Among this year’s Oscar contenders in the crowded Best Actress and Best Actor fields are Naomi Ackie and Austin Butler, contending for their portrayals of music icons Whitney Houston and Elvis Presley in I Wanna Dance with Somebody and Elvis.
While Ackie’s film will not hit theaters until December, Butler has already scored box office and raves for his turn as the King of Rock and Roll. Should Ackie and Butler earn Oscar nominations, they will join elite groups of actors who have scored recognition for portraying real-time musicians.
In Best Actor, a total of 14 performers have earned nominations for turns as real-life musicians, with six emerging triumphant.
First up was James Cagney, nominated and winning for his portrayal of Broadway composer and performer George M. Cohan in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. Later in the decade, Cornel Wilde was up for his turn as Polish pianist Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember, as was Larry Parks as singer and actor Al Jolson in The Jolson Story. Neither Wilder nor Parks prevailed.
Remarkably, not a single leading man earned an Oscar nomination for playing a real-life musician during the 1950s or 1960s. The sole nominee in the 1970s was Gary Busey, honored for his turn as rock and roll icon Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story.
The 1984 Oscars saw Amadeus dominate, as it claimed eight prizes from 11 nominations. Among the picture’s nominees were F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, recognized for their portrayals of composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Abraham was victorious on the big night.
In the following decade, Laurence Fishburne was nominated for his portrayal of R&B bandleader Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? Unlike him, who fell short on Oscar night, Geoffrey Rush would soon take home the prize for his turn as Australian pianist David Helfgott in Shine.
The 2000s saw Adrien Brody pull off a Best Actor upset for his portrayal of classical composer Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. Two years later, Jamie Foxx was also triumphant, his turn as beloved musician Ray Charles in Ray steamrolling the awards season. The year following Foxx’s win, Joaquin Phoenix earned a nomination, though not the win, for his turn as music icon Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.
Staging another awards season sweep was Rami Malek, who took home the Oscar for his portrayal of rock legend Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Most recently, just this past year, Javier Bardem and Andrew Garfield were nominees for their turns as actor and bandleader Desi Arnaz (in Being the Ricardos) and composer Jonathan Larson (in tick, tick… BOOM!).
With all that said, what are the odds Ackie and Butler indeed join these distinguished groups? Let’s dive into their respective categories, starting with the latter, whose film has already been widely seen.
At this still-early stage in the awards season, Butler, alongside Brendan Fraser (The Whale) and Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin), is a formidable front-runner for a Best Actor nomination. Released this past summer, Elvis proved a critical and commercial success, ultimately becoming the second highest-grossing music biopic of all time, trailing only Bohemian Rhapsody.
Butler’s reviews were love letters, with many critics who weren’t keen on the film itself still commending its leading man’s portrayal. That Elvis is poised to contend in a plethora of craft categories, and perhaps even in Best Picture, will only help keep the momentum around Butler strong.
That said, it would be foolish to label Butler a true lock for a nomination, especially considering Taron Egerton’s recent Oscar snub for the Elton John biopic Rocketman, a critically and commercially successful picture that saw its star score heaps of recognition among the precursor awards. With the likes of Diego Calva (Babylon), Tom Cruise (Top Gun: Maverick), Adam Driver (White Noise), Hugh Jackman (The Son), Paul Mescal (Aftersun), Bill Nighy (Living), Jeremy Pope (The Inspection) and Adam Sandler (Hustle), among others, in the mix, Best Actor is a bustling field and snubs are inevitable.
Speaking of crowded categories, there is Best Actress, a field perhaps even more jam-packed with rich performances.
To date, 19 performers have emerged Best Actress nominees for turns in such biopics, with seven of these contenders going on to win.
The first actress to score recognition for playing a real-life musician was Luise Rainer with her Best Actress bid as Broadway legend Anna Held in 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld. Despite limited screen time, Rainer’s turn won her the first of her two consecutive Oscars, the second soon arriving for The Good Earth.
