16 Best Actress Oscar nominees or winners in musical biographic roles
By Susan Wloszczyna
February 5, 2021
There is a long Oscar tradition of nominating lead actresses who bring singing legends to musical life over the years. The 2021 Best Actress race is no exception, what with Viola Davis bringing the Mother of the Blues to vivid life in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Andra Day tackling a legendary jazz singer in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Jennifer Hudson, who won a supporting trophy for a fictional singer in the 2006 musical “Dreamgirls,” was considered to be a likely contender for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in “Respect.” But the COVID-19 pandemic caused the film’s opening date to move several times. It is now slated for August 13, 2021.
At the most recent Academy Awards, Renee Zellweger touched voters and won as Best Actress with her performance in “Judy” as singer and actress Judy Garland in her final years. Other champs in our photo gallery include Marion Cotillard (“La Vie en Rose”), Liza Minnelli (“Cabaret”), Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl”), and Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”). You’ll also find nominees such as Julie Andrews, Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Meryl Streep, and more.
Luise Rainer (“The Great Ziegfeld”, 1936)
Rainer won a lead Oscar as Anna Held, the common-law wife of showman Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell), who was a vivacious head-liner of the “Ziegfeld Follies.” Rainer’s big moment arrives when Anna learns that the love of her life has married actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). She calls to congratulate him on his news and says she is happy for him, but as teardrops cascade down her face, it is clear that her heart has been broken.
Susan Hayward (“Smash-Up, Story of a Woman,” 1947)
Hayward’s first of five Best Actress nominations was for her performance inspired by Dixie Lee, the first wife of fellow warbler Bing Crosby. The couple both acquired a drinking problem during their stormy time together in a plot that has echoes of “A Star is Born.” Hayward is Angie Evans, a nightclub singer who becomes romantically involved with a male singer Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), whose career has yet to take off. The pair wed and Angie gives birth to a daughter. Ken is soon a big success while Angie’s fame evaporates and their marriage starts to crumble
Susan Hayward (“With a Song in My Heart, 1952)
Hayward plays a plucky singer and actress Jane Forman, who survived a 1943 plane crash and would suffer from chronic health problems throughout her 30-year career on stage, radio and TV. She entertained the troops in World War II even though she had to use crutches. Forman herself was involved in the film’s production and supplied Hayward’s singing voice.
Susan Hayward (“I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” 1955)
This actress was typecast once again as the famous singer Lillian Roth, whose soap-operatic life included a domineering stage mother (Jo Van Fleet) who pushes her child to constantly audition for roles and continues to micromanage her life and career well into adulthood with multiple marriages and frequent bouts of heavy drinking.
Julie Andrews (“The Sound of Music,” 1965)
Andrews earned a lead Oscar nomination for her musical role as Maria von Trapp, a young Austrian nun-to-be who struggles with following rules of her order and would rather sing and make music. She leaves the convent and joins civilian life as the governess of seven children whose father is retired naval officer and widower Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Maria decides to teach her charges how to sing and harmonize while they put on performances. She and the captain eventually fall in love and marry. The family decides to escape from Austria as Nazis invade the country and eventually escape by crossing the Swiss border.
Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl, “1968)
Streisand tied with Katharine Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”) and both take home a lead actress Oscar. She would reprise her Broadway role as Fanny Brice, another Ziegfield Follies stand-out, whose performances were often comically self-deprecating. While such tunes like “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “Second Hand Rose” are the standouts, much time is spent on Brice’s marital situation with the suave gambler Nicky Arnstein, who is on a lucky streak. All is rosy until his business ventures fail. He ends up serving 18 months for embezzlement and their union is busted.
