Oscars Honor Historical Films

Sean Penn brandishes his award for Actor in a Leading Role at the 81st Academy Awards. (Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

While historical films don't always make a big splash, the 81st Annual Academy Awards honored a handful of 2008 historical dramas.

First, there was "The Duchess," which won the award for Best Costume Design. My friend and fellow HSW editor Katie Lambert has raved about Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Spencer on which the film is based. I haven't seen the movie or read the book, but I'm always up for a period piece. And from my abbreviated knowledge of the Duchess of Devonshire, this is a juicy story about a brilliant historical figure oppressed because of her sex and driven to many vices, including gambling and drug abuse.

Another big winner was "Milk." TIME magazine awarded Harvey Milk a spot on its list of the 100 Most Important People of the Century, Heroes & Icons. If you haven't seen Sean Penn's Oscar-winning performance in the film or you don't know the story, Milk emerged as a major figure in the gay rights movement when he was elected to San Francisco's board of supervisors in 1977. To put that victory in context, TIME explains that mental health professionals in the 1970s classified homosexuality as a "mental illness." The American Civil Liberties Union reports that the same year, Mississippi State University "refus[ed] to recognize" the Mississippi Gay Alliance on its campus, and just a year later, in the state where Milk had won his appointment to office, California tried to oust gay teachers from its public school system.

Frank Langella's performance in "Frost/Nixon" received many accolades, not the least of which came from Sir David Frost himself. While Langella didn't take home the coveted Oscar, he did create quite an impression on the reporter who interviewed post-Watergate Nixon. Frost acknowledged that the movie was only "about 10 per cent fiction" -- a pretty major achievement in Hollywood's vault of historical bloopers such as "Pearl Harbor," "Pocahontas" and "JFK." Interestingly, these last two films were both Academy Award winners, but not for their historical accuracy. "Pocahontas" won for its musical score and original song, and "JFK" got little gold men for film editing and cinematography.

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