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.


Eating the Old

July 7, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

It is axiomatic that when someone famous dies, particularly an actor, someone will invariably pay tribute to the recently deceased by declaring their “work will live on forever.”

I’m not so sure this is true any more; I’m not sure we have the discipline of mind or enough forbearance of history to hold on to those whom John Cheever so accurately called figures “from the enduring past.”

Take two giant cultural figures from the 20th century: Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn. While Hepburn still weighs in with her angular features and Bryn Mawr accent on occasion, Hope has disappeared. They lived 196 years between the two of them, made countless movies, plays, television shows, radio shows, vaudeville acts, records, live acts, USO shows, you name it — Hope was as American as John Wayne — and you’d be hardpressed to find him anywhere on today’s cultural landscape, save for a movie shown once in a while on Turner Classic Movies. Even his partner Bing Crosby was once one of the most famous Americans on the planet, and you only hear him these days at Christmas. He’s vanished.

I remember when Charlie Chaplin died. It was on or about Christmas Day, 1977 — and if memory serves Groucho Marx died nearly at the same time. Chaplin was the first global movie star, the first mass marketed commodity, and he made some of the most memorable and famous films ever crafted. Aside from a nod in an Apple computer campaign, where is Chaplin today? Has he been relegated to the chatter among esoteric film societies and academics? Are silent, black-and-white films so difficult to access they can no longer be seen on TV? I doubt it. I find young people today so curious about everything that Chaplin, and Keaton and the work of D.W. Griffith could easily find a comfortable home within a huge segment of today’s youth. It doesn’t have to be shown in the dark, hushed reverent halls of the film class.

I understand the impulse of trashing the old to make room for the new. When the Sex Pistols came on the scene in the late 1970s, part of their act was to talk about how fat and bloated the ex-Beatles and Rolling Stones and all that had become. It wasn’t just that we had to sweep away the past, it had to be subsumed, eradicated, obliterated.

That radical cultural shift has now become mainstream thought, but what it has managed to do is ratchet down the length of what we used to call a “career.” Careers now seem to get derailed even before they get started. Look what happened to the show “The O.C.” That’s because the new kid is all too willing to replace the old codger, whose career spans all of three years and two CDs. People have been ready to write an bit for “Desperate Housewives” since the day it first aired.

This would be fine, except that it is a cycle that is destined to be repeated, and those who benefit from it will also be devoured by it. It will affect both those things we like and don’t like. If we are frustrated because of something we admire has vanished that’s because there are probably more people out there who don’t like it and want it wiped off the face of the map. And the majority undoubtedly succeeds.

So the carousel continues, at a feverish pace. TV shows, movies, actors, singers, and comedians all spin around us and we’re basically trying to pluck one of these blurs out of the air, hoping that we’ll like it once we’ve had a moment to see what it looks like. And some of us, remember, are on the lookout now for what might be the next big thing tomorrow, never mind what’s going on today, if only to be able to say that we had heard of it long before anyone else.

One of the ways in which we can better understand the times in which we live is if there are fixed points within that universe. We used to be able to pinpoint moments in time because of the TV shows we watched, or the album covers we stared at, or the movies we waited in line to see (movies that lasted more than a month in the theaters). We could say, oh, yeah, that was 1972, or 1987, or 1991. But now everything is revolving. You can watch your TV show at any time, whether it’s old or new, there are no album covers, and you dictate which songs you want to listen to. You’re not necessarily part of a national cultural wave. So I wonder if we’ll look back from now on and have trouble remembering just when specific things happened? With everything floating, tumbling around us — will we really be able to look back and say, oh, yes, I remember the summer of 2007 like it was yesterday?

I don’t know. But if Chaplin and Hope and so many other titans of 20th century culture are having trouble staying afloat, one wonders if anything made today will make it into next year.

It could be we’ve started a terrible, vicious cycle: If nothing is going to last, why bother to make anything that will endure?

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