For every Oscar winner, there are hundreds of supposedly surefire strategies for winning nominations and awards. Make sure you have a big, teary scene. Make sure you have a Weinstein in your corner. Make sure you’re James Cameron. Or, as Tropic Thunder so eloquently instructed, go “full retard.” Of course, you could also delivering a sensitive, nuanced, and original performance, but ha! Talk to Ok-bun Kim of Thirst and Julianne Moore of A Single Man to see how well that worked out for them.
If you’re really desperate to get that nod, the best advice is simply this: Play a real person. Statistically, it increases your chances considerably. Going back all the way to 1994, the Academy has given at least one and sometimes two acting awards to performers in biographical roles. (A note: In 1997, Kim Basinger won Best Supporting Actress for playing a fictional fading starlet in L.A. Confidential, but that character was literally playing the real-life actress Veronica Lake, so it totally counts.)
This year will be no different: Of the 20 acting nominees, only six were for biographical roles (up from three last year), and half of those were in the Best Actress category. In The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock plays white suburban housewife Leigh Anne Tuohy, who in real life took in a poor black boy and coached him to a lucrative football career. It’s like a gridiron Dangerous Minds. Helen Mirren plays the Countess Sofya Andreevna Tolstoy, battling over her deceased husband’s writings in the little-seen Last Station. And finally, in the watchable half of Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep plays television chef Julia Child.
Playing a real person makes for a good angle for a magazine profile and an easy headline for Oscar campaigns, hinting at some process behind the performance—meeting the person or studying their artifacts, getting inside his or her head. Never mind that those are the same creative steps any good actor takes to prepare for a role.
Plus, it gives voters something to measure the performance against. We know Streep does a good job capturing Child’s particular joie de vivre because we’ve all seen her television show and recognize that wonderful accent and disarming effervescence. In some cases, the stature of the role lends the portrayal added impact: Christopher Plummer would be great playing any old exiled Russian author, but playing the Leo Tolstoy, he’s suddenly Oscar worthy.
The danger, of course, is separating impersonation from interpretation. Of course, the Academy has a long history of pretty much ignoring that distinction. Case in point: Jamie Foxx does a fine job bobbing his head and singing just like Ray Charles, but he was more convincing on Kanye West’s hit single “Gold Digger.” On the other hand, Marion Coutillard’s force-of-nature performance as Edit Piaf in La Vie en Rose elevated her from token foreign-language nominee to surprise winner, no doubting ruining a great many office pools.
In this year’s Best Actress category, Mirren is a courtesy nomination. In fact, Gabourey Sidibe has a better chance of winning for her astutely dignified performance in the problematic Precious. Too bad it’s based on a novel instead of an autobiography. Ultimately, this is a race between Bullock and Streep, and if history has any bearing on the outcome, Streep’s chances fall like a bad soufflé. Remember Julia Roberts deglamming for Erin Brockovich or Nicole Kidman uglying herself up to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours? When it comes to biographical portrayals, the Academy just loves awarding movie stars stepping out of their rom-com comfort zones. In 2009, there was no bigger movie star than Sandra Bullock, whether she’s playing a real or a fictional woman. She’ll be a lock.