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Awards Voters’ Love of Biopics Extends to Hollywood’s Early Days

Tim Gray
·3-min read

When Oscars are handed out, it’s possible best picture, director, writing and all four acting wins will be for films about real people.

The odds of this sweep seem slim. But this past year has been all about unexpected events, so anything is possible. Certainly, there are a wealth of contenders: This year’s Oscar race is heavy with biopics and fact-based dramas.

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“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “One Night in Miami,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” all center on individuals whose 20th century lives were well documented in the media (including the Variety Archives, which go back to 1905).

“Mank” illuminates the screenwriter behind “Citizen Kane.”

The characters in “Hillbilly Elegy” and “The Mauritanian” didn’t get as much coverage but they’re also based on real people and incidents.

In “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand plays a fictional character but is surrounded by first-time actors playing versions of themselves. Fact-based? Definitely, though not a biopic.

The Academy Awards have embraced based-on-truth dramas since 1928, with a screenplay win for “The Patriot,” a bio of Emperor Paul of Russia; George Arliss then won lead actor for the 1929 “Disraeli.”

But Hollywood’s love of real-life kicked into high gear in 1980, when three of the four acting winners were playing real people: Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull”), Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) and Mary Steenburgen (“Melvin and Howard”). In the next two years, factual films took honors as best pic (“Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi”).

In all, 21 best-picture winners were fact-based. That’s impressive out of 92 wins. And the majority of those have occurred since that 1980 trifecta.

In the past decade alone, 88 films were nominated for best picture, and 34 of them were fact-based, a hefty percentage.

For the record, the “inspired by true events” best pic winners were, in order: “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Life of Emile Zola” (in three consecutive years, 1935-37).

Oscar then skips to 1962, with “Lawrence of Arabia,” followed by “The Sound of Music,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Patton” and “The French Connection.”

After the 1980 acting trio, the best pic victories for “Chariots of Fire” and “Gandhi” were followed closely by “Amadeus,” “Out of Africa” and “The Last Emperor.”

After “Schindler’s List,” “Brave-heart” and the 2001 “A Beautiful Mind,” the 2010s were another decade when half the winners were about real people: “The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight” and “Green Book.” Of course, many Hollywood films are heavily fictionalized; when grouches in 2021 point out — as they have already started — how some new films stray from accuracy, these cynics should compare the scripts of “The Great Ziegfeld” and other biopics of that era to the true events. But as filmmakers always say, “We’re telling a story, we’re not making a documentary or writing a history book.”

Over the decades, there have been fictional characters depicted in real events (“Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Titanic”) or real characters in fictional events (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris”).

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