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Awards Season

Jan 26, 2020

‘Tis the season for red carpets and trips to the movie theater. With the Oscars around the corner, here’s what you need to know about the real-life stories behind some of this year’s biggest movies.

The Story

Welcome to awards season, where art imitates life. Take that, Oscar Wilde.

The Details

Every year, awards season culminates with the Oscars, the annual party to celebrate the crème de la crème of the film world. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences –  a group of more than 8,000 members who’ve worked in the movie industry – chooses the nominees and winners. 

How does that work?

Members typically nominate those in their field. For example: actors nominate actors, directors nominate directors. You get the (motion) picture. Once nominations are out, anyone can vote for anyone in any category to win the little gold man. Problem is, both the nominees and winners have largely looked the same over the years.

You’re talking about #OscarsSoWhite, right?

We are. The Oscars’ diversity problem has been in the spotlight since 2015. That’s when #OscarsSoWhite started trending because there weren’t any people of color nominated for acting prizes. Also an issue: the fact that the awards tend to be male-dominated, especially in high-profile categories like directing. But the academy said ‘we hear the critics loud and clear,’ and set a goal to double the number of women and minority academy members by 2020.

How’d that work out?

While the academy has invited new members, it’s still largely made up of white men. When  this year’s nominees came out, people were frustrated with how few people of color were nominated for acting prizes. And about the fact that zero women were nominated for best director. For context, in the Oscars’ 92-year history, only five women have received a directing nod...and only one woman has won – Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. It’s not clear if the academy will make any significant changes in the future.

So what was nominated this year?

That brings us to the movies.

The Movies

A lot of the movies that earned top nods this year (think: best picture, director, actor, or actress) are based on or inspired by events that went down IRL. Here’s the context you need to know about some of the year’s top films:

The Irishman” 

Nominations: 10, including Best Picture and Best Director (Martin Scorsese)

What do you get when you mix Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci? A mob movie, of course. This one goes down in the 1950s, when organized crime was on the rise in the US. And follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a hitman who may or may not have been behind the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Skimm Notes explains Hoffa’s background and the movie’s controversial take on his disappearance.


Nominations: 10, including Best Picture and Best Director (Sam Mendes)

Maybe it’s been a minute since your last history class, so we’ll refresh your memory: World War I started in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. That led to a conflict between the Allied Powers (mainly France, Great Britain, Russia, and the US) and the Central Powers (mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). And continued until the Allied Powers declared victory in 1918.

The movie takes place in, you guessed it, 1917. After their phone lines are cut, a British general (Colin Firth) sends two soldiers by foot to warn their fellow troops that the Germans are about to ambush them. One of the messengers’ brothers is at risk of being killed in the attack. The movie follows these two men on their miles-long, nearly nonstop journey, and is filmed to look like one continuous shot.

This specific story didn’t actually happen. But the movie’s director Sam Mendes was inspired by his grandfather’s experience during the war as a “runner” (a messenger for the British).

Once Upon a Hollywood

Nominations: 10, including Best Picture, Best Director (Quentin Tarantino), and Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)

This movie is loosely based on real events. It takes place against the backdrop of the late 1960s, when the hippie counterculture movement was upending Hollywood (and America). Film studios were starting to transition from traditional westerns to experimental movies that didn’t shy away from sex or violence.

That world aka New Hollywood is where we find the characters in this movie: Rick Dalton, a fictional TV actor fading from the limelight (played by Leo), and his stuntman Cliff Booth (also fictional, played by Brad Pitt). Their stories intersect with the real-life Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), at the time an up-and-coming actress who was married to famous director Roman Polanski. In 1969, she and four others were murdered by members of the Manson family – the cult that followed Charles Manson. We won’t spoil it, but the movie takes some liberties with her story.

Little Women

Nominations: 6, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan)

This novel-turned-movie takes place during the Civil War in Concord, Massachusetts, where the fictional March sisters grew up. This was when the North (aka the Union) and the South (aka the Confederacy) were fighting over states’ rights, and the future of America as a nation of slave states or free states. During this time, women were often left alone while husbands, brothers, and sons left to fight. 

“Little Women” follows the four sisters: Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Jo (Ronan), and Meg (Emma Watson), whose father is away fighting in the war. The book is based on author Louisa May Alcott’s own experiences with her three sisters living in Concord during the mid-1800s. She based the main character Jo on herself. 

Ford v Ferrari

Nominations: 4, including Best Picture

Let’s (on your mark, get) set the scene: up until the mid-20th century, Europe was the major power player when it came to car production. Especially with companies like Italy’s Ferrari, which created some of the world’s fastest cars. But thanks to increased manufacturing jobs in the US post World War II, the US became a serious competitor in the industry with the Big Three – known as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. 

