Why Oscar Loves a Biography Helen Mirren won an Oscar last night for playing Queen Elizabeth II, and Forest Whitaker won for portraying Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. This decade has seen the most acting Oscars handed out for performers playing real people.
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In the top acting awards at the Oscars, Helen Mirren won for playing Queen Elizabeth, Forest Whitaker for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. This is a biopic trend. NPR's Nihar Patel has been trying to figure out why.

NIHAR PATEL: Over the last few years, real actors have been winning fake gold Oscar statures for doing amazing impersonations of real people. In '03 there was Charlize Theron as serial killer Ilene Wuornos.

(Soundbite of movie, "Monster")

Ms. CHARLIZE THERON (Actress): (s Aileen Wuornos) I'm not a bad person. I'm a real good person. Right?

PATEL: In '04 it was Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles.

(Soundbite of movie, "Ray")

Mr. JAMIE FOXX (Actor): (as Ray Charles) If all ya'll want me to keep playing let me hear you say amen.

CROWD: Amen!

PATEL: And remember last year Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote?

(Soundbite of scene from movie "Infamous")

Mr. TOBY JONES (Actor): (As Truman Capote) Never mind that. Let's go around the table and you can all tell me whom you're having affairs with.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

PATEL: Oh, wait a second. That clip was from another recent Truman Capote biopic. But you get the idea. Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn.

So to get to the bottom of this, I turn to James Lipton, host of Bravo's "Inside the Actor's Studio."

Is this something you've noticed or am I completely crazy here?

Mr. JAMES LIPTON (Host, "Inside the Actor's Studio"): You may be right, but I haven't noticed it.

PATEL: Okay. Well, maybe some numbers will prove my sanity. In this decade alone, we've already had 12 Oscars awarded to actors for playing real historical figures.

Mr. LIPTON: Well, there were real life figures on film in the '30s, the '40s, the '50s. I mean, Paul Muni played real people in the 1930s. There were biopics then. Perhaps more than there are now.

PATEL: James Lipton is right. Paul Muni did win an Oscar for playing that master of microbiology, Louis Pasteur. I mean, who could ever forget Muni's politically charged acceptance speech?

Unidentified Man: And I hope everyone here will switch to pasteurized milk. Thank you!

PATEL: But still, no other single decade matches this one.

Mr. SCOTT FOUNDAS (Film Critic, L.A. Weekly): The Academy likes to see people acting.

PATEL: Yeah. I know that seems obvious. But L.A. Weekly film critic Scott Foundas is trying to say that Oscar voters favor larger than life performances.

Mr. FOUNDAS: You don't often have people winning for really interior kinds of roles. I mean, people win Oscars if they played drunks, or schizophrenics, or people who are dying, or real people.

PATEL: Scott Foundas says there's probably no single reason why real people have made for Oscar-worthy performances. But there is this simple fact that there are just more of these kind of roles. Faced with declining audience numbers, bigger budgets, and higher star salaries, Hollywood studios are more risk-averse than ever. And remakes, adaptations of TV shows, and biopics already have built-in name recognition.

Mr. FOUNDAS: Anything where, you know, a producer or a studio head can sort of say, well, people will know something about this film and it will connect with them on some level, makes that movie that much more likely to get made.

PATEL: And in Hollywood, as well as pretty much everywhere else in the world, success can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mr. FOUNDAS: If biopics seem to be popular with the audience or with the Oscar voters, then there'll be more of them. And when that seems to reach a saturation point, it'll die off for a while and then it will come back again.

PATEL: So let's check back again with James Lipton.

I ask you, sir, if actors have been playing real people for decades, has anything really changed?

Mr. LIPTON: In the 1930s and '40s, those people were required to play essentially the same thing every single time. Cary Grant was always Cary Grant. And he did a movie called "The Heart is A Lonely Hunter" and never did anything like that again. The public were - they were revulsed. Nobody went to see the movie and the studio said now he'll go back to playing Cary Grant.

PATEL: In other words, the same actress who starred in a softcore Roman orgy film can go on to win an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth II. And when she stands on that stage to thank the Academy, the producers, her agent, her co-stars, the dog groomer, the valet guy outside, she doesn't forget one other person, one very real person.

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): If it wasn't for her, I most certainly would not be here. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Queen.

(Soundbite of applause)

PATEL: Nihar Patel, NPR News.

Ms. MIRREN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Okay. You've got to do this. If you've ever seen James Lipton's TV show, you know he ends it by asking the same 10 question to all guests to try to get them to open up. On our Web site, you can hear him answer a new questionnaire created by the DAY TO DAY staff. So that's at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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