If Eddie Redmayne ends up fulfilling the predictions of awards-season pundits and takes home the Oscar for playing physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, he’ll be part of the long Academy tradition of honoring people for portraying historical or cultural figures. But even if the young British actor doesn’t win, he could end up losing to Bradley Cooper as the late Navy SEAL hero Chris Kyle in American Sniper; Benedict Cumberbatch as tormented codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; or Steve Carell as dangerously eccentric millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher.
And that’s just the Best Actor category. Felicity Jones, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Keira Knightley, and Mark Ruffalo are also nominated in the lead and supporting categories this year for playing real folks. Ever since George Arliss scored a statuette for his turn as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the 1929 biopic Disraeli, the Academy has been infatuated with how well actors and actors can pretend to be someone who actually lived. Some of the 25 Oscar-winning roles below are uncanny imitations, and some are complete stem-to-stern reinventions. All of them, however, are worthy examples of how the movies convert life stories into art.