This movie spotlights part of that competition. It looks at the aftermath of a failed attempt by Ford to acquire Ferrari. Once Ferrari ditches the deal, Ford owner Henry Ford II decides the company should make its own fleet of speedy cars. So the Ford co recruits two men (Christian Bale and Matt Damon) to race and design them. The Ford v Ferrari rivalry comes to a head a few years later at the French car competition 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yes, this all really happened. Though the grandson of the real-life car designer reportedly says that the movie isn’t 100% accurate


Nominations: 3, including Best Actress (Charlize Theron)

This one is about sexual harassment allegations against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who died in 2017. In 2016, then-Fox News host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) spoke out against Ailes. In time, then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and more than 20 others did the same, alleging that Ailes did everything from make inappropriate comments to offer career help in exchange for sexual favors.

Ailes resigned later that year, becoming one of the first men brought down by what later became the #MeToo movement. And he wasn’t the only top-level person at Fox News to face accusations – multiple women also accused former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment. Ailes’ downfall came about a year before a flood of allegations came out against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Some say this movie is the first to represent the #MeToo movement. But the real Megyn Kelly says the movie isn’t totally accurate – like Ailes supporting her decision to ask President Trump about his treatment of women during a 2016 debate. Also, Margot Robbie’s character – a newsroom staffer trying to climb up the career ladder – isn’t based on a specific person, but on multiple women’s experiences with Ailes.


Nominations: 2, including Best Actress (Cynthia Erivo)

This biopic about Harriet Tubman follows her life as a slave, her escape, and her work as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad – the network of secret routes and houses that slaves used to reach freedom. Tubman is credited with helping rescue at least dozens of people from slavery.

The movie made up some of her encounters and experiences. But the team behind the movie reportedly read a number of biographies and first-hand accounts about her to make it as accurate as possible. Including the fact that she hired a lawyer to look into when she was legally supposed to be freed by the family that owned her.


Nominations: 2, including Best Actress (Renée Zellweger)

Throughout her life, Judy Garland (aka Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”) dealt with a dark reality that included abuse, addiction, and mental health issues. This movie gives a glimpse at her life as one of the most iconic actresses of her generation – and difficult experiences like being forced to diet as a teen actress, going through another divorce, and being suicidal. It all comes to a head in 1968, the year before she died from a drug overdose. The movie largely focuses on her prepping for a concert series at a cabaret club in London – about 30 years after she tapped her heels together three times. 

The movie is based off of a play called “End of the Rainbow” that’s focused on Garland’s final years. The filmmakers also talked to people who actually worked on Garland’s concert series while making the movie.

The Snubs

You win some, you lose some. And in some cases, you don’t even get nominated. Here’s a look at the real-life stories behind some of this year’s snubs.

The Farewell

Every family has secrets. This movie is about the true-life story of a US-based Chinese family that travels to China to say goodbye to the family matriarch. She’s dying of lung cancer...but her family keeps her in the dark about the diagnosis. Instead, they use a cousin’s wedding as an excuse to go back and see her one last time. Awkwafina – who plays the main character and who won the Golden Globe for her performance – was widely expected to get a best actress nomination, and some thought director Lulu Wang would get a directing nod.

The movie is based on Wang’s own experience with her grandmother. She first told the story on “This American Life” back in 2016, interviewing her family members about why they didn’t want to come clean about her grandmother’s diagnosis. Some of them thought that being aware of the diagnosis would be more harmful than the actual cancer.

Just Mercy

This movie takes place about 30 years ago in Alabama. That’s when lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the film’s hero (Michael B Jordan), established the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that fights to end mass incarceration and racial injustice. 

The movie is based on Stevenson’s 2014 best-selling memoir and focuses on his battle to free prisoner Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx, who many thought would get a best supporting actor nom). McMillian was on death row for six years after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Despite facing threats for taking on the case, Stevenson eventually got McMillian’s ruling overturned. Today, he’s still involved in the Equal Justice Initiative as executive director.


When tough times come your way, the tough get crafty. When the US economy took a nosedive during the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street banks took a serious hit. So did strip clubs in the area thanks to fewer high-paying customers.

Enter: the hustlers. This movie is based on a 2015 New York magazine article about a group of women who conned their way into rich men’s wallets. They decided to get the cash flowing again by finding men who were ready to party, drugging them, bringing them to strip clubs, and racking up thousands of dollars on their credit cards. JLo took on the role of Ramona, inspired by one of the ringleaders of this operation (whose real name is Samantha Barbash). Many were expecting JLo to get an Oscar nom for best supporting actress, but there won’t be an envelope with her name on it this year. The real hustlers were caught and arrested in the end. 


Hollywood loves a good movie that’s based on a true story. It also loves to dramatize events that’ll get your attention (and your money). Just remember to take ‘inspired by real events’ with a grain of salt.

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