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Oscars to Actors: Get Real

Oscar voters have lots of strange biases. They love dreary costume epics, laugh off comedies. But nothing's more peculiar than their passion for films based upon real people and events

After all, voters work in a make-believe biz. They create movie fantasies for a living and their most successful films are usually ones that are the most fantastic.

Consider the top 10 movies of last year -- "Star Wars: Episode III," "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," etc. None of them were based on real life. When it comes to actual moviegoers, wizards, talking lions and space aliens get their vote at the box office.

So why is it that, when it comes to declaring the best films of a given year at the Oscars, they frequently pooh-pooh their most successful work in favor of little movies about an Australian pianist ("Shine") or a prostitute-turned-serial killer ("Monster")?

Last year a majority of nominees for best actor and actress -- and both winners (Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote," Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line") -- were based upon real people.

This year the trend is more pervasive than ever with films like "The Queen" about Elizabeth II coping with Princess Di's death and "Flags of Our Fathers" dramatizing the struggle of U.S. soldiers at Iwo Jima in World World II. And many others.

"Movies based on reality feel more important to Oscar voters," says Pete Hammond, film critic for Maxim and Oscar columnist for "'Flags of Our Fathers' is about a key moment in history, so therefore the movie feels urgent. 'The Queen' is about history they never knew, so it's a discovery."

Biopics have always been popular throughout Oscar history, dating back to George Arliss in "Disraeli" (best actor, 1930), "Patton" (best actor George C. Scott, best picture of 1970) and "A Beautiful Mind" (best picture of 2001). Especially in the acting races where victories like Julia Roberts ("Erin Brockovich," 2000), Sissy Spacek ("Coal Miner's Daughter," 1980) and James Cagney ("Yankee Doodle Dandy," 1942) are routine.

"When a famous person like Jamie Foxx does a great job portraying another famous person like Ray Charles, academy members think, 'Wow! That's acting!'" Hammond adds. "They have something to measure it against. The trend of rewarding those kinds of performances is now getting so out of hand that soon they'll have to change the name of the award from best actor to best celebrity impersonation."

This year there's a glut of biopics. In addiction to ones mentioned above: "Last King of Scotland" (Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin), "Pursuit of Happiness" (Will Smith as homeless dad-turned-stock broker Christopher Gardner), "Miss Potter" (Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter), "Catch a Fire" (Derek Luke as South African Apartheid rebel Patrick Chamusso), "World Trade Center" (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as 9/11 survivors), "Running with Scissors" (Annette Bening as real wacko mom Deidre Burroughs), "Factory Girl" (Sienna Miller as doomed party brat Edie Sedgwick) and"Infamous" (Toby Jones as novelist Truman Capote).

In addition, there's "Dreamgirls," in which stars like Beyonce Knowles portray fictitious folk based upon real people like Diana Ross. Beyonce not only looks uncannily like Ross, she studied Ross' music career carefully while preparing for the part.

All of those examples are only in the lead acting races. In supporting, there are many more like Ben Affleck as TV's Superman George Reeves in "Hollywoodland" and Michael Sheen as British prime minister Tony Blair in "The Queen."

In the cases where actors are portraying unknown people, they sometimes get a boost from making the PR rounds with the person they're portraying, just like Julia Roberts did with the real Erin Brockovich.

"Will Smith recently did Oprah's show with Christopher Gardner," adds Hammond. "Gardner kept saying, 'Will really did a great job capturing my essence!' That message will now get repeated over and over as they appear next on 'E.T.,' 'Extra' and 'Good Morning America.'

"There's probably one real person who'll never say that to the actress who portrays her this year, though," Hammond adds with a chuckle. "Queen Elizabeth II."

Sometimes when the real-life character is deceased or, like Britain's monarch, unavailable to tour, the actor's Oscar campaigners make sure TV shows have video clips of the real person to show. That strategy worked well for "Monster" star Charlize Theron, who received widespread praise for forfeiting her beauty to look creepily like hag-faced Aileen Wuornos who was executed in 2002 for murdering a string of truck drivers while working as a highway call girl.

"When people saw photos of actress and killer juxtaposed, they thought that Charlize did an incredible job transforming herself physically into the role," Hammond says.

In fact, the real credit for that visual similarity should probably go to the makeup artists and hair stylists who did Theron's touch-ups. But they have their own Oscar category, of course.

However, Theron's team wasn't even nominated. That award ended up going to the makeup wizards who transformed the actors of "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" into hobbits and, well, wizards. In the non-acting craft categories is where fantasy usually gets it ultimate, overdue credit at the Oscars.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun