Oscar Themes, Present and Past

"Jon Stewart was certainly the perfect host for that year's ceremony because he was in a great position to comment on all the politics at the movies," Karger said. "His presence really tied that theme together and solidified it."

2005: The Biopic

Nothing like playing a real person to bring out the Oscar winner in an actor. Or at least that seemed to be the academy's thinking in 2005, the year of the biopic.

In the five-time winner "The Aviator," Leonardo DiCaprio went method to play Howard Hughes, while Cate Blanchett took best actress for her turn as Katherine Hepburn.

In the best actor category, Johnny Depp was up for his role as "Peter Pan" writer J.M. Barrie in "Finding Neverland," while Don Cheadle took a nod for his turn as civil rights hero Paul Rusesabagina in "Finding Rwanda."

But of course, Jamie Fox stole the show with a best actor win for "Ray."

"The academy loves biopics -- more than a dozen have won best picture," O'Neil said. "They love to see actors bury their own larger-than-life personas in that of a real person."

Karger seconds that.

"The surest way to win an Oscar is to play a real person and to do it well," he said. "That year, Jamie Fox and Cate Blanchett won. And that's something you see all the time. The academy loves to recognize it, because I do think it's harder to play a real person. It's such a fine line to walk. You don't want to seem like a 'Saturday Night Live' impersonation. You want to seem like a real human being. And if you're playing someone who's well known, it's such a tough thing to pull off."

2002: The Black Actor

In Oscar history, 2002 was heralded as the year that actors of color were finally recognized, with Denzel Washington taking home the best actor trophy for "Training Day" in a category where Will Smith was also nominated for "Ali." Halle Berry's tearful best actress win for "Monster's Ball" cemented the label.

"The pressure was really being put on the academy that year about how stingy they had been to African-Americans," Karger said. "Only Sidney Poitier had ever won best actor, and that was in 1964. It was pretty shameful. That year, Russell Crowe was the front-runner, but he attacked a BAFTA producer and essentially put himself out of the race. And Hollywood got a case of the guilts and, there you go, a sudden breakthrough."

"I was at the ceremony and it was just electric to be in that auditorium when Denzel and Halle won," O'Neil said. "Everyone was just so excited that the barrier had finally been broken. That was an absolutely thrilling night."

With wins by Forest Whitaker in the best actor race ("The Last King of Scotland") and Jennifer Hudson in the best supporting actress category (for "Dreamgirls"), 2006 echoed the trend.

"I think the academy has finally broke past the color barrier," said O'Neil. "Black actors have done quite well at the Oscars since then. But the new issue is homophobia. 'Brokeback Mountain' should have taken best picture in 2006, but it didn't. Will they make up for it with 'Milk' this year?"

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