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25 Best Oscar-Winning Performances Based on Real People

From raging bulls to R&B legends, we count down the greatest true-story roles that took home the gold

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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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.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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25

Chris Cooper as John Laroche, ‘Adaptation’ (2002)

None of the performances in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's movie version of Susan Orlean's non-fiction book The Orchid Thief are meant to be taken as true representations — not even Nicolas Cage's dumpy impression of Kaufman himself. But even if Cooper's John Laroche is nothing like the actual Florida flower-poacher, the actor's casual eccentricity gets at the essence of what Adaptation is really saying: that reinvention and thinly disguised self-interest are both biological imperatives. Not to mention that the actor is hilarious, whether he's obsessing over flora or putting the moves on a big-time New Yorker reporter.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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24

Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott, ‘Shine’ (1996)

Mentally ill pianist David Helfgott became a star concert attraction after the release of this movie, thanks in large part to the lead performance of the 44-year-old Australian theater and TV actor Geoffrey Rush. He captures the intensity of Helfgott's emotions, showing the agony and the ecstasy of a gifted artist trying to do justice to the music and the people that he loves. Even though most audiences had never heard of Helfgott before, Rush made many felt as if they'd known him for years.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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23

Jim Broadbent as John Bayley, ‘Iris’ (2001)

It's easy to grab the Academy's attention by playing someone who's manic or sick. It's rarer, however, to win awards as that character's stoic, long-suffering caregiver. Judi Dench is certainly terrific as Alzheimer's-afflicted British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, but Jim Broadbent is even better as her husband: the critic and Oxford professor John Bayley, who watches helplessly as a brilliant mind slips away. The actor represents the distinguished older Bayley, but also shadows Hugh Bonneville's performance as his younger self, replicating the early sparks of passion as the autumn years rapidly approach.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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22

Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett, ‘Julia’ (1977)

The title may refer to a fictional anti-fascist crusader, played by Vanessa Redgrave (who also won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress). But the film is really about playwright/activist Lillian Hellman, played by Jane Fonda; and its theme is carried a long way by the mighty Jason Robards, who plays Hellman's lover and novelist Dashiell Hammett — a man who aims to be righteous, but is often undone by personal weaknesses. This was the actor's second consecutive Oscar for playing a real person, following his performance as Ben Bradlee in All The President’s Men. But here, he's more than just a formidable authority figure; his Hammett represents the difficulty of important social movements being organized by flawed human beings.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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21

Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman, ‘Reds’ (1981)

Writer-director-star Warren Beatty's epic was another of Hollywood's mini-wave of movies meant to humanize political radicals previously labeled as cultural lepers. The triple threat played the dashing journalist John Reed, but it was Maureen Stapleton who had a tougher task: revising the image of an infamous anarchist agitator who had been known as "the most dangerous woman in America." Her Emma Goldman is a live-wire, whose commitment to total revolution helps to underline the film's larger point about how difficult it is for a group of idealists to conceive and execute entirely new ways to live. This is Beatty's movie — and Stapleton damn near walks away with it.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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20

Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, ‘The Killing Fields’ (1984)

In the awards campaign for this war story, Haing S. Ngor's performance as Cambodian journalist Dith Pran was presented as "supporting" Sam Waterston's role as New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg. But Ngor is not only is in the film as much as the lead; the movie's second half essentially focuses on how his character survived the Khmer Rouge's brutal work-camps. The actor himself had been through an almost identical experience — having worked as a surgeon in Phnom Penh before Pol Pot rose to power — which only adds a level of depth and pathos to his portrayal of life under a despot's rule.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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19

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, ‘Erin Brockovich’ (2000)

Though Julia Roberts brings all of her movie star skills to bear on this true-story underdog legal drama, director Steven Soderbergh does his best to push her off the beam and reveal the real person beneath the glamor. The result is an unusually satisfying bit of old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, with Roberts' stressed-out single mom yelling, flirting and doggedly exposing corporate malfeasance with as much outsized, rough-edged brio as the actual Erin. You want a take-no-shit heroine standing up for the little guy? You've come to the right movie.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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18

Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham, ‘I Want to Live!’ (1958)

In one of the hardest-hitting true-crime pictures of the Fifties, Susan Hayward plays real-life femme fatale Barbara Graham, who was sent to the San Quentin gas chamber for her part in the murder of a Burbank widow. Yes, Robert Wise's film makes Graham look more innocent than she may have been, but accuracy matters less here than Hayward's fearlessness in bringing a bruised dignity to an admitted prostitute and scam-artist. The actress and the movie both make the argument that society has a duty to pick rehabilitation over socially sanctioned, eye-for-an-eye revenge.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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17

Yul Brenner as King Mongkut, ‘The King and I’ (1956)

While Brenner had a long and respectable filmography, he's always going to be identified first and foremost as the man who played the lead in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Tony-winning 1951 Broadway smash. In reprising the part in 20th Century Fox's movie adaptation, the bald, baritone-voiced has a suitably imperial presence, while flashing just enough of a sense of humor and compassion to win over audiences. It's tough to say how much Brenner's version of the Siamese monarch of the 1850s matches up with the real deal — but it's easy to see why his take on the musical's lead had been so beloved for decades.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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16

Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, ‘Funny Girl’ (1968)

Streisand was such a perfect match to singer/comedian Fanny Brice in this recounting of the vaudeville legend's life that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. She had already starred in the original 1964 Broadway run and repeated the role in 1966 on London's West End; when director William Wyler cast her in 1968 movie, she proceeded to conquer Hollywood as well. Her big showstopper numbers — "People" and "Don't Rain On My Parade" — played just as well onscreen as they did on stage, but more importantly, she channeled the talent and heartbreak of an unconventional woman slugging through showbiz.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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15

James Cagney as George M. Cohan, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1942)

Even when James Cagney was playing gangsters, he sported a verve and grace that belied his tough-guy persona. As Broadway impresario George M. Cohan in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 musical classic, the fireplug actor is the quintessential American boy: at once ambitious, hard-working, and hot-headed. When the curtain rise, Cagney’s compact body springs across the boards, as though his Cohan can’t wait to sing songs for the fine folks who’d paid good money to see him. The character — and the movie — have a sense of joy that’s still infectious over 70 years after the fact.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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14

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, ‘Ray’ (2004)

Given how often R&B pioneer Ray Charles has been imitated over the years, Jamie Foxx needed to do more than just grin and sway his head back and forth to sell his performance here. A skilled musician himself, the actor was instead able to focus on how Charles could lose himself in a song, forgetting about his blindness and his addictions while in the studio or on a stage. He embodies all of the man: His appetites, his humor, his misery, his charisma, and his genius. If there's one thing that lifts this movie above the trappings of the usual rise-fall-rise-again true story, it's Foxx's take on Brother Ray.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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13

Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash, ‘Walk the Line’ (2005)

In writer-director James Mangold's version of the Johnny Cash story, the pill-popping country star is motivated to pursue a career in music by his boyhood love of the Carter Family's radio show; he's also got a bit of an adult crush on the clan's clownish cutie-pie June. Reese Witherspoon threads a narrow needle in this musical melodrama about the Man in Black, playing both a saintly earth-mother struggling to keep her sinner husband righteous and an accomplished entertainer who keeps audiences in stitches. Offstage, however, she's busy tending to wounds — her own and her would-be lover's — and that's where Witherspoon's Southern grit proves to be a benefit.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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12

Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, ‘The Aviator’ (2004)