Liza Minnelli (“Cabaret,” 1972)
The actress would win a lead Oscar for her role as bohemian entertainer Sally Bowles, a featured attraction at the seedy Kit Kat Club in 1931 Berlin at a time when Nazis started to overrun the city. The musical directed by Bob Fosse was based on novelist Christopher Isherwood’s works that also produced a 1951 stage play, “I Am a Camera,” before it became a Broadway musical in 1966. Isherwood based Bowles on real-life cabaret singer Jean Ross. The writer used her as part of the backdrop of the hedonistic nihilism of the Weimar era. Ross, who had literary chops herself, noted that incarnations of Bowles became progressively cruder with each iteration. Minnelli outdid herself as an entertainer onstage in the film, belting out such songs as “Money, Money,” “Maybe This Time” and the closing title tune “Cabaret.”
Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues,”1972)
Andra Day follows Ross’s footsteps with her version of the singer known as Lady Day. The role that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nom, took its cues from Billie Holiday’s 1956 memoir. The film covers her early days as a housekeeper in a Baltimore brothel and being raped by a man who followed her home. She decides to turn to prostitution but soon quits. She fails an audition to be a nightclub showgirl. But her version of “All of Me” pleases the club owner who books her as a singer. Her career blossoms from there when Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) arrives and pays her 50 dollars to sing “Them There Eyes.” She ends up touring in the South and is shaken after witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, causing her to record the controversial song, “Strange Fruit.” She soon turns to use drugs supplied by the club owner and eventually is convicted on narcotics charges. Critics praised Ross’s big-screen debut but had qualms about the plot’s narrative.
Bette Midler (“The Rose,” 1979)
This musical drama directed by Mark Rydell was loosely based on the life of Janis Joplin, the raspy-voiced blues singer who rose to fame in the late ‘60s who suffered from self-destructive tendencies, including drug use and alcoholism. Despite her blistering stage presence and full-throated belting, Midler’s Rose suffers from insecurities and a lack of affection. Alan Bates plays her cruel and greedy manager who has no sympathy for his client. Eventually, she ends up collapsing on stage during a homecoming concert and dies of an overdose. Midler would earn the first of two Best Actress Oscar nominations.
Jessica Lange (“Sweet Dreams,” 1985)
Lange was in the running as Best Actress, her fourth bid, for her performance as the country legend Patsy Cline. When we first meet the singer, she is unhappily married and dissatisfied with her small-town career. She ends up meeting Charlie Dick (Ed Harris) who charms her into marriage and raising a family along with pursuing her ambitions. She hires Randy Hughes (David Clennon) as her manager and soon becomes a rising star on the country music scene. Her husband becomes jealous of her independence and physically and emotionally abuses her. She would die in a plane crash at the age of 30. Lange lip-synched to Cline’s recordings while emulating her performances of “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams (of You).”
Bette Midler (“For the Boys,” 1991)
Bette Midler collected her second Best Actress nom with director Mark Rydell at the wheel as Dixie Leonard, a 1940s performer who pairs up with Eddie Sparks (James Cann), a famous performer, to entertain the troops overseas during several wars. While the script is fiction, Midler’s character is presumed to be based on actress and singer Martha Raye, who often performed American soldiers at USO shows. She sued the production and lost the case. Cann’s character was presumed to be based on comedian Bob Hope. The soundtrack featured such classic songs as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and the Beatles song “In My Life.”
Angela Bassett (“What’s Love Got to Do with It, 1993”)
Bassett only had a month to prepare to turn herself into Tina Turner, the source of her lone Best Actress Oscar bid. She met with the “Proud Mary” singer twice as she shared her advice about wigs, outfits and dance moves. Turner also gave the actress makeup tips. She went to one of Turner’s concerts and cried profusely upon realizing that she knew some of her dance moves already. Based on the singer’s book, “I, Tina,” it reveals how Anna Mae Bullock won a chance to join Ike Turner Laurence Fishburne and his band. The pair marries but matters go downhill when Tina becomes a R&B superstar, which drives the jealous band leader to take drugs and grow physically abusive. At the end, Tina triumphantly goes on to find solo success in the 1980s. Bassett would lip-sync the lyrics recorded by Turner but her feat of aping her fast-paced sexy dance moves were all hers.