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With 'The Post,' 'Darkest Hour' and more, filmmakers show that they often mine the past for stories to enlighten the present

With 'The Post,' 'Darkest Hour' and more, filmmakers show that they often mine the past for stories to enlighten the present
The academy loves real historical figures, and filmmakers gravitate towards bigger-than-life characters. (Illustration by Lehel Kovacs / For The Times)

It’s often said that history repeats itself. But when it comes to the Oscars, history, or more specifically, the feting of real-life historical characters, has been a recurring rite since 1931, when George Arliss collected the third-ever lead actor award for his portrayal of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in “Disraeli.”

Since then, scores of our most popular, accomplished actors have brought home the industry’s top prize for playing a vast array of true-life notables, some well-known, others less so — until they received their big screen close-up.

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The academy’s love for real historical figures is so consistent that, in the last 50 years, only twice — for the films of 1976 and 1979 — have all 10 lead acting nominees been for fictional portrayals. For the movies of 2004, 2013, 2014 and 2015, a remarkable four out of five lead actor slots went to true-life depictions. Last year’s lead actress race included three nominees who played real people, and that wasn’t the first time.

This year’s crop of Oscar-caliber performances based on actual people is perhaps even larger and more eclectic than usual. Lead actor possibilities include Gary Oldman (as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World”), Chadwick Boseman (Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall”), Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee in “The Post”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Jeff Bauman in “Stronger”), while such actresses as Margot Robbie (as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”), Jessica Chastain (Molly Bloom in “Molly’s Game”), Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”), Emma Stone (Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes”), Judi Dench (Queen Victoria in “Victoria and Abdul”), Michelle Williams (Gail Harris, “All the Money in the World”) and Meryl Streep (Katharine Graham in “The Post”) are possible contenders. The supporting categories are also rich with real-life depictions.

Emma Stone (Billie Jean King in "Battle of the Sexes"), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World”), Margot Robbie (as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”) and Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee in “The Post”).
Emma Stone (Billie Jean King in "Battle of the Sexes"), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World”), Margot Robbie (as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”) and Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee in “The Post”). (Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox | Giles Keyte | Neon | Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox)

So why is this particular well dipped into year after year?

Hollywood veteran David Permut, who has produced numerous features and telefilms inspired by true events (most recently last year’s picture nominee “Hacksaw Ridge”) recalled the founding credo of Warner Bros. studio: “To educate, enlighten and entertain.”

“I think some of the most promising filmmakers of the past and present have achieved this [philosophy] by reflecting on the real stories of our lives and the people who have influenced and changed them,” said Permut. “Filmmakers have consistently gravitated to stories based on fact to heighten awareness of social issues, current events, historical and other famous figures, forgotten heroes and more.”

“Academy voters clearly like ‘important’ films,” said Ben Mankiewicz, a film historian and Turner Classic Movies host. “History, history lessons, biographies, socially relevant movies — those feel important. They feel like the kind of thing we’re supposed to promote.”

But like most choices made in Hollywood, there are financial and marketing concerns, with observers often noting the “pre-sold” nature of real characters and true stories that has helped these kinds of films endure.

“Like adapting a bestseller into a movie, producers see value in making movies involving a known quantity,” said Mankiewicz. “The audience, it appears to [producers], is more likely to respond to people or events they know or like — stuff that already interests them.

Taraji P. Henson, back left, Octavia Spencer, center, and Janelle Monae, back right, in a scene from "Hidden Figures."
Taraji P. Henson, back left, Octavia Spencer, center, and Janelle Monae, back right, in a scene from "Hidden Figures." (Hopper Stone / Twentieth Century Fox)

“That said, when a true story makes money, it seems to me it’s often because we don’t know much about it,” Mankiewicz added, citing last year’s multiple Oscar-nominee “Hidden Figures” as a prime case. “It’s a true story, space exploration is relatable, it’s a story we all like. But the soul of the movie taught us about people whose work we not only didn’t appreciate, we didn’t know they existed.”

Even if, to paraphrase Mark Twain, there’s gold in them thar roles, it’s generally agreed that, first and foremost, actors like a challenge, one that these true-life parts have perennially offered.

“To portray a real-life character, [actors] not only have to embrace the heart and soul of that person but study every nuance and mannerism. They have to transform physically into these roles,” said Permut.

According to Mankiewicz, there’s another plus to playing these characters: “With a real person, actors have an opportunity to completely re-imagine the public's perception.”

The chance to rethink an established persona has also long inspired those writing about true-life figures. Said Liz Hannah, who with Josh Singer co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers drama “The Post”: “When you’re able to present to an audience a real person that they probably have a formulated opinion on and you’re able to show them a deeper side or just a different side of that person that they didn’t expect, that can be really exciting and really rewarding.”

Michael Keaton, from left, as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film "Spotlight.".
Michael Keaton, from left, as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film "Spotlight.". (Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films)

Singer, who shared the adapted screenplay Oscar in 2016 for his work on another real-life chronicle, “Spotlight,” and more recently wrote Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man,” believes the longevity of films about actual events and figures may also be due to “the lessons you can glean by looking backwards,” declaring “The Post” a strong example of that.

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“The film shows how the fourth estate was one of the very important checks on [then-President] Nixon’s power,” said Singer. “I think that there is a way to make a commentary on what’s going on right now…by writing a story about what happened in 1971.”

As for Hollywood’s lasting affinity for mining actual tales from the past, Singer concluded, “They’re just great stories. And all you’re looking for as a storyteller is a great story.”

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