Oscars: Why Actors Score Big by Keeping It "Real"

Illustration by: Matt Collins

Truth-based performances — thanks to their perceived difficulty and (with luck) the campaign support of the figures they portray — confer an advantage to stars that doesn't always extend to the films they inhabit.

Channeling Jackie Kennedy's breathy voice and aristocratic accent (straight from Miss Porter's school for well-bred girls), Natalie Portman in Fox Searchlight's Jackie is the clear frontrunner for the best actress Oscar. Tom Hanks, in an awards-ready performance, is as heroic a figure as ever but with transforming white hair and mustache in Warner Bros.' Clint Eastwood-helmed Sully. The real-life Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who saved 155 lives by landing a plane on the Hudson River, by now is a familiar on-camera interview subject, so it's easy to see the physical similarities between him and Hanks — and why they matter. Playing a real person is irresistible awards bait, as if actors get points for coloring inside the lines of an actual man or woman.

The acting competition this season includes a raft of other performances based on real people, even if their faces don't come to mind so quickly. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are brilliant mathematicians who worked for NASA during the 1960s in 20th Century Fox's Hidden Figures. Michael Keaton is McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc in The Weinstein Co.'s The Founder. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are an interracial couple in Focus Features' Loving. Dev Patel plays a long-lost Indian boy who finds his way home in TWC's Lion, and Andrew Garfield is a pacifist who enlists in the army during World War II in Mel Gibson's return from directors jail, Lionsgate's Hacksaw Ridge. And those are only the actors with a realistic shot at awards attention.

Some hopefuls lost ground early, victims of lackluster reviews and deadly box office. Warren Beatty shrewdly plays the myth as much as the reality of Howard Hughes in Fox's Rules Don't Apply, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a precise imitation of whistleblower Edward Snowden in Open Road's Snowden.

Together these films fall into a distinct awards-season pattern: There are the obligatory photos of the real people that end most of the movies and the talking points in promotional and awards campaigns that emphasize the "based on a true story" foundation (no matter how strong or wobbly that connection). If the filmmakers are lucky, the people who inspired the movies still are around to stand on the red carpet side by side with the actors or sit in the audience, smiling in approval and basking in shared glory as trophies are handed out.

Awards history tells us how well this strategy works. Two years ago, Eddie Redmayne brought more than an impersonation to his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything — but wrangling the physical challenge didn't hurt. (Four of the five best actor nominees that year had created portrayals of real people!) Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006) and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005) ran the awards table. Reese Witherspoon sang her way to an Oscar as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line (2005). The list goes on, from Colin Firth's reach into history with The King's Speech (2010) to Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011) and Julia Roberts playing the living, breathing Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (2000). And that's just a sampling of the winners, never mind the nominees.

The trend is not simply a byproduct of the flood of fact-based movies. The reality hook helps with best picture nominations, as with last year's winner, Spotlight. But true-story films don't seem to weigh disproportionately on best picture lists as they do in acting categories, and certainly the truth is not dominating this year's best picture field, with a fantasy like La La Land and the purely fictional drama Manchester by the Sea arguably leading the pack (though Moonlight, which has autobiographical roots, also is in the hunt).

The embrace of actors playing real people can be simplistic. Mimicry is not the best part of Pablo Larrain's Jackie, a sophisticated film that fractures the timeline of the days following JFK's assassination. Portman's Jackie is complex and quicksilver, slyly and willfully applying the magical word "Camelot" to her husband's legacy as she talks to a reporter. But it's the star's attention-getting impersonation that registers so dynamically. Fox Searchlight even created posters playing off of Andy Warhol's famous silk screen of multiple Jackies, with Portman substituted for the real first lady.

A similar lure worked for Mirren, whose coiffed white hair, sensible shoes and frumpy skirts turned her into the queen at a glance, evoking the kind of awe that translates into prizes, even if the performance flowed from someplace deeper in Her Majesty's soul.

Elizabeth II never endorsed The Queen, but the real Sully hit the red carpet when the film opened and recently sat with Hanks and company at the Critics' Choice Awards (where the film scored four nominations but no wins). Such appearances signal that the movie's facts mostly check out — and where they don't, the real person is OK with that. And with Hanks back to his normal look, the side-by-side appearances emphasize how he altered himself for the screen, highlighting his acting chops. Hanks lost the Critics' Choice to Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, but the optics of having Sully alongside still work for the long awards game. (Brockovich did the same to support Roberts.)

