John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”; Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda”; Johnny Depp as writer Sir James Matthew Barrie in “Finding Neverland” and Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.”

There have also been nominations for playing real-life people that no one has ever heard of, such as Paul Giamatti playing Joe Gould in “Cinderella Man” and Judi Dench in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” — they certainly qualify, but it’s also not quite the same thing.

That’s between the years 2000 and now. I randomly picked 1940-1949 to see if there was a similar pattern. Not even close to the numbers of more recent years:

Raymond Massey was nominated for best actor in 1940 for the lead role in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”; Gary Cooper for “Sergeant York” (1941 — won); Teresa Wright for playing Mrs. Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees”; Greer Garson for “Madame Curie” (1943); Cornel Wilde as Chopin in “A Song To Remember”; Larry Parks in “The Jolson Story” (1946); Edmund Gwynn in “Miracle on 34th St.” (1947 — won playing Santa Claus — ha ha); and Ingrid Bergman for “Joan of Arc” (1948).

Some of these portrayals are of people in such a distant past one could hardly expect them to be historically or physically accurate, of course. (The same can be said of some of the more modern roles, too. Who knows how James Barrie — Depp’s role — really sounded or acted?) But I also did a quick search from 1930 — 1939 (Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; Paul Muni as Emile Zola) and then again from 1960 — 1969 (Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt; Debbie Reynolds as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”; Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker) and found the same sparse sprinkling of historic portrayals among the nominations. In the 1960s there were probably fewer historic portrayals than any other decade, it seems. During these two decades, anyone hardly ever won for playing real people, by the way.

It’s hard to say what this means. I thought Sean Penn was at his loosest, charming best in “Milk”, so it could be that these real-life roles are a terrific source of inspiration. Or it could be that we don’t trust our judgment any more over what is an honest, naturally felt portrayal unless we have some idea of the real-life story behind it.

It may be no coincidence that this age of reality movie portraits more or less coincides with the era of the memoir — both real and fake. Writers now seem to always choose writing an autobiography when fictionalized accounts would once do.

And it is no secret that some writers have written fiction but were successful in passing the writing off as fact. It is as though no one is any longer convinced that readers — or viewers — will “believe” a story unless we are told they’re true.

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