A Look at Oscar-Winning Biopic Performances

[IMG:L]Ever since the 1930s, when actors such as Charles Laughton and Paul Muni won Academy Awards for playing historical figures (Laughton as King Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII, Muni as Louis Pasteur in The Story of Louis Pasteur), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a tendency to reward those actors who portray real-life people.

The list goes on: James Cagney won for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle DandyGeorge C. Scott for portraying Gen. Patton in PattonKatharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand both tied as Best Actress for their performances, as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter and as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, respectively. 

Angelina Jolie may be next. She’s currently starring in the tense biopic A Mighty Heart, playing Mariane Pearl, the real-life widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, whose 2002 abduction in Pakistan made headlines—and ended in tragedy. Jolie dons a curly wig, perfects a French/Cuban accent and digs deep to show Mariane’s initial hope and eventual anguish over her husband’s plight. Oscar worthy? You bet.

Here’s a look back at the Academy’s love for those stellar biopic performances.

[IMG:L]The Country Singers
Maybe it was the fact the actresses did their own singing for the roles but both Sissy Spacek (as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter in Walk the Line) won their Best Actress statuettes for expertly channeling their respective country-singin’ superstars.

[IMG:R]The Chameleons
It takes guts for an actor to completely change their appearance and play a tortured real-life person, as these four Oscar winners can attest to: Robert De Niro gaining some serious weight to become Jake LaMotta in Raging BullDaniel Day Lewis twisting his body—as well as painting and writing with one appendage—as My Left Foot’s cerebral palsy-effected author Christy Brown; Hilary Swank playing a woman, Brandon Teena, who desperately wants to be a man in Boys Don’t Cry; and finally the beautiful Charlize Theron going the extra mile to be as ugly as she can as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

[IMG:L]The Piano Players
Whether as a mad genius (Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in Shine), a Holocaust survivor (Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist), or a blues and R&B virtuoso (Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray), these actors were able to win their Oscars simply by making us believe they could indeed tickle the old black and whites as expertly as their real-life counterparts. 

[IMG:R]The Writers
We’ve seen many a film depicting writers who suffer for their art, but Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Capote’s Truman Capote and Nicole Kidman as The Hours’ Virginia Woolf take the cake. Hoffman brilliantly shows Capote’s joy at finally finding his voice, only to see it spiral out of control, and Kidman, as the morose Woolf, beautifully agonizes over every word.

[IMG:L]The Royals
The most recent Best Actor and Actress winners both triumphed for their performances as world leaders, albeit very different from one another. Helen Mirren is absolutely regal and ultimately heartbreaking as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, dealing with the death of Princess Diana, while Forest Whitaker’s mesmerizing rise as Ugandan president Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland takes crazy megalomaniac to a whole new level.

The Very Rich
Jeremy Irons’ cold but charming Oscar-winning performance as the real-life Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune is one of those classic studies in human behavior. The film centers on Von Bulow’s legal case after he was accused of giving his wife an overdose of insulin, thus sending her into a coma, all while gaining financially from it. Irons simply nails it.

[IMG:R]The Loyal Spouses
These three supporting acting wins truly define the word “support”: Jim Broadbent’s brilliance as the long-suffering John Bayley in Iris, whose lifelong romance with novelist Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) sees him care for her after she gets Alzheimer’s; Marcia Gay Harden’s pit bull attitude as Lee Krasner in Pollock, inspiring her artist husband Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) time and time again; and the lovely Jennifer Connelly’s inevitable acceptance of her husband, John Nash’s (Russell Crowe), brilliant but damaged intellect in A Beautiful Mind. Interestingly enough, the actors they support all received their own Oscar nominations—but no wins.

[IMG:L]The Tough Beauties
Julia Roberts’ tough-as-nails portrayal of the no-nonsense, self-taught paralegal Erin Brockovich earned the Pretty Woman her first Oscar, while Cate Blanchett’s delicate balance between vulnerability and shrewdness makes her version of the late great Katharine Hepburn memorable in The Aviator. You don’t want to mess with either of these ladies—the real-life women or the actresses that played them.

The Visionary

Honestly, how could you NOT give someone playing one of the 20th Century’s greatest men an Oscar? Ben Kingsley as Gandhi is the simply the epitome of a detail-oriented, wisdom-filled, wonderfully executed biopic performance.