Oscar trophy trend, fact or fiction?

Sun Nov 2, 2008 12:40pm EST
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By Steven Zeitchik

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt almost certainly are strong contenders in the best actor category -- shining, word has it, in their respective upcoming movies, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Revolutionary Road."

But they and others might be up against a subtle force they can do little about in the best actor race: Oscar voters tend to favor actors playing real people.

In the past six best actor races, there were three years in which an actor playing a real person was nominated alongside actors portraying fictional characters, and each time the actor playing a true-life person won. You have to go all the way back to the awards for 2001 to find a counter-example: Denzel Washington's victory for playing Alonzo Harris in "Training Day," which bested Will Smith as Muhammad Ali and Russell Crowe as John Nash. Otherwise, it was actors playing real-life figures -- Ray Charles, Idi Amin, Truman Capote -- who took the statue.

This year that means if even one from among the stellar group that includes Frank Langella (as Richard Nixon), Sean Penn (as Harvey Milk) and Josh Brolin (as George W. Bush) lands a best actor nomination, everyone else will have to weigh that added factor.

Best actress favors real personnages even more; the statuette has gone to women playing real people six of the eight years this decade. But with frontrunners such as Meryl Steep, Nicole Kidman and Sally Hawkins taking on fictional roles this go-round, this year may break form.

It's hard to pinpoint what makes Oscar voters tilt this way. But one likely factor is a frame of reference: Philip Seymour Hoffman acting and sounding like Capote probably will move the voter more than Terrence Howard's acting and sounding like Djay from "Hustle & Flow," a person the Academy member has never seen outside the movie (and hasn't seen at all if they've never seen the movie).

Plus, there's the impersonation factor: How could a voter not think Jamie Foxx is good; he even looks like Charles.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1990s, fictional characters bested real people in the best actor category seven out of nine times they went up against one another. And an actress playing a real person won only twice in the 1990s.   Continued...

<p>Brad Pitt attends the "Burn After Reading" news conference during the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival September 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>