February 27, 2012

My thoughts on that elusive little gold man

As the dust settles around the feet of those who were expecting Viola Davis to walk away with a Best Actress Oscar last night, I want to remind everyone that a Davis win was not a lock, Golden Globe win or not (I can't remember for sure, but I think Streep might have captured the SAG).

Many people are reasonable in their disappointment, acknowledging the seasoned talent of Meryl Streep.  But some are making a huge fuss about Viola's non-win (I won't say "loss," because only five performances in a year are nominated for Academy Awards in four acting categories, making them all winners...and making their fees go up as well) with such vehemence that I have to ask...how many of them have actually seen both Viola's and Meryl's performances?  My gut tells me most of them have not.  How can you declare that someone was robbed if you haven't seen how the competition fared?

In all the comments I made about this last night, I failed to mention the one simple reason why the suspense of who would win went on until the very last second:  The Academy loves performances based on real people, whether household names or obscure people with extraordinary lives. There have been several occurrences where both the Best Actress and Best Actor winners played real people.

The only time the Best Actress race ended in a tie both winners played real people (Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice).  Streisand's win was a rarity in that it was a musical, and musical biographies are usually too far from the facts to be winners, and also the fact that the stars cast are generally chosen for their abilities rather than their resemblance to the actual person.  To this day I believe that both these factors worked against Diana Ross in her excellent performance as Billie Holiday; not only did she look nothing like the real Billie Holiday, in either looks, complexion, or stature, or sound anything like Holiday, but much of the plot was fictionalized.  This might be due to the fact that many of the real people in Holiday's life were still alive in 1972, including her husband Louis McKay, from whom she was estranged at the time of her death and who was reported to be less of a nice guy than the shining knight portrayed by Billy Dee Williams.  Likewise, Fanny Brice's ex-husband Nick Arnstein was also alive and reportedly threatened the producers of the original Broadway musical with legal action, so he was depicted by Omar Sharif as a much more sympathetic character than he actually was.  But at least Streisand looked slightly like Fanny Brice, even if Streisand's musical abilities far outshone Brice's.

People who overcame disabilities are especially popular with the Academy, and a portrayal of a real person with a disability will probably win over a simple portrayal (such as the year Jamie Foxx's blind Ray Charles won over Leonardo DiCaprio's mentally unstable Howard Hughes and Will Smith's disability-free Muhammad Ali).

I was curious about just how many nominees and winners there have been over the years who played real people, and I was quite surprised at both the number of performances and how far back this practice dates. Here's my list, by decade, including both lead and supporting performances, with the winners noted (and there are plenty of winners):


Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in Pollock
Marcia Gay Harden (WINNER) as Lee Krasner in Pollock
Russell Crowe as John Nash (WINNER) in A Beautiful Mind
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in Ali
Jim Broadbent (WINNER) as John Bayley in Iris
Jon Voight as Howard Cosell in Ali
Judi Dench as Iris Murdoch (the mature woman) in Iris
Jennifer Connolly (WINNER) as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind
Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch (as a young woman) in Iris
Adrien Brody (WINNER) as Wlladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist
Daniel Day-Lewis as William "Big Bill" Cutting in Gangs of New York
Nicole Kidman (WINNER) as Virginia Woolf in The Hours
Charlize Theron (WINNER) as Aileen Wuornos in Monster
Jamie Foxx (WINNER) as Ray Charles in Ray
Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in The Aviator
Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda
Alan Alda as Senator Owen Brewster in The Aviator
Cate Blanchett (WINNER) as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator
Laura Linney (WINNER) as Clara McMullen in Kinsey
Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda
Phillip Seymour Hoffmann (WINNER) as Truman Capote in Capote
Reese Witherspoon (WINNER) as June Carter Cash in Walk The Line
Catherine Keener as Harper Lee in Capote
Forrest Whitaker WINNER) as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland
Will Smith as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness
Helen Mirren (WINNER) as Elizabeth II in The Queen
Sean Penn (WINNER) as Harvey Milk in Milk
Marion Cotillard (WINNER) as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose
Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Casey Affleck as Robert "Bob" Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War
Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon
Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus
Helen Mirren as Sophia Tolstoy in The Last Station
Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia
Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus
Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station
Colin Firth (WINNER) as King George VI in The King's Speech
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckenberg in The Social Network
James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours
Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue in The King's Speech
Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech
Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball
Meryl Streep (WINNER) as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn
Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn

