The Long Legacy Of The Biopic At The Academy Awards

Here's a classic dilemma of awards season: Does an actor deliver a good performance, or merely a good impersonation? Each year, it seems like the Oscar conversation is increasingly dominated by campy performances of beloved historical figures in mediocre-to-bad biopics. From Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody" to Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in "Judy," there's a maddening focus on these types of performances at the expense of actors who play fictional characters without the benefit of a real-life template. 

But while it might seem like biopics have been growing in popularity over the past few decades, they've actually occupied a prominent position in Hollywood since the very beginning. And although the modern lineup at the Academy Awards paints a picture of a voting bloc that is frequently unable to connect with a performance that they don't already have an emotional attachment to, there are other elements at play that explain the biopic's dominance throughout film history.

From the very beginning

After the Academy Awards began in earnest in 1929, it didn't take voters very long to succumb to the allure of a performance based on a real person. The very next year, at the second annual Academy Awards ceremony, Lewis Stone was honored with a nomination for his work in "The Patriot," in which he played Peter Ludwig Graf von der Pahlen, an actual soldier who was instrumental in killing Emperor Paul of Russia. This was the first time a performance of a historical figure earned an Oscar nomination, and just a year after that, a biopic contained the performance that won Best Actor, with George Arliss taking home the Oscar for his work as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in "Disraeli." From there, biopics were off to the races. Over the course of Oscar history, they've regularly occupied an outsized role in both nominations and wins.

Biopics have received a frankly astonishing number of 125 Best Picture nominations, earning 22 wins. As one would imagine, they've also been responsible for a huge amount of awards attention for the actors who star in them. Actors playing real historical figures have been nominated 356 times at the Academy Awards — eight of these nominations from 2021 alone. Mind you, this is only counting movies that explicitly feature a historical figure by name in a role large enough to warrant an Oscar nomination — there are plenty more films that are strongly based on a true story, but for one reason or another gave their characters lightly fictionalized names.

Biopics at the Oscars

In 1968, the only year in which a pair of leading actresses have ever tied for an Oscar, both performances were from biopics: Barbra Streisand as vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl," and Katharine Hepburn as 12th century English queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in "A Lion in Winter." As recently as 2019, four out of five nominees in the Best Supporting Actor race were performances based on real people (interestingly enough, the winner that year — Brad Pitt for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" — played the only original character of the bunch). If you want to find a year where biopics were completely shut out of all four acting categories, you have to go all the way back to 1979.

As one might imagine, men make up a disproportionate number of nominees and winners for biopics — it's about a 60/40 split between the male acting categories and their female counterparts. Men dominate the history books as well as Hollywood studios, so it's rare for films which highlight the extraordinary lives of real-life women to be greenlit in the first place, and more unusual still for such a film to garner enough critical attention to win over the Academy. If someone wants to make a movie about a silent film star, their impulse is far more likely to produce, say, "Chaplin," about Charlie Chaplin, than they are to create a biopic about Mary Pickford. As more female directors are given the latitude to work on high profile films, this dynamic has begun to change, but they're still up against centuries of male-centered historical narratives that treat women as an afterthought.

The Past 20 Years

Although biopics have featured prominently at the Oscars for its entire nearly 100 year history, there's certainly evidence to suggest that they've been picking up steam over the course of the past 20 years — especially in films that highlight female historical figures. For the Best Actress category, 40% of all biopic nominations and half of all wins have been from movies released since 2000. The Best Supporting Aactress category shows a similar trend: 51% of all biopic nominations and 47% of wins are from this same period. 

While the data shows an uptick in nominations and wins for biopic performances in the male acting categories as well, it's a slightly less dramatic increase; when we look at biopic nominations for Best Actor, for example, 38% have been from post-2000 films. This suggests that while biopics have received much more awards attention over the past two decades, the biggest change is that films about real women are occupying a more prominent position in Hollywood.

Why the biopic?

The question of why this particular genre is such catnip at the Oscars in general is more complicated. We can point to the risk-averse nature of studios, where the mere concept of a narrative about a familiar face is enough to make an argument that they could generate a strong box office return.

In the past ten years, we've seen Oscars go to actors playing Freddie Mercury, Stephen Hawking, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Judy Garland, Fred Hampton — all tremendously well-known, dare we say even beloved, historical figures. There's a powerful sentimentality that overrides our ability to assess these performances critically, and the goodwill many audiences instinctively feel for the characters bleeds over to the actors themselves.

When we look at these films and their ability to win Oscars on a regular basis, familiarity likely plays a similar role. As much as the Oscars might be improved by their members thoughtfully poring over every single film released in a given year, that's perhaps an unrealistic goal. In reality, they're driven by emotion like everyone else, and a film about a famous entertainer or statesman might face a better chance of being watched than an original independent production that would require more attention to be paid.

We should also not rule out vanity as a potential reason for Oscar voters to be drawn to the biopic. There are a lot of films made about real-life singers, actors, and entertainers that make a huge splash during awards season in part because many voters see themselves in those characters. For the 2022 Oscars alone, there are nominations for the portrayal of two historical actors, one actress, a singer, and a playwright. People joke that Hollywood loves to make movies about themselves, but they also like to give those movies awards.

What is acting, anyway?

Additionally, although this might seem counterintuitive for an organization that hands out awards for cinematic performances, no one wants to admit that acting can be really hard to assess. Is a performance good? Who knows? It's subjective. One thing we can tell, however, is if an actor is capable of looking and sounding and walking like a specific real-life person. We can watch archival footage (often something provided during the end credits of a biopic, as though inviting the audience to admire their handiwork) and say, "Yes, this actor looks like this historical person, therefore it is a good performance." We all know there's more to acting than mere mimicry, of course, but in the absence of that certain ineffable quality that we know in our bones as acting excellence, a solid impersonation will do in a pinch.

With all of this in mind, a few things are immediately clear. The biopic as its own unique genre has, for better or worse, been a major player at the Academy Awards for nearly 100 years. It is somehow perpetually capable of endearing itself to audiences, regardless of whatever other genres may be in vogue at any given time. And it doesn't seem to be going away, either. Although many critics may feel crestfallen that lukewarm imitations of history's biggest hitters often come out on top over genuinely powerful original performances, the biopic has proven to have a winning formula that Oscar pundits should underestimate at their own peril.