5 Award-Winning Impressive Performances In Biopics

Written for my Entertainment Journalism class taught by Adam B. Vary,  senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News.

There is a theory going on that if you really want to win an Oscar, you should play a real-life person. Rare are the years where no biopic was nominated by the Award Academy, there was two actually, 1976 and 1979. This year though won’t escape the rule, there is already some promising biopics that are most likely to compete in the Oscar race. Among those, I, Tonya portrayed by Margot Robbie recalls the story of the female ice skater Tonya Harding. Robbie is already predicted to be nominated for Best Actress, as many says this is her best work yet. The movie will be out in selected theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 8 and will get a wide release in January

The list below proves the theory to be true.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, in Milk (2008)

Milk is an historical biopic mixing archival footage and Gus Van Sant’s direction. The movie recalls the struggles of gay activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay elected official in California, who was shot at age 48 by another city supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). Milk was an activist in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when Christians involved in politics tried to deny LGBT people legal rights. He fought against Proposition Six, an initiative that would have banned gays and lesbians, and everybody suspected of supporting them, from working in schools. The movie addresses the issue of police recurring attacks against the gay community and teens who’d rather commit suicide than face their judgmental parents and be sent to hospitals to “get fixed.” As Milk says in the movie, “This is not just jobs or issues, this is our lives we’re fighting for.”. Milk gave hope to a lot of people and his assassination led to the most violent uprising in the history of gay movements known as the “White Night Riots.”

Sean Penn is one of those actors who can take on many roles and succeed when many others would have failed. Penn went through cosmetic transformation for the movie, he had a prosthetic nose and teeth, contact lenses and a redesigned hairline. He is brilliant in managing to erase every inch of his own personality to fit Milk’s inherent kindness and goodwill. In 2009, he won the Oscar for Best Performance in a Leading Role.

Where to watch it: Netflix.

Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, in Walk The Line (2005)

Walk the Line explores the struggles in the career and life of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), but it’s really more about the back-and-forth love relationship between Johnny and his wife June (Reese Witherspoon). Even though Phoenix did a fantastic job portraying the country music icon, winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, it is indeed Witherspoon who won the Oscar for Best Performance in a Leading Role.

The performance is particularly impressive because both Phoenix and Witherspoon sang themselves, raising the bar for actors singing on screen. To train for the role, Witherspoon went through six months of intense vocal lessons and learned to play the autoharp. Growing up in Nashville, Witherspoon said she knew more about the Carter family than she actually knew about Cash.

June Carter Cash is lesser known than her husband but not less worthy of attention. She was a modern woman of the 1950s. She got divorced twice, and had two children by two different husbands, going against the mores of the very Christian mindset of the time. She was independent and spent a lot of time touring on the road in a car full of very famous musicians all by herself, which earned her a bad reputation among the Southerners, as depicted in the movie. In the way she lived her life, she contributed to the emancipation and independence of women.

Where to watch it: stream with Amazon’s starz, or rent on YouTube.

Pierre Niney in Yves Saint Laurent (2014)

Yves Saint Laurent is a biopic in honor of the world famous French couturier. Saint Laurent changed the world of women’s fashion forever, introducing the tuxedo for women in a desire to elevate women to the same status of men — challenging them, even. It is said about the fashion designer (played by Pierre Niney) that his only fight in life was to dress women. Yet, the movie shows that he also struggled with depression, drug addiction, a restless love life with his business partner, Pierre Bergé (Guillame Gallienne). He lost his ultimate battle against brain cancer in 2008.

Niney is one of the rising stars of French cinema, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d already heard of him — if not, you will soon. Niney had to lose about 26 pounds for the role, along with following an intense training in order to achieve the unique way of Saint Laurent of expressing himself.

However, he wasn’t the only one taking on the hard task of portraying France’s most iconic fashion designer of the 20th century. Indeed, the movie competed for the 2015 César race (i.e., the French Oscars) against another Saint Laurent biopic, starring Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising). Following a suspenseful ceremony in which not even the experts could predict who was going to win, Niney was awarded the César for Best Actor.

You will have to get adjusted to the slower pace of French cinema to go through the entire movie, but it’s worth it.

Where to watch it: Netflix.

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, in The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything is the life story of the most famous physicist of our time, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne). He was a very bright Cambridge student in the 1960s when he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease at 21 that would later affect his whole life. At the time, the doctors gave him two years to live, but Hawking is still alive, now fully paralyzed and communicating with people through a machine. The movie focuses on the relationship he has with his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), and how they both cope with the deterioration of his physical abilities over time. However, Hawking didn’t loose any mental capacity and is even compared to Einstein.

Redmayne received unanimous recognition and multiple awards for his performance, from the Golden Globes, the BAFTAS, and an Oscar. To prepare for his role, he met Hawking and studied pictures of the physicist at diverse periods of his life to be able to physically portray what motor neuron disease looks like. The result is impressive; even Hawking confessed to the director that while watching the movie, there were certain points when he thought he was watching himself. It is yet the actor who describes Hawking’s personality best: “Although he can move only a few muscles, he sort of emanates this vitality and humor, this wit and flirtatiousness,” Redmayne said. The movie draws more respect to the scientist — it’s not strictly reserved to science nerds.

Where to watch it: YouTube.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup’s based on his book published in 1853. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free-born African-American musician who was offered a job in Washington, D.C. where he was drugged and sold as a slave. Those kinds of kidnapping were not rare at the time and Northup was one of the few victims to regain freedom from slavery. He had to work as a slave for different “owners” on plantations and erase every trace of his previous life as a free man, husband and father.

Through the movie we also meet Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) whose owner, Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) is incredibly violent, alcohol dependent and believes he has every right on her, or his slaves, his “property”. Images are difficult to watch and handle yet they portray nothing but the truth. The movie works great as an historical reminder.

In 2014, the movie was awarded the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year becoming the first movie directed and produced by a Black filmmaker (Steve McQueen) to win in this category but also the first to be written by an African-American (John Ridley). Nyong’o won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role and also became the first Kenyan and the first Mexican actress to win an Academy Award. The movie succeeded in bringing Black excellence to the front of the stage of the ceremony known for being “so White”. As of Ejiofor, he won the Best Leading Actor award at the British ceremony of the BAFTA.

Where to watch it: rent on YouTube or Amazon