Nominating a smart impersonation also can be a way to recognize a movie not likely to register in other categories. Last year Michael Fassbender was Oscar nominated for the underrated Steve Jobs, for a performance that helps audiences see the Apple wizard in all his turtlenecked, wire-rimmed-glasses narcissism.

Streep's winning performance in The Iron Lady was bolder than the pallid film itself. She may be back in the running this year as a reality-based, laughably terrible singer in Florence Foster Jenkins. The film is charming but slighter than Jackie, so the awards still are Portman's to lose. (The actresses are nominated in separate comedy and drama categories for the Golden Globes but are competing head-to-head for the Screen Actors Guild Award, as they would if nominated for Oscars.)

When a lead character is obscure, the reality-based angle is indispensable in the awards campaign. Saroo Brierley, played by Patel in Lion, was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile, complete with clips from the movie.

Even before seeing The Founder or knowing what Kroc looked like, viewers will realize that Keaton plays someone who helped change the landscape and eating habits of America. They may not be prepared for his ruthless, smarmy side, which emerges gradually through the movie. By the end, Keaton's stealthy performance practically dares you to like the character. But an unlikable hero and the film's delayed release may minimize its awards hopes.

Negga and Edgerton perfectly capture the look and voices of Mildred and Richard Loving, but you only know that if you've seen period photos or watched Nancy Buirski's 2011 documentary, The Loving Story. Both are important sources, which the actors and writer-director Jeff Nichols call attention to whenever they discuss the movie's authenticity. As in Jackie, the performances are layered, especially Edgerton's laconic stoicism as the couple fights anti-miscegenation laws all the way to the Supreme Court, but nuance is tougher to sell than a mirror image or accent.

Seeing photographs of the real people chronicled in these biopics and true-story films adds an emotional tug, often as or just before the final credits roll. Hidden Figures reveals the real, living Katherine Johnson (played by Henson) — the most brilliant of the NASA mathematicians and the film's central character — being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama last year, at the age of 97.

At times Henson plays Johnson broadly, pushing her glasses up her nose as a nervous tic to indicate that she's smart. Spencer's slow-burn determination as her colleague, Dorothy Vaughan (now deceased), seems more in line with what we know of the real Johnson. Spencer's performance has earned her Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations, while Henson was snubbed for both, so maybe a bit more authenticity would have helped.

But while realism helps win awards, there are no guarantees. Even the photos and voices of the real-life survivors and first responders of the Boston Marathon bombing can't save a by-the-numbers movie like Patriots Day. The story revolves around real heroes, like the policeman played by Mark Wahlberg. But unlike Sully, which shows the audience previously unseen layers of insecurity and doubt in the man, Patriots Day offers gung-ho Americanism without any fresh insights.

Rebecca Hall deserves the praise she has gotten for Christine, based on the life of a television news anchor who shot herself on air. But the film may be too small and possibly too dark to get significant awards traction.

And once upon a time, a little more than a year ago, Tom Hiddleston seemed poised to enter the awards competition as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light. Then the film opened at last year's Toronto Film Festival. Hiddleston was as spot-on as promised, but the movie overall missed the mark. Does anyone even remember it came out in the spring and that Hiddleston is eligible for this year's awards?

Sometimes fiction is a great aid to reality. Knowing that Annette Bening plays a character based on writer-director Mike Mills' mother in 20th Century Women is interesting but not crucial to enjoying the film. The story, and Bening's dazzling portrayal of a complex, imaginative and at times self-doubting woman, freely departs from the biographical details. (Mills does have a knack for using his parents as resources. Bening has earned a Golden Globe nomination and is firmly in Oscar contention for the role, and Christopher Plummer won both the Oscar and Golden Globe as best supporting actor playing a version of Mills' father in Beginners.)

The poetic coming-of-age film Moonlight already has won a slew of critics' awards. The mothers of both writer-director Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney, whose play the film is based on, wrestled with crack addiction in real life just as the fictionalized mother, played by Naomie Harris, does onscreen.

Moonlight and 20th Century Women are among the year's strongest, most original films, a clue that imagination is more valuable than authenticity for its own sake. As a reporter played by Billy Crudup says in Jackie when the first lady resists revealing the whole truth, "I'll settle for a story that's believable."

This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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