Is portraying a real person the way to win an Oscar?

Portraying a real person is one of the surest ways for an actress to win an Oscar. Some of the most famous Oscar wins in this category are from Sally Field in “Norma Rae” Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady – went to the performers playing real people. But is this an outdated way of thinking? Are Academy voters still rewarding actresses in biopics? Or have their tastes changed to favor fictional characters?

If you look at the last five Best Actress winners, for example, only three of them won for playing real people, while only one of the 2023 Best Actress nominees was nominated for playing a real person. But let’s take a closer look at this category. Below is a handy table detailing all the Best Actress winners this century.

As you can see, the division is quite clear. In the first 12 of those 24 years, eight Best Actress winners won for their portrayals of real people. Hilary Swank won for his role as a transgender Brandon Tina in “Boys Don’t Cry”; Julia Roberts played an activist Erin Brockovich in the film of the same name; Nicole Kidman played by the author Virginia Woolf in “Clock”; Charlize Theron played the series Aileen Wuornos in “Monster”; Reese Witherspoon singer played June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line”; Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth in “Queen”; Marion Cotillard singer played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose; And Sandra Bullock played Leigh Anne Tuohywho was the footballer’s guardian Michal Oherin “The Blind Side”.

However, in the second 12 years – from 2012 to 2023 – most winners won for playing fictional characters. In fact, there were only four winners (half of the first 12), who won by playing against real people. Streep played the British Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady”; Olivia Colman played Queen Anne in “The Favorite” Renee Zellweger played Judy Garland in “Judy”; And Jessica Chastain played an evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Otherwise, all actresses win for playing fictional characters, including six fictional character winners from 2013 to 2018.

This strongly suggests that the academy, which has made enormous efforts to modernize and diversify its membership over the past five to ten years, is changing its tastes. Playing a real person is seen as a classic, traditional way to win Best Actress. But the academy’s preferences are now shifting toward more unique and striking films, as evidenced by the recent slate of Best Picture winners such as Everything Everywhere At Once, Parasite and The Shape of Water.

Michelle YeohFor example, 15 years ago she would never have won the award for best actress for the chaotic, brilliant sci-fi “Everything Everywhere at Once.” Her performance is eccentric and very unique in its taste. The fact that it outperformed more traditionally dramatic performances such as Cate Blanchett in “Tara” and Ana de Armas, who played Marilyn Monroe in Blonde is a sign of the changing tastes of the academy.

But what does all this mean for this year’s likely nominees? Well, our current predicted Best Actress nominees Emma Stone (“Poor things”), Lily Gladstone (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) Carey Mulligan (“Owner”), Sandra Hüller (“Anatomy of a Fall”) and Barrino fantasy (“The color purple”). Additionally, there are five other actresses who are on the verge of making it into our predicted top five nominees: Margot Robbie (“Barbie”), Annette Bening (“Nyad”) Greta Lee (“Past Lives”) Cailee Spaeny (“Priscilla”) and Natalie Portman (“May December”).

Of those 10, four play real people. Gladstone plays a member of the Osage tribe Molly Burkhart in “Killers of the Flower Moon”; Mulligan plays actress and co-star Leonard Bernstein, Felicia Montealegre, in “The Master”; Bening plays a swimmer Diana Nyad in “Nyada”; and Spaeny plays Priscilla Presleywife Elvis Presley, in “Priscilla”. This may be one of the key reasons why the academy’s list of winners is changing: the type of films being made.

In the past, many stories made with women in leading roles were based on true stories, hence the number of women winning biopics. However, now that the film industry is gradually starting to diversify into more films with central female characters, we are getting a wider range of films and therefore a more thorough mix of real and fictional stories. This, in turn, leads to greater diversity in our Best Actress contenders. This year we could nominate two or three women for playing real people. Likewise, all five slots could be filled by actresses playing fictional characters. For now, however, we’re predicting that two actresses will be nominated for playing real people (Gladstone and Mulligan) and three for playing fictional characters (Stone, Hueller and Barrineau). We also predict that Stone will become the ninth Best Actress winner to take home the award for her role as a fictional character in the last 13 years.

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