Warren Beatty as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in Bugsy
Harvey Keitel as Mickey Cohen in Bugsy
Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky in Bugsy
Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw in JFK
Robert Downey, Jr., as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in Malcolm X
Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon in In the Name of the Father
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List
Laurence Fishbourne as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It
Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It
Nigel Hawthorne as George III in The Madness of King George
Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George
Martin Landau (WINNER) as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood
Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon
Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13
Joan Allen as Pat Nixon in Nixon
Geoffrey Rush (WINNER) as David Helfgott in Shine
James Woods as Byron de la Beckwith in Ghosts of Mississippi
Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown
Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad
Denzel Washington as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in The Hurricane

Robert DeNiro (WINNER) as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull
Sissy Spacek (WINNER) as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter
John Hurt as Joseph Merrick (name changed to John Merrick in the movie) in The Elephant Man
Jason Robards as Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard
Joe Pesci as Joey LaMotta in Raging Bull
Warren Beatty as John Reed in Reds
Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant in Reds
Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill in Reds
Maureen Stapleton (WINNER) as Emma Goldman in Reds
Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime
Ben Kingsley (WINNER) as Mohandas K. Gandhi in Gandhi
Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer in Frances
Meryl Streep at Karen Silkwood in Silkwood
F. Murray Abraham (WINNER) as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus
Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus
Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields
Haing S. Ngor (WINNER) as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields
Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams
Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa
Klaus Maria Brandauer as Bror Blixen in Out of Africa
Denzel Washington as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom
Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist
Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot
Kenneth Branagh as King Henry V in Henry V
Jeremy Irons as Klaus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune

George C. Scott (WINNER) as General George S. Patton in Patton
James Earl Jones as Jack Jefferson (obviously modeled on Jack Johnson) in The Great White Hope
Gene Hackman (WINNER) as Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary, Queen of Scots
Janet Suzman as Empress Alexandra in Nicholas and Alexandra
Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues
Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Lenny
Jason Robards (WINNER) as Ben Bradlee in All The President's Men
Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in Julia
Jason Robards (WINNER) as Dashiell Hammett in Julia
Gary Busey as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story

Greer Garson as Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello
Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud in The Birdman of Alcatraz
Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia
Anne Bancroft (WINNER) as Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker
Patty Duke (WINNER) as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker
Richard Burton as Thomas Becket in Becket
Peter O'Toole as King Henry II in Becket
John Gielgud as King Louis VII in Becket
Debbie Reynolds as Margaret "Molly" Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music
Paul Scofield (WINNER) as Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons
Robert Shaw as King Henry VII in A Man For All Seasons
Wendy Hiller as Alice More in A Man For All Seasons
Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde
Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde
Gene Hackman as Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde
Estelle Parsons (WINNER) as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde
Peter O'Toole as King Henry VII in The Lion in Winter
Katharine Hepburn (WINNER - tie) as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter
Barbra Streisand (WINNER - tie) as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl
Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan in Isadora
Daniel Massey as Noel Coward in Star!
Richard Burton as King Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days
Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days
Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in Anne of the Thousand Days

Louis Calhern as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee
Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata!
Susan Hayward as Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart
Anthony Quinn as Eufemio Zapata in Viva Zapata!
Marlon Brando as Julius Caesar in Julius Caesar
Susan Hayward as Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow
James Cagney as Martin "Moe the Gimp" Snyder in Love Me or Leave Me
Yul Brynner (WINNER) as King Mongkut in The King and I
Laurence Olivier as King Richard III in Richard III
Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life
Ingrid Bergman (WINNER) as Anna Anderson in Anastasia
Anthony Quinn (WINNER) as Paul Gauguin in Lust For Life
Susan Hayward (WINNER) as Barbara Graham in I Want to Live
Shelley Winters (WINNER) as Petronella van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank

Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Gary Cooper as Alvin York (WINNER) in Sergeant York
James Cagney as George M. Cohan (WINNER) in Yankee Doodle Dandy
Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees
Teresa Wright as Eleanor Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees
Greer Garson as Marie Curie in Madame Curie
Walter Pidgeon as Pierre Curie in Madame Curie
Jennifer Jones (WINNER) as Bernadette Sourinous (later St. Bernadette) in The Song of Bernadette
Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson in Wilson
Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin in A Song To Remember
Laurence Olivier as King Henry V in Henry V
Larry Parks as Al Jolson in The Jolson Story
Rosalind Russell as Elizabeth Kenny in Sister Kenny
William Powell as Clarence Day in Life With Father
Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc in Joan of Arc
Broderick Crawford (WINNER) as Willie Stark (an obvious name change from Huey Long) in All The King's Men

