If Rami Malek ends up fulfilling the predictions of awards-season pundits and takes home the Oscar for playing Queen frontman Eddie Redmayne in Bohemian Rhapsody, he’ll be part of the long Academy tradition of honoring people for portraying historical or cultural figures. But even if the young actor doesn’t win, he could end up losing to Christian Bale playing Dick Cheney in Vice; or Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate; or Viggo Mortensen as bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga in Green Book.
And that’s just the Best Actor category. Olivia Colman, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Adams, Mahershala Ali, Adam Driver, Richard E. Grant, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Sam Rockwell are also nominated in the lead and supporting categories this year for playing versions of 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.