Real-life roles are often the road to Oscar

Story highlights

  • In recent years, many Oscar winners have played real people
  • "Based on a true story" is often a powerful selling point

(CNN)It's become an almost surefire way to win Oscar gold: Play a real person.

It happened last year, with Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. The year before too, with Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff. Oh, and the year before that, when Daniel Day-Lewis won for playing Abraham Lincoln.
Sandra Bullock won her Oscar for playing a real person (Leigh Anne Tuohy in "The Blind Side"). So did Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth II in "The Queen").
    Even Meryl Streep, she of the 19 nominations, isn't immune: She picked up one of her three Oscars for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
    That makes this year's awards-season possibilities all the more intriguing, with Redmayne ("The Danish Girl"), Michael Fassbender ("Steve Jobs"), Tom Hanks ("Bridge of Spies") and Jennifer Lawrence ("Joy") all in the running for their portrayals of real people.
    Fall and early winter are when the studios traditionally roll out Oscar bait in preparation for "awards season." The Oscars are scheduled for February 28, 2016, with nominations announced six weeks earlier, on January 14.
    "Bridge of Spies," "Joy" and others, including "The 33," "Black Mass," "Concussion" and "Spotlight," use the classic come-on "based on a true story" as a primary selling point.
    "The 'true story' tagline is meant to convey narrative authority, human interest, and a hint of respectability," explained Tasha Robinson in a (skeptical) essay in The Dissolve. "The film isn't some made-up stuff, it's history. It's real life. It's meaningful, providing insight into the human condition that goes beyond what fantasy could provide."
    The performers can only benefit.
    It's a strategy as old as Hollywood itself. Among the winners of 1930s Oscars were George Arliss (who played Benjamin Disraeli), Spencer Tracy ("Boys Town's" Father Flanagan) and Luise Rainer ("The Great Ziegfeld's" Anna Held).
    But it's gained traction in recent years, says Tom O'Neil, editor of the awards handicapping site Goldderby.com.
    "The trend can be traced to the late 1990s, when voters started getting screeners. At that point, once those Oscar voters get those screeners at home, they become true film snobs," he said. "So the littler movies win, the more artsy performances prevail, and real snobbism is apparent."

    'They're voting on the biggest acting'

    Indeed, in the past 15 years of Oscars, more than half the possible 30 winners for best actor or best actress -- 17 people -- have played actual figures from history. That's not even including the performers who got nominated but didn't win or the performers who won for supporting roles.
    Moreover, adds O'Neil, the Motion Picture Academy tends to favor big performances and meaty roles -- and any real person who's worth making a movie about is probably a meal ticket to awards season.
    "The Oscars are not voting on the best acting, they're voting on the biggest acting," he said. "Size matters in Hollywood, and I think the outsized portrayal of a real-life person is irresistible to them."
    Some of those performances have come in for criticism. Nicole Kidman's Oscar-winning portrayal of Virginia Woolf in 2002's "The Hours" disgusted some of the real-life author's devotees, who believed Kidman reduced a thoughtful and beautiful woman to some tics and an oversized nose.
    "Imagine the great brilliance of Virginia Woolf to be turned into this absolutely maimed fool with a really ugly nose," one English professor told The New York Times.
    It's not always a sure thing, either. Playing former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover must have seemed like a great idea at the time to Leonardo DiCaprio, but 2011's "J. Edgar" found him, in the words of one reviewer, "burdened with horrific, science-fiction old-age makeup" in an "awful" performance.
    So much for outsized.

    Boosting the bottom line

    This awards season, Fassbender's performance as Steve Jobs has gotten a lot of attention -- not all of it good, though most critics have faulted screenwriter Aaron Sorkin more than Fassbender. (For his part, Sorkin says "Steve Jobs" isn't a biopic.)
    Ironically, given the poor financial performance of its wide opening recently, "Steve Jobs" is now counting on Oscar gold to bring the film some of the box office variety.
    The bottom line, says O'Neil, is finally the whole point.
    "You look at something like 'The King's Speech,' that made more than $400 million worldwide, and it was based on an old, forgotten king of England," he said. "That's a powerful reminder of how important it can be to do a movie based on a real-life person."