How to Win an Oscar If You're a Woman or a Man (Hint: Be an Addict)

There are some things that will probably always be separate for men and women: Public restrooms. Gym locker rooms. The acting categories at the Academy Awards

But what does it take to win one of the coveted gold statues if you're a woman? History suggests the key to taking home the gold is different for men than it is for women. For women, winning the top acting prize in the last decade has typically involved taking on deeply disturbed characters, like addicts and sufferers of mental illness. 

For men, winning the same honor in the last ten years has hinged almost entirely (superficially, that is) on whether or not the character was a historical figure. The second most common trait of Best Actor winner? Being an artist. (Also, even better if you're gay.)

And this is to say nothing of the Best Supporting Actor traits. Take this year as an example: Lupita Ny'Ongo played a slave and rape victim, while Jared Leto played a transgender woman suffering from AIDS.

The ages of the winners have also been telling. While most Best Actor winners in the last decade have been in their 40s or 50s, most of the Best Actress winners have been in their 20s or 30s — (unless they are Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep). 

Just check out the winners over the last 10 years and let the winning roles speak for themselves. 

2004

Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

Winning Characteristics: Changed Body for Role, Tough Woman, Disabled, Tragic Death

Swank won for her role as a strong, female boxer whose boxing career [SPOILER ALERT] ends in a paralyzing knockout.  

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Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Blind

Foxx won for his portrayal of Ray Charles. Best Actor winners typically play historical figures. 


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2005


Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Artist

Witherspoon took the biopic route to her Oscar, playing June Carter. Witherspoon's role is actually something of an outlier for Best Actress winners. 

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Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Artist, Addict

Art imitated life when Hoffman portrayed Truman Capote, an artist who famously struggled with drug addiction. Historical figure? Check. Artist? Check. Hoffman hit two of the most common traits of a Best Actor winning role with this one.


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2006

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Political Leader

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Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Political Leader

Whitaker, like so many of his Best Actor brethren, won for portraying a real life figure. He and Mirren both won for playing political leaders this year.

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2007

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Artist, Addict, Tragic Death

Cotillard also took a page from history books, playing famed French singer Edith Piaf, who struggled with addiction. Historical figure, artist, and addict? Talk about a triple threat.
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Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Winning Characteristics: Intensity

Day-Lewis is always an awards season staple when he releases a film. His performance in There Will Be Blood was intense and powerful, but avoided many of the Oscar-baity traps.

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2008

Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Winning Characteristics: Nazi, Statutory Rapist

Winslet didn't fall into the usual tropes of an Oscar-winning role for her turn in The Reader, but she did play a Nazi and statutory rapist ... so there's that.

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Best Actor: Sean Penn, Milk

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Political Leader, Gay, Tragic Death

Another year, another character ripped from the history books for the Best Actor winner. Penn won for his role as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

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2009

Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

Winning Characteristics: None that follow the trends.

In her acceptance speech, Bullock asked the crowd if she really earned the award or just "wore them all down." It's a cute, Sandy thing to say, but it's also worth asking, since her role as a crusading mom doesn't fit the typical Oscar-winning mold.

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Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

Winning Characteristics: Artist, Addict

The Academy also bucked its own trend for the male winners this year, awarding the top prize to Jeff Bridges, who played someone who was actually fictional. Still, his character was an artist and an alcoholic, so the win wasn't totally out of left field. 

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2010

Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Winning Characteristics: Artist, Mental Health Issues, Trained/Lost Weight For Role

Portman got the chance to get her crazy on with some gut-wrenching hallucinations and frigidly type A behavior in Black Swan. The prima ballerina performance earned her the Oscar.

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Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Political Leader, Mild Disability 

Firth knew how to please the Academy. After his snub for A Single Man, Firth played it safe, playing King George VI (overcoming a speech impediment) to take home Oscar gold.

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2011

Best Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Political Leader, Serious Illness (Dementia)

Meryl Streep has, as of the most recent Academy Awards, been nominated a record-breaking 15 times. She earned her second Best Actress win in 2011 for her role as historical figure and political leader Margaret Thatcher. The filmmakers also included Thatcher's present day struggles with dementia, giving Streep the illness card to play as well.

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Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Winning Characteristics: Artist

Dujardin won for his role as, well, an artist, in the silent film The Artist. 

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2012

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Winning Characteristics: Mental Health Issues

Jennifer Lawrence won for getting her crazy on in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. Being young (she was 22 when she earned her statue) didn't hurt Lawrence's case; the Academy is more likely to award younger women and older men.

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Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Political Leader

Day-Lewis went historical to snag his second Oscar in 10 years for Lincoln.

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2013

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Winning Characteristics: Addict, Mental Health Issues

Blanchett won her Best Actress trophy for playing a pill-popping woman in Blue Jasmine.

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Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Winning Characteristics: Historical Figure, Gay, Sick, Lost Weight for Role

McConaughey pulled out all the Oscar-winning stops for his role as real-life AIDs patient (he lost an almost-unbelievable amount of weight for the role) Ron Woodroof. 

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