'Real people' who win Oscars

Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln' is only the most recent actor to land awards nominations for portraying a historical or contemporary figure.

Dreamworks/Reuters
Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

It's awards season again, and the Oscar buzz is high for actor Daniel Day-Lewis and his portrayal of the 16th president of the United States in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."

Of course, this isn't the first time an Oscar front-runner has played a historical figure. While Day-Lewis's portrayal has been described as "mesmerizing" and "monumental," there's a long history of actors who have taken home statuettes for portraying real people.

In 2011, Meryl Streep earned her third Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." (Streep, noted for her ability to disappear into a role, had been nominated two years before for portraying chef Julia Child in the 2009 movie "Julie & Julia"; and that was the year Sandra Bullock won for playing real-life football mom Leigh Anne Tuohy in "The Blind Side.") In 2010, Best Actor winner Colin Firth, Best Supporting Actress winner Melissa Leo, and Best Supporting Actor Christian Bale all garnered awards for playing real people – Firth as King George VI in "The King's Speech" and Leo and Bale as mother and son Alice Ward and Dicky Eklund in "The Fighter." And that's only in the past three years.

Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York, says the trend of audiences embracing actors playing real people – particularly famous people – goes back to Shakespeare and his play "Henry V."

"It comes from the same basic human interest in seeing real people brought to life on the screen," Mr. Levinson says. Viewers already know the characters they're seeing.

However, he says portraying a real person who is still living is much more challenging than playing a historical figure. For instance, if a movie about Bill Clinton were to make mistakes in its portrayal of Mr. Clinton, they would be more easily flagged by audience members, breaking the cinematic spell.

But Levinson says there's no denying that playing a character from the pages of history can get an actor ahead in the awards season race, and he doesn't think Hollywood will stop casting those parts anytime soon.

"I don't think people will ever get tired of it," he says. "People have [already] joked about who's going to play Barack and Michelle [Obama]."

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