Richard J. Leskosky: Oscar nominees trending toward real people, events
This year stands out in Oscar history for having the most best picture nominees based on real people and events, both in quantity and percentage — six of the nine 2013 films nominated or 66.67 percent.
"12 Years a Slave" depicts pre-Civil War events. "American Hustle," "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Philomena" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" all take place within the last 50 years. (Note: the years referenced here represent the year in which the films were released, not the year of the respective Academy Awards ceremonies.)
Only two years come close in the number of fact-based nominees, and even those had only four apiece. The first was 1934, with "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (based on a play about the courtship between British poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett), "Cleopatra" (a Cecil B. DeMille epic), "The House of Rothschild" (based on a play about the rise of the European banking family), and "Viva Villa!" (a biopic about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa).
For the most part, the 1934 films are a bit more removed from their underlying real stories than, say, "Captain Phillips" or "Philomena," which almost give the appearance of journalistic approaches to their material.
The second time the Academy fielded four fact-based nominees was the 2010 roster, which included "The Fighter" (director David O. Russell's look at the professional life of boxer Mickey Ward), "The King's Speech" (the story of George VI dealing with a stammer while trying to rally his people during World War II), "The Social Network" (the story of the creation of Facebook), and "127 Hours" (Danny Boyle's harrowing tale of Aron Ralston's grueling experience and sacrifice when pinned by a boulder in a remote canyon).
All of those dealt with real people who are still alive today, which is something of an Oscar record in itself. (If you're about to object to that claim, the royal daughter who grew up to become Queen Elizabeth appears as a character in "The King's Speech.")
Now, of course, if these had been years when there were only five nominees for best picture, those four nominees would have represented a whopping 80 percent of the list, but they weren't. The 1934 list was one of two years (along with 1935) that fielded 12 nominees (the most ever), so its four fact-based films represented 33 percent of the total for that year. And the 2010 list occurred the second year after a rule change permitted 10 nominees, so its four films based on actual events accounted for 40 percent of the 10 nominated titles.
Though still impressive, that percentage is still eclipsed by the 60 percent racked up by a couple of years with only five nominees but three reality-based films. The 2010 films included "The Aviator" (Martin Scorsese's biopic about Howard Hughes, starring Leonardo DiCaprio), "Finding Neverland" (a biographical drama about playwright James Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, starring Johnny Depp), and "Ray" (the Ray Charles biopic starring Jamie Foxx).
And the nominees for 2005 featured "Capote" (with Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning title performance as the author of "In Cold Blood"), "Good Night and Good Luck" (George Clooney's retelling of the 1950s feud between television journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and "Munich" (Steven Spielberg's story of the secret Israeli retaliatory operation against the perpetrators of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics).
Of course, if there had been 10 nominees for 2013, the fact-based percentage would also be 60, but the academy wound up with only nine nominees rather than 10. And if you're wondering why 2009 and '10 had ten nominees each while '11, '12, and now '13 fielded only nine, the answer lies in the rule change that allowed more than five nominees in the best picture category.
That rule states: "The pictures (from the list of all films released in a given year) receiving the highest number of votes (from academy members) shall become the nominations for final voting for the best picture award.There may not be more than 10 nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than 5 percent of the total votes cast."
That means that all nominees (and no other films) received at least 5 percent of the more than 6,000 possible member votes.
The record quantity and percentage of reality-based 2013 Oscar nominees will likely stand for quite some time. But such films also figured large in 2004, '05 and '10. And even 2012 had three out of nine nominees for 33 percent: "Argo," "Lincoln," and "Zero Dark Thirty." If "12 Years a Slave" wins best picture, as all the oddsmakers put it with overwhelming odds, then three of the last four winners in this category will have originated in real life events ("The King's Speech" and "Argo" won in their years), with only 2011's "The Artist" presenting a notable exception.
That certainly looks like a trend toward more reality-based stories for major releases and future Oscar contenders.
Oddly, though, that might not signal a favorable trend for the directors of such films. Last year, Ben Affleck was not even nominated for directing "Argo," and this year Alfonso Cuaron is the favorite to win the best director Oscar for "Gravity," a science fiction drama, which has its origins in our current space program but nonetheless also suffers from some problems with basic physics and astronaut procedures.
What might work against such a trend, though, is a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll (questioning 1,433 Americans) that found that two-thirds of its respondents had not seen any of the best picture nominees yet!
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.