After Katharine Hepburn died, the Academy technically couldn't give her any more Oscars (she still holds the record for most Best Actress wins), so they did the next best thing: awarded an actress playing Hepburn. Cate Blanchett doesn't she away from Kate's patrician accent or haughty attitude in Martin Scorsese's chronicle of the life and times of Howard Hughes, but she's not just doing an impression either. As the movie star and the millionaire struggle with the logistics of their romance, the Aussie actress reveals the vulnerability of a Thirties star who publicly seems confident — and privately worries whether she'll ever get the men or the career that she deserves.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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11

Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, ‘Ed Wood’ (1994)

A lot of what's so amusing about Martin Landau's turn as Dracula star Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's biopic is how the actor uses the horror icon's thick, old-world European accent to cut loose with strings of profanities, cursing the cruelty of a movie business that only wants him to keep playing the villain. But if Landau were just doing a "foul-mouthed old man" routine, this movie wouldn't be as affecting as it is. There's a poignancy to the performance too, which gets at how a washed-up former celebrity keeps revisiting past glories, longing to be remembered.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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10

Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan, ‘The Miracle Worker’ (1962)

Both Bancroft and her co-star Patty Duke deservedly won Oscars in 1963 for playing, respectively, the teacher Anne Sullivan and her blind/deaf pupil Helen Keller in Arthur Penn's film. But while Duke's wild-child portrayal was the one that had tongues wagging at the time, it's Bancroft's channeling of iron will and raw physicality — while also showcasing the lower-key naturalism she'd picked up from studying with Method guru Lee Strasberg — that sticks with you the most today. It's a very full performance, at once intensely dramatic and lived-in.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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9

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, ‘The Queen’ (2006)

It was something of a near-impossible task for Helen Mirren to play the sitting monarch of her own country, in a drama about a national figurehead's complicated relationship with her family, her government, and her subjects. But the venerable actress nails the part of Queen Elizabeth II by playing her as an ordinary woman, concerned with upholding tradition in a rapidly modernizing society. On the surface, The Queen is about the death of Princess Diana, and the subsequent prickly back-and-forth between the regal figure and Prime Minister Tony Blair. But director Stephen Frears, writer Peter Morgen, and their leading lady are just as interested in understanding a remote, somewhat alien royal — and thanks to Mirren, you feel like you've spent several hours walking in Her Majesty's shoes.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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8

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, ‘Lincoln’ (2012)

Daniel Day-Lewis had won his first of three Oscars for playing disabled Irish poet Christy Brown in My Left Foot, but even the physical and vocal contortions of that part weren't nearly as astonishing as what the actor does in Steven Spielberg's portrait of a POTUS. Eschewing nearly all "great man"-isms usually associated with such projects, the actor plays Lincoln as a down-to-earth, deeply humane individual — one who cracks jokes, needles his opponents, and wraps himself in a little blanket whenever he feels a chill. He creates a President who's doesn't inspires both awe and genuine love.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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7

George C. Scott as General George S. Patton, ‘Patton’ (1970)

Though George C. Scott declined his Oscar, he still technically won for his cantankerous take on General George S. Patton — and the man had more than earned it. From the moment the opening scene frames the General against a gigantic American flag, Patton makes its subject look larger than life; Scott spends the rest of the movie living up to that first impression, barking orders at underlings and cackling at the his own strategies. The actor is so good that this WWII biopic can be read either as a celebration of a great military mind or a devastating critique of his arrogance.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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6

Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow, ‘Reversal of Fortune’ (1990)

When Jeremy Irons collected his Oscar for playing the alleged attempted murderer in Barbet Schroeder's retelling of the scandalous Von Bülow story, he suggested that the Academy might really be honoring him for his dual performances in David Cronenberg's 1988 Dead Ringers. He needn't have been so modest: Reversal of Fortune is less a stock true-crime yarn than an inventive spin on classic noir, with both Claus and his comatose wife Sunny (Glenn Close) narrating a story about the self-image of the obscenely wealthy. And Irons is the one who really carries the movie, treating an appalling family tragedy as an opportunity to play the charming raconteur.