The Academy Awards: ‘an annual American awards ceremony honouring cinematic achievements in the film industry’, or at least that’s what Wikipedia says. However, aside from John Travolta’s face-touching, Neil Patrick Harris in his tighty whities and a few stirring speeches, the Oscars were actually a very bland affair. Nearly three hours of America patting itself on the back became tiring very quickly particularly after the unimaginative range of films that were nominated and eventually won. It says something about the Academy’s recognition of diversity that biopics led the way, with films such as The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, Mr Turner, Unbroken, Wild and Selma all receiving several nominations. Despite all the aforementioned biopics’ nominations, it was ultimately the dramas Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash that won multiple Oscars, whilst all the biopics only received a maximum of one Oscar each.
On the subject of biopics, why does the Academy feel the need to reward actors in particular for playing real-life people? One need look no further than Best Actor at this year’s Oscars to see that four out of the five nominees portrayed a real-life person (and Michael Keaton, the only nominee who did not, played a loose parody of himself in Birdman). In the last ten years alone over half the Academy Award winners for Best Actor have won through a biopic performance, to name and shame a few: Colin Firth’s King George, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Sean Penn for his portrayal of Harvey Milk. Whilst showing the struggles of such characters allows an audience to appreciate them, surely these actors know that they have a good chance of Oscar gold if they go down the ‘true story’ route. There is no doubting that these were solid performances, but were they, to quote Wikipedia, ‘the cinematic achievements’ of their respected year? Films such as Schindler’s List, Dallas Buyers Club and Twelve Years a Slave are culturally significant films, reminding the viewer of injustices and the message of equality, but films based on real-life people seem never to be in short supply.
It’s not just biopics that rake up at the Oscars, seemingly if a film concerns a real life horrific event such as World War II (in particular the Holocaust) then it’s guaranteed that you’ll walk away with an Oscar. The excellent Ricky Gervais show Extras emphasises this noticeable trend when Kate Winslet (playing a parody of herself) stars in a fake film as a nun sheltering Jews claiming “if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar”. This certainly rings true when noticing Schindler’s List’s twelve Oscar nominations and The Pianist’s seven Oscar nods. This trend also extends to films about disability. Look no further than Oscar nominated films My Left Foot, The Theory of Everything and Ray where the disabled protagonists are portrayed by non-disabled actors who all win Oscars, again all based on true stories. Why does Hollywood feel the need to reward films that are based on real-life stories more so than magnificent fictional films such as Paddington or Guardians of the Galaxy? If Paddington had been a biopic about a real-life talking bear that loves marmalade, or Guardians of the Galaxy was based on a true story of a boy abducted by aliens who saved the whole galaxy, would they then be nominated for Academy Awards? Of course, both are rather farfetched examples but it leads to the closing question: are we finally fed up of the ‘Oscar friendly’ biopic?