Biopics and Oscar-winning Lead Performances, 2000-2019

Curator's Note

Judging by recent media buzz, Renée Zellweger is the current Best Actress Oscar frontrunner for her performance as Judy Garland in Judy. Her performance is excellent, and she may very well win when the 92nd Academy Awards are held in February 2020.  

But, if we look at the last 20 years of victorious Oscar leads, it reveals an interesting trend in which kinds of roles tend to win for male and female actors.  

In the last two decades, 22 out of 40 leads won for playing biographical roles (55%). Of those 22 roles, eight were political figures (about 36%), such as Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006) and Sean Penn’s performance in Milk (2008). Seven of the roles were nonpolitical historical/inspirational figures (about 32%), like Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000) and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant (2015). Four were musicians (about 18%), two were authors (about 9%), and one was a serial killer.  

Between the 72nd Oscars in 2000 and the 81st in 2009, 12 out of 20 lead actors won for playing a real person: five male actors (50% of male winners) and seven female actors (70%).  

Between the 82nd Oscars in 2010 and the 91st in 2019, 10 out of 20 lead actors won for biographical roles. Seven out of the 10 leading men won for depicting a real person (70%). Male winners during the last decade include Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour (2017), and Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln (2012), among others. Only three out of the 10 leading women won for a biographical role (30%). The only women who won for biographical roles were Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side, 2009), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, 2011), and Olivia Colman (The Favourite, 2018).  

This trend in the last decade suggests that the acting branch of the Academy, which is the branch that votes on acting categories, currently seems to favor fictional leading roles for women and nonfictional ones for men. 

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