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Nothing But the Truth: The State of the Oscar Race Post-TIFF

The truth will set you free, or so they say. These days, it might also win you an Oscar.

Blame the constant sideshow atmosphere provided by 24-hour news channels. Or, the continuing popularity of so-called reality shows. Or, how political debates are covered by the media more like entertainment spectacles than as serious events that could affect the nation’s future.

Or, it could be simply attributed to the influence of “Argo,” the 2012 political thriller and Best Picture champ directed by Ben Affleck, and based on the true story of how showbiz types and the CIA collaborated to rescue six U.S. embassy workers during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis

Whatever the reason, movies that increasingly rely on actual events for their screenplay rather than what Willy Wonka once referred to as “pure imagination” are finding their way into theaters and onto ballots during awards season. Superheroes ripped from comic books might rule the summer months, but all-too-human characters grabbed from headlines take over during the serious months of fall and early winter.

A quick look at the array of titles this year that are vying for awards attention only reconfirms this trend. Some are fully rooted in facts, others are only inspired by non-fiction situations. But all have some semblance of recreating reality. These include: “Beasts of No Nation” (inspired by African civil war), “The Big Short” (the 2007-2010 financial crisis), “Bridge of Spies” (Russia’s 1960 capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers), “Freeheld” (a fight for gay-couple rights), “In the Heart of the Sea” (19th century whaling-ship disaster), “Our Brand Is Crisis” (American involvement in a Bolivian election), “Trumbo” (Hollywood’s blacklisting), “Truth” (a “60 Minutes” reporting scandal), “Sicario” (the US/Mexico border war on drugs), “Spotlight” (the child-abuse cover-up by the Catholic Church), “Suffragette” (women’s voting rights), and “The Walk” (tightrope artist Philippe Petit tackles the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers).

Then there's the rash of upcoming biopics, including: “I Saw the Light” starring Tom Hiddleston as country star Hank Williams, “Legend,” featuring Tom Hardy as the twin British crime bosses known as the Krays, and “The Program,” with Ben Foster as disgraced racing cyclist Lance Armstrong. All of these fell by the wayside after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed-to-negative reviews.

But there are certainly some biopic contenders you can count on, too: “Black Mass” (a chronicle of the rise and fall of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger), “The Danish Girl” (Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe), “Love and Mercy” (the trials and tribulations of Beach Boy Brian Wilson), “Joy” (David O. Russell’s ode to the housewife who invented the Miracle Mop), “Steve Jobs” (Danny Boyle’s flashy account of Apple’s visionary marketing guru) and “Straight Outta Compton” (the birth of influential rap group N.W.A.).

You only have to look at recent awards results in the two lead acting categories to find the main reason that fact is preferred over fiction. These days, nothing says trophy-worthy more than starring in a biopic. Consider that four out of the past five male headliners who won an Oscar played real people. Not only that, four of the five nominated Best Actor performances in the past two years were based on a real person. And, since 2000, 9 out of 15 Best Actor winners and 8 out of 15 Best Actress winners played characters who were based on fact. Bottom line: If you get real, the odds are in your favor.

Of course, movies based on true events have caught the eye of Academy voters in the past, usually in the form of life stories or historical epics. The first to win Best Picture, the highly fictionalized “Mutiny on the Bounty,” was honored in 1935. The 1980s had a spate of Best Picture victors that were also fact-based: “Chariots of Fire” (1982), “Gandhi” (1983), “Amadeus” (1985), “Out of Africa” (1986) and “The Last Emperor” (1988).

But ever since the Academy increased the number of possible Best Picture nominees each year from five to ten in 2009, there have been an increasing number of reality-influenced films that have made the cut. Six out of nine titles on the 2013 ballot fell into this category: “12 Years a Slave” (winner), “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Philomena” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.“

This year could potentially set a record number for factual films fighting it out for Oscar’s main event although several much-anticipated fictional films such as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant" and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” are yet to be seen. And Cannes favorite “Carol,” based on Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt," will likely collect multiple nominations as well.

Tom O’Neil, longtime overseer of the Gold Derby awards prediction site, says that studios are snapping up these true stories partly because being based in reality “makes them feel more urgent and important. Hollywood likes to pretend they are part of an industry that thrives on make-believe. But when it comes to awards, they want the real, not the imagined. The sci-fi and fantasy genres regularly get snubbed. Now they are extending that to films not based on facts.

That prejudice especially extends to the acting categories these days. “They want famous people portraying other famous people,” O’Neil says. “Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher, Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It is not always the best performance that wins. It usually is the biggest.

These true stories also often work their magic at the box office. Eight-time Oscar nominee “The Imitation Game”  only won Best Adapted Screenplay but it cashed in with $227 million in worldwide ticket sales. “The King’s Speech,” which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, grossed $414 million worldwide.

But in the age of “gotcha” journalism, there is at least one drawback to doing a true-life story. Whether it’s “American Sniper” or “Selma,” someone is bound to call into question the veracity of the events as they are presented. Usually it doesn’t harm a film too much. “Argo” was called out for bending the facts on many fronts, including diminishing the importance of the Canadian government in rescuing the Americans. But such critiques proved to be minor road bumps on its way to seven Oscar nods and three wins.

However, many thought the controversy over the 2012 action thriller “Zero Dark Thirty“ concerning its depiction of torture as an interrogation technique during the 2011 search for Osama bin Laden might have slowed its box office ($133 million worldwide), as well as hurt its chances for awards. Ultimately, it earned five Oscar nominations and won one for Best Sound Editing. 

This year, the gloves have come off earlier than usual, pitting two veteran awards experts against one another over “Truth,” an account of a 2004 scandal over a “60 Minutes” investigation of George W. Bush’s military record during the Vietnam War, that basically ended the careers of producer Mary Mapes and CBS news anchor Dan Rather.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg has criticized the film that stars Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as Rather for letting their characters off the hook and blaming the network for making them scapegoats. Meanwhile, Sasha Stone—the founder of the Oscar site Awards Daily—objects not just to Feinberg’s criticisms of the film’s version of events but also his need to bash a movie that has barely seen the light of day (it opens in theaters October 16). 

It is hard to say whether Feinberg’s disparaging of that film will hurt its chances or give it some welcome publicity. But the truth of the matter is, if someone is talking about your movie in terms of its awards chances, it usually isn’t a bad thing.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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