Meet the Real-Life People Who Inspired These 2021 Oscar-Nominated Movies

Ahead of the 2021 Oscars ceremony on April 25, take a look at the real-life subjects who inspired some of this year's nominated films, side-by-side with the stars who played them.

By Ryan Gajewski Apr 24, 2021 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Andra Day's Billie Holiday: Journey to the Oscars

Perhaps it's not surprising that, in a year marked by hardship for so many people, a slew of popular films succeeded by telling real-life individuals' stories of pain and triumph.

Heading into the 2021 Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, April 25, many of the films in the hunt for Oscars tell biographical narratives about public figures and lesser-known folks alike. 

Earning the most nominations of any film this year with 10, Mank focuses on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, the title character played by Gary Oldman, who is under pressure to complete his script for Orson WellesCitizen Kane

Also earning accolades for bringing historical figures to life were Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, among others. 

It makes sense that Hollywood continues looking for true tales to propel its films. After all, recent years have seen Oscar wins for performers including Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy (2019), Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (2018).

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Before we find out which of the 2021 nominees will join their ranks, keep scrolling to see photos of the stars from this year's fact-based Oscar movies, alongside the individuals they portrayed.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton

In Judas and the Black Messiah, the actor portrays the activist who rose to national prominence in the late 1960s as chairman of the Black Panther Party's Illinois chapter. The Best Picture-nominated film focuses on FBI informant Bill O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) infiltrating the chapter after the FBI deemed Hampton to be a threat to national security. Kaluuya, who is a Best Supporting Actor nominee, was previously Oscar-nominated for his starring role in 2017's Get Out.

Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal

The Knives Out star plays the FBI informant in Judas and the Black Messiah. O'Neal was a teenager when he agreed to infiltrate the Black Panther Party after leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was determined by the FBI to be a threat. Stanfield, up for Best Supporting Actor for the role, is no stranger to portraying real-life figures, having previously played activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2014's Selma and Snoop Dogg in 2015's Straight Outta Compton.

Gary Oldman as Mank

Mank, which heads into the ceremony as the year's most-nominated film with 10, centers on Herman J. Mankiewicz and his work as a screenwriter on the iconic 1941 film Citizen Kane, for which he is a credited co-writer alongside director and star Orson Welles. Oldman, who is nominated for Best Actor for the role, previously prevailed in the category with another biographical film, 2017's Darkest Hour, in which he played Winston Churchill

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies

The Mean Girls standout landed in the Best Supporting Actress category, marking her first-ever Oscar nomination, for portraying Davies in Mank. In the film, Davies, an actress known for a string of hit silent films in the early 1920s, introduces Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to her lover William Randolph Hearst. The newspaper magnate was widely assumed to be the basis for the lead character in Citizen Kane.

Andra Day as Billie Holiday

The Grammy-nominated performer is in the mix for Best Actress for playing the title character in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The film centers on the Federal Department of Narcotics investigating the legendary jazz singer in the 1940s.

Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden

Redmayne, a previous Oscar winner for playing Stephen Hawking in 2014's The Theory of Everything, portrays Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7, which is nominated for six awards including Best Picture. The late activist, also known for his 17-year marriage to Jane Fonda, was among the protesters who faced charges stemming from the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman

The chameleonic performer is up for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the counterculture icon in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Hoffman is among many real-life protesters from the 1968 Democratic National Convention who are portrayed in the film, including Jerry Rubin (Succession's Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (American Horror Story's John Carroll Lynch) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). Cohen is also nominated this year for his work on the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm screenplay

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey

The Suicide Squad star, who is just a Grammy Award away from an EGOT, portrays the seminal blues singer in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. The film is based on the August Wilson play of the same name and depicts tensions between Rainey and her band members and production team in the 1920s. Among its five nominations are Davis' for Best Actress, along with a posthumous nomination for co-star Chadwick Boseman.

Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke

The Hamilton standout's nomination for Best Supporting Actor is among three nods that One Night in Miami... landed this year. He plays Cooke in director Regina King's movie centering on an evening that the legendary soul singer shared with Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) in the 1960s.

Frances McDormand as a character inspired by the nonfiction book Nomadland

Thanks to Nomadland, the two-time Oscar winner is in the Best Actress hunt again. This time, she plays a fictional character named Fern, who was inspired by real-life individuals described in the nonfiction book of the same name. Author Jessica Bruder's 2017 book told the stories of people who have embraced transient lifestyles amid economic uncertainty. 

Glenn Close as Bonnie Vance

In Hillbilly Elegy, based on the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, the celebrated actress plays the author's real-life grandmother, Bonnie "Mamaw" Vance. Ron Howard's film adaptation, which earned Close her eighth Oscar nomination, focuses on a Yale law student returning home to spend time with his Ohio-based family.

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