Breaking Oscar’s biopic addiction

After watching the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards on Sunday night, something struck me about the quartet of film performances that SAG had awarded — something unusual, yet pleasing, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It had nothing to do with their collective quality, though I think that’s higher than it is most years. And it had nothing to do with demographics, even if the sight of two non-white actresses winning in one evening is a notable and encouraging first. No, it had something to do with the actual characters played by these four actors, and as I thought back on their three largely disparate films, it hit me.

There’s not a true-life character in the lot.

That may not seem an especially remarkable stat, but it is when you look at recent awards history, in which biopic performances have racked up more wins in Oscar’s acting races than at any other point in Academy history. Indeed, should SAG’s four choices all triumph on the big night next month — and there’s little reason to think they won’t — it’ll be the first time since 1997 that all four acting Oscars have gone to actors playing fictitious characters.

Yes, 13 Academy Award ceremonies have passed since Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Robin Williams and Kim Basinger (coincidentally, also the last all-American quartet of winners) all had their turn at the podium, and in every one of them, at least one acting category has fallen prey to Academy voters’ chronic biopic addiction. In the last decade, over half the lead acting Oscars have gone to stars interpreting real-life figures — some of them unfamiliar to the average viewer, but most of them high on the recognizability scale, with voters thrilling to the technical challenges of replicating famous voices and mannerisms. 

Of course, I shouldn’t count my chickens just yet. It won’t affect the record if either Jean Dujardin or George Clooney take Best Actor, but an upset win for Brad Pitt, playing real-life baseball manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” would keep the biopic fires burning — even if Pitt’s relaxed, unfussy performance seems to riff more on his own screen persona than on Beane himself.

A more likely biopic winner could come in Best Actress, where Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher and Michelle Williams’s Marilyn Monroe both represent the kind of technique-driven celebrity impression that has recently been Academy catnip for actors. Both women have been lavishly praised by peers and critics alike for the courage and expertise in taking on these baggage-laden roles. Both, however, seem likely to lose on Oscar night to finely-shaded work in an ostensibly more modest role: Viola Davis’s stoically mistreated domestic worker Aibileen in “The Help,” a character written (rather glibly, some might say) to represent legions of real-life women with her history, but not a real-life woman herself. (Ditto her supporting co-star Octavia Spencer, assured of a win in the one acting race populated entirely with imagined characters.) 

On paper, Streep’s brief in playing Thatcher — with all the complex, cosmetically-assisted physical and vocal transmutation that entails — would be a more conventionally Academy-friendly one than Davis’s, who has less screen time and fewer illustrative moments of capital-A Acting in which to flex her craft, but whose piercing emotional accuracy in an eminently elevatable role seems to be doing the job. The vast popularity of her vehicle helps Davis, of course; arguably, so does the presence of Williams, who might be cutting into Streep’s votes from the AMPAS contingent who view biopics as the ne plus ultra of screen acting. 

Nonetheless, it’s tempting to speculate that this might be a year where the Academy wises up to the significant challenges of building characters from scratch, rather than working from a historical template, and to the truth that fictional characters can be as breathtakingly recognizable as historical ones. All the performances rewarded by SAG are to some extent rooted in reality, after all. As George Valentin, Dujardin is channelling a variety of screen actor typified by Douglas Fairbanks without actively impersonating him — though the performances hinges on at least as much intricately researched physical technique as Michelle Williams’s more targeted Monroe.

As late-blooming gay widower Hal in “Beginners,” meanwhile, Christopher Plummer treads closest to biopic territory by inheriting the creative ghost of his character from writer-director Mike Mills’s own late-blooming gay father: semi-autobiographical the film may be, but the veil of fiction affords room for the whims and rhythms and vocal inflections of the actor’s own personality.

Plummer’s category, too, features competition in more stiffly defined biopic form — Kenneth Branagh’s amusing if scarcely meticulous Laurence Olivier in “My Week With Marilyn” isn’t a threat for the win, but his all-but-automatic nomination proves that old habits die hard in the acting branch. (That said, the performance’s scant resemblance to the real Olivier is the most rewarding thing about it: would that more actors cast in such strait-jacketed roles felt as loosely interpretive as Branagh does.)

Should my projection of a biopic-free slate of acting winners hold true next month, it may be nothing more than a fluke, but it’d be a welcome respite nonetheless. Away from concerns of fiction versus non-fiction, it’s heartening to see this year’s acting races stacked with several performances that don’t feel overly calculated as bait, ostentatiously advertising their “degree of difficulty.” The Best Actor race is headed by three movie-star performances that make a virtue of the actors’ trademark charms, rather than burying them under makeup; the two stragglers in the field rely on subtler dramatics.

It’s interesting — and, with due respect to a hard-working actor, encouraging — that Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t crack this unusually low-key field for his effortfully transformative, latex-swaddled biopic turn in Clint Eastwood’s catatonic “J. Edgar,” a performance that in most years would slot neatly onto the ballot even if nobody liked the film. (Just two years ago, after all, “Invictus” managed two acting nods before limping off to the prestige graveyard.) Every race has its own quirks and obstacles, making unwise to draw any conclusions about voting trends going forward. But while people frequently talk admiringly of actors “losing themselves” in roles — the stock response to expert biopic work — it’s nice to see some appropriate respect this year for actors finding themselves in roles instead. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!