Biographies rule at Oscar time
One-quarter of best-picture winners have been based on real people.
By CARRIE RICKEY
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Come Oscar time, biography is destiny.
Three of the five movies up for best picture -- "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland" and "Ray" -- are biopics. A record eight of 20 actors contending for Oscars played real-life figures.
Filmmakers haven't been bitten by the bug responsible for reality television. They just know that the odds of getting a statuette have always been greater for film biography than for any other movie genre.
Let the record show that one-quarter of the trophies for best picture (19 of 76) went to biopics, including "Lawrence of Arabia," "Out of Africa" and "A Beautiful Mind." Thirty-eight of the 286 acting awards, or 13 per cent, were given to performers who essayed real-life figures, among them Gary Cooper for "Sergeant York," Barbra Streisand for "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice and George C. Scott for "Patton."
Real lives provide a unique challenge for screenwriters, in that they do not provide the neat three-act structure and resolution of drama. They likewise hold a unique challenge for actors, especially when they play well-known figures, as with this year's nominees Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in "Ray" and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator."
The degree of difficulty in playing a familiar personage (think Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X") is greater than in playing a figure not so well known (Meryl Streep as Isak Dinesen in "Out of Africa"). If Foxx and Blanchett have an edge, it's because they don't just channel Charles and Hepburn; they resurrect them.
The bio-nominees of 2004 include Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator," and Alan Alda (supporting actor) as Sen. Owen Brewster, who attempted to discredit Hughes. "Hotel Rwanda's" Don Cheadle (best actor) and Sophie Okonedo (supporting actress) were cited for their performances as hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina and his wife, who saved 1,200 lives during their nation's 1994 civil war. Johnny Depp won a best actor citation as "Peter Pan" author James Barrie in "Finding Neverland," and Laura Linney a supporting actress bid as the spouse of "Dr. Sex" in "Kinsey."
Like Super Bowl astrophysics, the idea of Oscar scholarship is an oxymoron. Still, one can chart cultural shifts by the kind of movie biography the Academy celebrates.
This year's top-nominated biopics are about creative artists battling inner demons, reinforcing the popular myth about the artist as madman.
Artist as madman
Depp's Barrie is an arrested-development playwright and the creator of the boy who won't grow up. DiCaprio's Hughes is an obsessive-compulsive drug-dependent film producer. Only Foxx's Charles, a drug-addicted musician, conquers his habit. It wasn't ever thus.
During the 1930s, Oscar-winning biopics such as "The Life of Emile Zola" and "The Story of Louis Pasteur" were message movies about democratic values, significant in an era shadowed by Fascism. Forties biopics featured World War I patriots such as "Sergeant York" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy's" George M. Cohan.
In the '50s the biopic waned. It returned with a vengeance in the '60s, when Hollywood had a torrid affair with royal intrigue ("Cleopatra," "The Lion in Winter"), which addressed the conflicts between a ruler's personal romances and public responsibilities. Ever since the '70s, the royals have been dethroned, making way for working-class heroes and heroines such as "Coal Miner's Daughter" (Loretta Lynn), "Raging Bull" (Jake LaMotta) and "Erin Brockovich."
Most recently, Oscar has been smitten with those who exhibit madness and genius -- Geoffrey Rush as the pianist in "Shine," Russell Crowe as delusional mathematician John Forbes Nash in "A Beautiful Mind" and Nicole Kidman as suicidal author Virginia Woolf in "The Hours."
And last year, madness alone was enough: the Academy awarded Charlize Theron top honors for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster."