A Look at the Real People Who Inspired These Oscar-Nominated Films

Before your favorite stars start spreading their appreciation this weekend, study up on the real-life people who helped them earn Oscar gold.

By Sarah Grossbart Feb 04, 2020 12:00 PMTags
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Judy Garland. Fred Rodgers. Jimmy Hoffa. Pope Francis

Those are just a smattering of names who could very well be receiving a shout-out during the 2020 Oscars this Sunday. I mean, it's likely that Renee Zellweger, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino and Jonathan Pryce would thank their people first, the cadre of agents, managers, publicists, directors, producers and cinematographers who keep their careers humming along, plus the spouses, partners, children and close friends that make up their support groups. 

But, then, yeah, they'll probably be expressing their gratitude to the real-life people they portrayed for having an existence rich enough to really pop on screen. 

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Because it's an open secret in the film industry that keeping it real is a good way to get recognized, the Academy tending to appreciate when well-known stars disappear into another person's likeness. 

Eddie Redmayne was rewarded for his work as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Reese Witherspoon for embodying June Carter Cash and Julia Roberts may have never had the chance to scold music conductor Bill Conti ("Sir, you're doing a great job, but you're so quick with that stick. So why don't you sit, 'cause I may never be here again,") if not for legal clerk turned activist Erin Brockovich


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And just last year Rami Malek's interpretation of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury bested Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh and Viggo Mortensen as bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga.

So no surprise that this year artists leaned in hard, with everyone from popes to mob bosses to Fox News anchors receiving the Hollywood treatment. Before your favorite stars start spreading their appreciation this weekend, study up on those who helped them earn Oscar gold. 

Carroll Shelby

Looking to avenge a busted business deal, Henry Ford II makes it his mission to best Enzo Ferrari and his bevy of sports cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's most prestigious auto race. Desperate to get it done, he recruits Shelby, the sole American to have won at Le Mans. While Matt Damon's take on the racer turned Los Angeles-based car designer wasn't individually recognized, the drama is up for four awards, including best picture. 

Ken Miles

In his efforts to perfect the GT40 Mk. II, Shelby turned to test driver and engineering specialist Miles (Christian Bale). Though the duo are—spoiler alert!—ultimately triumphant at the 1966 race, Miles died later that year when a race car he was driving crashed at Riverside International Raceway in California.

Frank Sheeran

In a series of interviews from 1991 to 2003, the ex-truck driver and onetime local president of the Teamsters Union confessed to author Charles Brandt that he had shot close friend Jimmy Hoffa in the back of the head inside a house in northwest Detroit. His account inspired Brandt's book, I Heard You Paint Houses, a reference to the blood splatter on the wall. It's also largely disputed with cops casing that Michigan home and coming up empty. But when Martin Scorsese takes on the manuscript and Robert De Niro accepts the part of the titular character (The Irishman a reference to Sheeran's nickname), well, the Academy pays notice. 

Jimmy Hoffa

Just what happened to the former President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, conspiracy, and mail and wire fraud—has remained a mystery since his 1975 disappearance. The Irishman contended to answer that question and earned 10 Oscar nominations in the process, including best supporting actor nods for De Niro and Al Pacino as the powerful labor union leader. 

Russell Bufalino

Boss of the Bufalino Crime Family (the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and upstate New York faction of Cosa Nostra), the mobster played by Joe Pesci is widely believe to be the one to approve the hit on Hoffa. Imprisoned twice for an extortion attempt and conspiring to kill a government witness, he died of natural causes five years after his release from United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth. 

Bill Bufalino

Longtime attorney for Hoffa and the teamsters and Russell's cousin, Bill (Ray Romano) adamantly denied playing any role in criminal acts or defending members of the mafia. He passed away from leukemia in Florida at the age of 72.  

