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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 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.

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.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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5

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, ‘Amadeus’ (1984)

Students of classical music are quick to point out that Antonio Salieri was not the monstrous, Mozart-murdering mediocrity he's made out to be in Milos Forman's Oscar-winning movie. But as played by Abraham, the older composer is really more of a stand-in for artists everywhere who are savvy enough to know that they'll never be genuinely brilliant. Even as the character works behind the scenes to marginalize Thomas Hulce's giggling boy wonder, Abraham makes the villain sympathetic, in large part because he feels in his bones that nothing he can do will kill his rival's legacy.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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4

Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980)

Throughout the Seventies, Spacek quietly built a resume of deceptively mild-mannered characters with steaks of madness and violence (see Carrie, Badlands). For this biopic of Country & Western legend Loretta Lynn, the actress replaced that core of darkness with one of inner strength, playing the singer as a woman desperate to please her fans and feed her family — and nearly working herself to death. The performance is a beautifully crafted portrait of sacrifice, turning the typical "perils of fame" plot into a clear-eyed celebration of what drives a superstar.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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3

Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, ‘Gandhi’ (1982)

It's a testament to how convincing Ben Kingsley portrayal of the Indian activist was that it took about a decade — and a very different role as mob boss Meyer Lansky in 1991's Bugsy — for the actor to shake off the public's perception of him as the Mahatma. In Richard Attenborough's long-gestating labor of love, the actor charts the arc of the civil-disobedience champion, from his days as an idealistic attorney in South Africa to his emergence as a political power-broker. And if Gandhi succeeds in capturing how its subject's calm persona was both inspiring and enraging to the international community, it's largely because of Kingsley's performance — a constant calm in the eye of the colonial storm.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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2

Joe Pesci as Tommy DeSimone, ‘Good Fellas’ (1990)

Joe Pesci's take on gangster "Two-Gun" Tommy DeSimone — renamed "Tommy DeVito" here — is this gangster film classics's wild card. While reenacting some of the vicious murders that former mobster Henry Hill described to writer Nicholas Pileggi for the movie's source material (the 1985 book Wiseguy), Pesci is the embodiment of a hair-trigger psychopath, laughing one second and shooting, stabbing or smacking somebody to death the next. There's a scary specificity to how he animates the kind of guy who could callously kill another person and only worry about whether the mess is going to ruin his suit. And whatever you do, do not tell him he's funny.

Robert DeNiro, Ben Kingsley, and Sissy Spacek

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1

Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

Forget the sheer physical effort that De Niro put into playing former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta at both his trim fighting weight and in his bloated later years. What's more impressive is how the actor commits to the boxer's interior: Looking dead-eyed, driven, and always a little peevish, he creates an impression of a man so beset by his own demons that he can't enjoy his own success. Critics noted more than a little similarity between the character and director Martin Scorsese, who had just gone through some dark times of his own. The result is a perfect fusion of a complicated real-life athlete, a star with the guts to play him without excessive vanity, and a filmmaker adept at funneling his own pain through someone else's biography.

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