Has Best Actor Become Best Impersonator?

A rash of recent Oscar winners have been rewarded for playing real people, from Ray Charles to Truman Capote to June Carter Cash. Are the acting categories turning into best imitation of a real celebrity life?

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The ballots have been counted, the gowns fitted, and the red carpets vacuumed in preparation for tonight's 79th Academy Award ceremony. Oscar analyst and Maxim magazine film critic Pete Hammond has noticed a trend in the Academy. He calls it playing for real.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Aviator")

Ms. CATE BLANCHETT (Actress): (As Katherine Hepburn) Heard you were (unintelligible). What about that?

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (As Howard Hughes) Ah, she's just a friend.

Ms. BLANCHETT: (As Katherine Hepburn) Ha! Man don't be friends with women, Howard. They must possess them or leave them be.

PETE HAMMOND: You may think that was Kate Hepburn, but actually it's Cate Blanchett, who became an Oscar winner two years ago for portraying the other Kate in "The Aviator." But she's not the only star who caught Oscar's eye for playing another star. Last year, Reese Witherspoon sang just like June Carter Cash and won Best Actress. Actors playing Johnny Cash and CBS News anchor Edward R. Morrow lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman doing his best impression of author Truman Capote.

(Soundbite of movie, "Capote")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Truman Capote) It's Truman. William Shawn, please. Have you read the article about the killings in Kansas in the front section of the New York Times? I think that's what I want to write about.

HAMMOND: So if you want to win an Oscar these days, the answer is simple: get real. Ever since they gave their top acting honor to George Arliss as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1930, the Academy has rewarded actors playing real people: boxer Jake LaMotta, country singer Loretta Lynn, Claus Von Bulow, General George S. Patton, Ray Charles, Bela Lugosi, and Gandhi, just to name a few. The trend now, though, is simply exploding, especially this year, where Oscar looks like an honor fit for a queen and a king.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Last King of Scotland")

Mr. JAMES McAVOY (Actor): (As Nicholas Garrigan) This all very well, Your Excellency, but what about the reports of mass killings?

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER (Actor): (As Idi Amin) Who have you been talking with? The British? Go. Look around Uganda for missing people. Go anywhere you please.

Mr. McAVOY: (As Garrigan) So why would the British spread these rumors?

Mr. WHITAKER: (As Amin) Because they hate me.

HAMMOND: Forest Whitaker as the infamous Ugandan dictator in "Last King of Scotland" has won over 20 critics awards and is a favorite to take home this year's Best Actor Oscar. I bet before his performance, most Academy voters were probably more familiar, though, with Edie Gorme than Idi Amin.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Queen")

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): (As Queen Elizabeth II) I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor who has a greater faith in their wisdom and judgment. And it is my belief that they will any moment reject this - this mood which is being stirred up by the press.

HAMMOND: And Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II is rolling over her competition as consensus choice to win Best Actress for "The Queen."

Playing a famous person, queen or king, living or dead, seems to be the surest way to get a front row seat at the Kodak Theater. The Academy seems to think it's brilliant acting if it's someone they might recognize.

(Soundbite of movie, "Monster")

Ms. CHARLIZE THERON (Actress): (As Aileen Wuornus) So whenever I was down, I would just escape into my mind, to my other life where I was someone else. It made me happy to think that all these people just didn't know yet who I was going to be.

HAMMOND: Charlize Theron won an Oscar after she transformed herself so convincingly into serial killer Aileen Wuornus in "Monster" three years ago. You couldn't tell her apart from the widely played news clips of the real Aileen.

And Julia Roberts had the real Erin Brockovich vouching for her every step of the way to winning her Oscar in 2000. This year, homeless father turned Wall Street wiz Chris Gardner has been quite visible endorsing Will Smith's nominated portrayal of his life in "The Pursuit of Happiness," thus making Will's own pursuit of Oscar that much more credible. And why not? Two years ago, the same endorsement strategy worked for Don Cheadle.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hotel Rwanda")

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): (As Paul Rusesabagina) There will be no rescue, no intervention force. We can only save ourselves.

HAMMOND: He became a surprise Oscar nominee for "Hotel Rwanda" when the man he played, Paul Rusesabagina, sang his praises at more Hollywood parties than even Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan could attend.

Stars playing people we've never heard of are dark horses in the Oscar race now, as even actors playing thinly disguised famous people are cleaning up on the awards circuit.

(Soundbite of "Dreamgirls")

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY (Actor): (As James Thunder Early) Ladies, thank you so much for saving Jimmy's life. Thank you so much, ladies. I'm at your feet. You see that? I'm at your feet, baby. Thank you so much. And I'll do anything for y'all. Anything. You hear what I'm saying?

HAMMOND: Eddie Murphy has been ignored by Oscar his entire career, but he's finally got his first nomination as James Thunder Early, an R&B singer modeled after the late James Brown with a dash of Jackie Wilson on the side. If you see the resemblance, it's not a mistake.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dreamgirls")

Mr. MURPHY: (As Early) (Singing) Thirteen years of solid gold platters...

HAMMOND: So here's a memo to the Academy: Why not just get real yourself and create a new category that tells it like it is? How about, oh, say, Best Celebrity Impersonation? And the Oscar goes to...

HANSEN: Pete Hammond, he's a film critic for Maxim magazine.

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