Biopics are dominating the acting categories like never before in the lead-up to this year’s Oscar nominations. It is not shocking to see actors playing real-life people in the awards race; Oscar history dating back to the earliest years of the Academy’s existence is littered with such performances, from Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette to Charles Laughton as King Henry VIII. Loads of actors have even gone on to win for playing public figures. But the sheer number of biopic performances among this year’s top acting contenders is something remarkable, and adds to the growing trend in the film industry of valuing the past more so than reflecting what’s organic in the present.
Look no further than the Best Actress nominees at the Screen Actors Guild Awards to see just how packed the field is with biopics. Those top contenders include Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani in House of Gucci, Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect, and Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos. The lone actress playing a fictional character is Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter. On top of this, the snub everyone was talking about after SAG released their nominees was Kristen Stewart in Spencer, with critics raving about her performance as… one of the most well-known figures in recent history, Princess Diana.
Moving over to the male leads, two biopic performances are being widely predicted to score Oscar nominations — Will Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard and Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in tick, tick… BOOM! Javier Bardem is also in many experts’ predictions for playing Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos, while Peter Dinklage is still a possibility for his (mostly-unseen-by-the-public) work as Cyrano de Bergerac in Cyrano. There are also a handful of contenders in the supporting categories who play real people, including Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene Price in King Richard, Bradley Cooper as Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza, and J.K. Simmons as William Frawley in Being the Ricardos.
Oscar voters have been particularly favorable to real-life roles over the past decade, with a whopping seven wins in Best Actor starting with the 2011 ceremony (which rewarded the films of 2010). Best Actress has been less appreciative in doling out wins for biopics, occurring three times in the past 11 years. But one pattern that has emerged from those biopic wins is how often they beat other actors playing real-life people. Since 2010, whenever at least three biopic performances are nominated in Best Actor, one of them has gone on to win 100% of the time, including Colin Firth for The King’s Speech (2010), Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything (2014), Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant (2015), and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). The same happened in Best Actress for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011) and Renée Zellweger in Judy (2019). Only one time in recent years did an actress playing a fictional character beat three actresses playing real-life characters – Emma Stone for La La Land (2016).
Is this all coincidence or is there correlation? It seems that in each of the years where at least three of the five nominees are from biopics, there is a particular urge from voters to give one the win. In this award season of so many actors playing public figures, it has been easy to assign narratives for why one of them can win. Stewart faced the challenge of inhabiting beloved British icon; Kidman proved the haters wrong by channeling a TV legend; Chastain transformed into a flamboyant televangelist; Gaga took on a thick accent and went full method to play an Italian socialite; Smith gained weight to play the father of tennis icons; Garfield trained his voice to become a theater composer. With this many fascinating behind-the-scenes stories of acting trickery, you can see why it is more difficult for a performance as a fictional character to rise to the top.
But as the recently-released BAFTA nominations show, there are compelling alternatives outside of the Biopic Industrial Complex. Of the 12 combined nominees from Best Actor and Best Actress, only two play real people — Gaga and Smith. BAFTA vastly preferred actors playing fictional characters, either adapted from previous source material or wholly original creations, including Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza), Emilia Jones (CODA), Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World), Tessa Thompson (Passing), Mahershala Ali (Swan Song), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Don’t Look Up). Even the nominees that come from British independent films that aren’t eligible for Oscars play original characters, such as Joanna Scanlan (After Love), Adeel Akhtar (Ali & Ava), and Stephen Graham (Boiling Point).
Biopic performances may ultimately dominate the lead acting categories at this year’s Oscars, with a number of plausible winners. If they do, as the SAG nominees suggest they might, voters would be painting a picture, subconsciously, of what’s worth valuing in the art of acting. Of course, the year’s best performances can come from films based on a true story, but some of the most thrilling nominations are the performances you can’t predict a year in advance, that don’t kickstart an actor’s Oscar buzz the minute you see a headline about their casting as [insert historical figure here]. Over the past few decades especially, the Academy has been at an intersection of varying tastes, a snapshot of what different factions of the industry find worthy of acknowledgment within their own fields. This year’s Best Actress lineup may be the key to showing where the Academy’s taste is heading in this new decade. Will they follow through with the predetermined narratives of the SAG lineup, like they often have in recent years? Will the growing international membership lead to more adventurous choices like BAFTA? Or will it be somewhere in between?
Nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, February 8, 2022.