George Arliss (WINNER) as Benjamin Disraeli in Disraeli
Charles Laughton (WINNER) as King Henry VIII in T
Paul Muni as Robert Burns (although the name of the character was changed to James Allen, this film very closely followed the real Burns' story so closely that I'm including it) in I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty
Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty
Paul Muni (WINNER) as Louis Pasteur in The Story of Louis Pasteur
Luise Rainer (WINNER) as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfield
Beulah Bondi as Rachel Jackson in The Gorgeous Hussy
Paul Muni as Emile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola
Alice Brady (WINNER) as Molly O'Leary in In Old Chicago
Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette in Marie Antoinette
Robert Morley as King Louis XVI in Marie Antoinette
Spencer Tracy (WINNER) as Father Edward J. Flanagan in Boys Town
Brian Aherne as Maximilian I in Juarez


Back to the present:  Viola Davis is one of the hottest actresses of any race in Hollywood right now.  From the beginning, her work has been lauded, no matter how small the role.  Angela Bassett's career has been stalled for years.  Halle Berry is becoming better known for her custody battles with her baby daddy than for her acting.  Even the hardest-working woman in show business, Alfre Woodard, isn't as busy these days as she was a few years back.

So remember that name.  Viola Davis.  She has the potential to become as highly respected as that other Davis from New England, Ruth Elizabeth, better known as Bette.


DonnaD said...

Two corrections, Bettye: Jennifer Connolly won the Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind." And Streep won the Globe, Davis won the SAG.

I read your post and thought it was an interesting theory. However, I think there was more to the story of Streep's win. It's no secret that part of the launch of Streep's campaign (by the studio or her people, not sure which) that she "deserved" the Oscar because she had been "Lucci-d" - meaning she had gone for so many years without a win. That was the story line every time her name was mentioned in all the press leading up to the Oscars. Even Billy Crystal alluded to this.

As for Viola Davis, yes she's a talented actress, no doubt. But I promise you this will be the last time in a VERY LONG TIME you will see her name on the ballot for BEST ACTRESS. She will one day get her due in a less-than role as BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS. That's just how Hollywood and the Oscars work. Don't believe it? Ask Whoopi. She deserved the Best Actress win for "Color Purple" and she got the sympathy win for "Ghost" - as Best Supporting Actress.

bettye griffin said...

Your second sentence has me doing a double take, my friend! Jennifer Connolly's name is listed eighth from the top for her role as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind...why are you correcting me? Did I misspell her name or something?

I do hope Viola's next chance comes again sooner than you think, but we'll just have to see what happens! I was wrong about the direction of Angela Bassett's career after What's Love Got to Do With It, I'm sorry to say. It breaks my heart to see this talented actress making movies like Meet The Browns.

As far as how the Oscars work, we all have thoughts about that. People have been awarded sympathy awards before...Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman when his best performance was in The Godfather Part II; Denzel Washington in Training Day when his best performance was in Malcolm X, etc. And poor Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton, each nominated seven times (possibly eight for O'Toole) for Best Actor without a single win. Yet Liz Taylor got a Best Actress Oscar for a dreadful movie like Butterfield 8 simply because she almost died a few months before the ceremony. It all comes down to the thoughts of the people voting, which I agree are not always for the only reason they should consider, that being because they felt the person gave the best performance...regardless of whether or not they'd won before, or if they're afraid they might pass away before they get another chance, or because they'd lost so many times before...I could go on and on.

Thanks for contributing to the debate!

DonnaD said...

You did list her, but you forgot to mention her as a WINNER. :)

You're right about Angela Bassett. She's such a tremendous actress and she brings so much to whatever role she's in. But, as we all know, whoever has the money, rules the roost.

The one consolation is that she (and all others) will be forever be known as an Academy Award Nominee or Nominated Actress.

bettye griffin said...

Oh boogers, and now I see I didn't put "Winner" after Russell Crowe's name for the same movie, either. Will go in and correct it.

I agree with you about the status thing of having "Academy Award Nominated Actor/Actress" precede your name from then on. Even after 80+ years, the Oscar is still the gold standard (that might have something to do with why I confused the Golden Globe with the SAG; both are secondary awards, in my opinion).