You want an Oscar nomination for acting? Keep it real

Christian Bale (left) and Amy Adams are up for Oscars for their respective portrayals of Dick and Lynne Cheney in “Vice.”
Christian Bale (left) and Amy Adams are up for Oscars for their respective portrayals of Dick and Lynne Cheney in “Vice.” (Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures via AP)

All right, you’re a movie star. You want to get a best actor or best actress Oscar nomination. Is there anything you can do, beyond giving the best performance you can and then crossing your fingers? Yes, there is: Keep it real.

No, not keep it real as in being emotionally truthful, though that certainly doesn’t hurt.

Keep it real as in play someone who actually lived. Reality bites? A lot of times, if you’re an actor, reality wins.

This year two best actress nominees play characters drawn from real life. Olivia Colman is England’s Queen Anne, in “The Favourite.” Melissa McCarthy had the less-regal challenge of playing author/forger Lee Israel, in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”


The real-life bias is even clearer with best actor. Only one nominee, Bradley Cooper, in “A Star Is Born,” plays a fictitious character. Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney, in “Vice.” Rami Malek plays the rock star Freddie Mercury (Dick Cheney in an anti-universe?), in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Viggo Mortensen’s Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, in “Green Book,” reminds us that the character need not have been famous in real life. Vallelonga was just your basic mook from the Bronx who got a job as driver for the pianist Don Shirley.

As it happens, Mahershala Ali, who plays Shirley, got a nomination, too, for best supporting actor. Sam Rockwell got a best supporting actor nomination for playing George W. Bush, in “Vice” — and Amy Adams got a best supporting actress nomination for playing Lynne Cheney. This real-life thing can get contagious.

Willem Dafoe, playing the painter Vincent van Gogh, in “At Eternity’s Gate,” has the rare distinction of playing a character who earned another actor an Oscar nomination: Kirk Douglas, in “Lust for Life” (1957). Rare but not unique: Daniel Day-Lewis won as the title character in “Lincoln” (2012). Raymond Massie got a nomination for “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940).


Day-Lewis has won a real-life Oscar twice. His first best actor prize was for playing the Irish poet Christy Brown, in “My Left Foot” (1989). His other Oscar was for a fictional character, in “There Will Be Blood” (2007). Two out of three: See, even for arguably the greatest actor of his generation, it doesn’t hurt to keep it real.

The chief contender for that title, Sean Penn? One of his two Oscars is for a real-life role: Harvey Milk, in “Milk” (2008).

Real-life characters have been earning the actors playing them Oscar nominations, and often winning Oscars, almost as long as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been a real-life institution. George Arliss, playing the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, won best actor at the third Academy Awards ceremony, in 1930. At the seventh Academy Awards, Norma Shearer earned a nomination for playing the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Fast-forward half a century. Things really got real in the ’80s and ’90s. In the former, seven out of 10 years had at least one best actor nomination for a real-life character. Four of the nominees won: Robert De Niro, as Jake LaMotta, in “Raging Bull” (1980); Ben Kingsley, in the title role, in “Gandhi” (1982); F. Murray Abraham, as Antonio Salieri, in “Amadeus” (1984); and Day-Lewis, in “My Left Foot.”

During that decade, there were six years with at least one real-life best actress nominee, though only one winner: Sissy Spacek, as country singer Loretta Lynn, in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980). Or maybe the ’80s were particularly good for country singers? One of the nominees was Jessica Lange, as Patsy Cline, in “Sweet Dreams” (1985).


There was no let-up in the ’90s. Eight years saw real-life best actor nominations, but there were only two winners: Jeremy Irons, as accused high-society murderer Claus von Bülow, in “Reversal of Fortune” (1990); and Geoffrey Rush, as the pianist David Helfgott, in “Shine” (1996). It also saw eight years with at least one real-life best actress nomination — and two winners: Susan Sarandon, as capital-punishment opponent Helen Prejean, in “Dead Man Walking” (1995); and Hilary Swank, as hate-crime victim Brandon Teena, in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999).

The Academy’s real-life acting-accolades tradition has, if anything, gotten stronger in this century. Since 2000, 10 actors have won for playing real-life characters, and nine actresses. The most recent actor was last year, with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, in “Darkest Hour.” The most recent best actress was Meryl Streep , as Margaret Thatcher, in “The Iron Lady” (2011).

Wait, Arliss’s Disraeli, Oldman’s Churchill, Streep’s Thatcher: Here’s a whole other Oscar category for actors to consider, British prime ministers. They all serve at the pleasure of Oscar-winning monarchs, of course: Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II (“The Queen,” 2006), Charles Laughton (“The Private Life of Henry VIII,” 1933), Colin Firth’s George VI (“The King’s Speech,” 2010).

Think of royalty, in this regard, as just a higher form of reality.


Mark Feeney can be reached at