The early buzz about Jennifer Hudson’s performance as Aretha Franklin in Respect raises the distinct possibility that Hudson could become the fifth actor in four years to receive an Oscar nomination for playing a music icon in a biopic.
Rami Malek kicked off this streak by winning best actor for his performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Renée Zellweger won best actress the following year for her performance as Judy Garland in Judy (2019). This past year, Andra Day and Viola Davis were both nominated for best actress — Day for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday; Davis for playing blues singer Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
This streak marked the first time in Oscar history that actors were nominated three years running for performances as real-life music stars. A nod for Hudson would extend that streak to four years.
Three times before this streak, actors received lead acting nods two years in a row for playing real-life music personalities.
Jamie Foxx won best actor for playing Ray Charles in Ray (2004). The following year, Joaquin Phoenix was nominated in that category for playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and his co-star, Reese Witherspoon, won best actress for playing June Carter Cash.
Twenty years earlier, Tom Hulce was nominated for best actor for playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus (1984), while his co-star, F. Murray Abraham, won in that category for playing his rival, Antonio Salieri. The following year, Jessica Lange was nominated for best actress for playing country legend Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams.
The first time that actors received back-to-back Oscar nominations for playing real-life music figures was in the mid-1940s. Cornel Wilde was nominated for best actor for playing classical composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945). The following year, Larry Parks was nominated for best actor for playing entertainer Al Jolson in The Jolson Story.
The nominations earlier this year for Day and Davis, and the anticipated nomination for Hudson, also demonstrates the increased opportunities for biopics in which Black actors portray Black music legends. The first Black actor to receive a nomination for playing a real-life music star was Diana Ross for playing Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972).
Ross was the only Black actor to achieve this feat for more than two decades, until Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne were nominated for their lead performances as Tina Turner and Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993). Foxx was the next Black actor to join this club — and the first Black actor to win for playing a real-life music star — for his portrayal of Charles in Ray (2004).
In addition, two Black actors have been nominated in supporting roles for playing real-life music personalities — both in the past few years. Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for playing pianist/composer Don Shirley in Green Book (2018). Leslie Odom Jr. was nominated in that category earlier this year for playing R&B star Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami…
The uptick in nominations for biopic performances makes perfect sense. Music careers are often richly dramatic, with many ups and downs, pitfalls and comebacks. And in a biopic, there’s a song available to soundtrack every key scene.