More than a decade later, Susan Hayward earned not one but two Oscar nominations for portrayals of real-life musicians, first as singer and actress Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart and later for her portrayal of Broadway star Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Also surfacing in Best Actress in the 1950s was Eleanor Parker, receiving her third and final career Oscar nomination as Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody.
The 1960s saw Julie Andrews earn her second career Best Actress nomination, this time for her turn as singer and Trapp Family matriarch Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. There was also Barbra Streisand catapulting onto on the Hollywood A-list with her portrayal of stage, screen, and radio star Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Streisand tied for the Best Actress trophy with Katharine Hepburn, winning her third career Oscar for The Lion in Winter.
In the following decade, Motown icon Diana Ross earned a Best Actress nomination for her film debut, portraying jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Ross would be followed in the 1980s by Sissy Spacek, winning the Best Actress prize for her turn as country music legend Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Jessica Lange, scoring a nomination for her portrayal of another country icon, the late Patsy Cline, in Sweet Dreams.
The 1990s saw a trio of actresses receive Oscar nominations, albeit no wins, for turns as real-life musicians – Angela Bassett as Queen of Rock and Roll Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It; Emily Watson as acclaimed cellist Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie; and Meryl Streep as violinist and music teacher Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart.
Winners would, however, be on the horizon in the following decade. Reese Witherspoon emerged triumphant in Best Actress for portraying singer-songwriter June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, as did Marion Cotillard for her turn as iconic French chanteuse Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
The past decade has seen five Best Actress contenders from music biopics, starting with Meryl Streep, who scored her 20th career Oscar nomination portraying the titular amateur soprano in Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep would be followed by Renée Zellweger, earning her second career Oscar win, this time for her turn as iconic actress and singer Judy Garland in Judy.
The following year, Viola Davis and Andra Day faced off for their portrayals of music legends Ma Rainey (in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Billie Holiday (in The United States vs. Billie Holiday). While Davis scored the SAG Award and Day the Golden Globe, both would ultimately fall short to Frances McDormand (Nomadland), earning her third career Best Actress win.
Most recently, just this past year, Jessica Chastain earned the Best Actress prize for her turn as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Though predominantly known for her work as a televangelist, Bakker also had a recording career, releasing 16 albums in her lifetime.
It’s more challenging to forecast Ackie’s chances when her picture and performance have yet to be widely seen. At this point, unlike the visually extravagant Elvis, I Wanna Dance with Somebody does not appear destined to make a big splash in the craft fields, nor does it ring of a Best Picture contender. (Coal Miner’s Daughter, released more than four decades ago, is the most recent female-led music biopic to score a Best Picture nomination.) That isn’t to say, however, that Ackie herself should at all be counted out.
None of Sweet Dreams, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Hilary and Jackie, Music of the Heart, Florence Foster Jenkins, Judy, The United States vs. Billie Holiday or The Eyes of Tammy Faye were mammoth awards season players outside of Best Actress – and, in the cases of Lange and Day, some even ended up their film’s lone recognition on Oscar nominations morning. Rave reviews for the film itself aren’t a requisite either, as the likes of Day and Chastain recently proved by overcoming their films’ otherwise middling critical receptions.
For now, Ackie is perhaps not in the same tier as top Best Actress contenders Cate Blanchett (TÁR), Danielle Deadwyler (Till), Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans) and Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once), all of whose performances have been seen and received glowing notices. Should reviews prove robust for Ackie, she can easily surge right up there with these front-runners, though she’ll also have to contend with the likes of Olivia Colman (Empire of Light), Viola Davis (The Woman King), Jennifer Lawrence (Causeway), Rooney Mara (Women Talking) and Margot Robbie (Babylon), each a prior Best Actress nominee very much in contention for an Oscar return.
Given voters’ longtime affection for music biopics and the performances that headline them, expect at least one – and very possibly both – of these talented young actors to surface on Oscar nominations morning.