Sharon Tate

Margot Robbie's performance of the actress, eight-and-a-half months pregnant with film director Roman Polanski's baby when she was killed by the Charles Manson family in 1969, was so on-point that it made sister Debra Tate cry. "The tone in her voice was completely Sharon, and it just touched me so much that big tears [started falling]," she told Vanity Fair. "The front of my shirt was wet."

Pope Francis

Forget the Oscar nod, Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of the 83-year-old Argentine Jesuit, the current head of the Catholic church, received even higher praise when they screened The Two Popes at the Vatican. "Cardinal (Peter) Turkson, a close friend of Benedict's and Francis', told me that it was amazing to see his friends on screen and asked if he could take a DVD of the film to Francis," Pryce relayed to CNN. "He said he thought Francis would like the film. I nearly cried."

Pope Benedict XVI

His version of the 92-year-old former prelate, who resigned from the papacy in 2013 after a nearly eight-year run, paving the way for Pope Francis, earned Anthony Hopkins a fifth Oscar nomination. 

Harriet Tubman

British actress Cynthia Erivo saw a bit of herself in the Underground Railroad conductor, who helped lead some 70 slaves to safety. "Nobody thought she was as strong as she is," the Oscar nominee told ABC News. "As a 5-foot-1 woman wandering about the Earth in my skin color, people do that a lot. I have a physical ability that people don't see on the outside but when people do see, it's different."

Megyn Kelly

Already an Oscar winner for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Charlize Theron filled the (far chicer) shoes of the former host of Fox News' The Kelly File, who, alongside others at the network, accused late CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment. Kelly hosted a January screening of Bombshell she with her former colleagues. After, she said,  they had a "emotional, raw, revealing discussion of what the filmmakers got right, wrong, and what really happened to us those years ago."

Gretchen Carlson

Though the onetime Fox & Friends cohost wasn't present for Kelly's January get-together, she can be credited with triggering the once powerful exec's rapid fall from grace. It was the journalist and author who first sounded the alarm, filing a lawsuit against Ailes (portrayed by John Lithgow and generous helping of facial prosthetics in Bombshell) in the summer of 2016.

Fred Rogers

An uncanny portrayal of the beloved children's television host in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (recounting a jaded magazine writer's 1998 profile of the impossibly nice Presbyterian minister and creator of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) earned Tom Hanks his sixth Oscar nomination. 

Richard Jewell

When the AT&T security guard (played by Paul Walter Hauser) found the backpack containing three pipe bombs placed at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park and ushered many of the 1996 summer games' spectators to safety, the FBI honed in on him as a suspect. He was eventually declared innocent, having never been charged (terrorist Eric Rudolph was found responsible), but not without having to endure a trial by media. One year after Governor Sonny Perdue publicly thanked him for his heroic acts, he died from heart failure at 44. 

Bobi Jewell

After accepting the role of Richard's mom, who defends her son at all costs, Kathy Bates (a nominee for supporting actress) set up a meeting with Bobi. "We sat and talked for two or three hours and I recorded her voice," she shared with Deadline. "We went through the script and she corrected a few things. She teared up quite a few times. She was very determined."

Elton John

A Golden Globe winner, Taron Egerton was shockingly left off the Oscar nominee list despite a portrayal of John that received high praise from the grandiose music legend himself. "My songs aren't easy to sing. I know because loads of musicians have told me that they're hard to sing," the 72-year-old Brit behind "Your Song", "Candle in the Wind" and countless other hits noted on Zane Lowe's Beats 1 show on Apple Music. "What he's done is quite extraordinary because he sounds like me, but he also sounds like Taron." At least the film's original song, "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" earned a nod. 

Judy Garland

Renée Zellweger nabbed the Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe for her take on the immensely talented, but ultimately doomed entertainer, making her the frontrunner to take the stage Sunday. But can she top her Globes acceptance speech opener? "Well hi, everybody, it's nice to see you," said the Judy star, acknowledging her Hollywood hiatus. "Y'all look pretty good 17 years later." Same, Renée, same.