The real precedent for Ray is the late Brian Gibson's What's Love Got to Do With It, which won Oscar nominations 11 years ago for Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner.
Fishburne has never been more dynamic than as the sleek young leader of the Rhythm Kings, basking in adoration from his young female fans. His controlled sizzle made Ike's descent into drug addiction and wife-beating all the more harrowing. Bassett (lip-syncing as well as Foxx does) captured the full range and power of Tina, both as a dynamite performer and as a country girl who comes under Ike's smothering wing and finds the strength to get out from under it when he pulls a gun on her.
This year, Foxx's strongest best acting competitors, including Leonardo DiCaprio's great leap forward as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, dip into mimicry or factual recreation and transcend it with conviction, even poetry.
Jaw-droppingly versatile Johnny Depp, as Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, plays against the film's whimsy by interpreting Barrie as both a childlike spirit and a humiliated adult. The equally robust and spiritual Don Cheadle did an up-close study of real-life hotelier Paul Rusesabagina for Hotel Rwanda -- but instead of simply re-creating the man, Cheadle chose to channel his heroically rational soul. (That's what Javier Bardem does, too, with another factual character, quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro, in The Sea Inside -- though Bardem didn't get a nomination.)
Studying real-life models
By contrast, best supporting actress nominee Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Hughes' true love in The Aviator, starts externally, aping the star's swift, chattering mannerisms. Then she digs deep inside and finds a fragile, haunted woman -- and later, a wistful, romantic one.
DiCaprio as Hughes meshes with Martin Scorsese on The Aviator in a way that he didn't on Scorsese's Gangs of New York. But there's so little time for movie actors to shape their own performances that many of them do their preparation with a personal coach like Larry Moss.
Only documentary-watchers would recognize Hughes these days, but Moss and DiCaprio used him as a model as much as Foxx did the young Ray Charles.
"DiCaprio studied every book on Hughes, pored through each available newsreel, and listened to audio tapes," says Moss, author of The Intent to Live. "One thing we learned was that Hughes had a nasality and monotone in public, but in private had more melody, more of an emotional expression. When you find something like that as an actor, you can use it to start understanding the character on your own terms. ... It's a less-extreme example of the kind of preparation Hilary [Swank] did when I coached her to play [the real-life gender-confused murder victim] Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry. She lived as a boy for a month and had her husband introduce her as his little brother."
Studying real-life models, then finding apt "symbols and metaphors," governed even Swank's portrayal of a fictional female boxer in Million Dollar Baby, Moss says.
"Hilary generated 19 pounds of muscle in training, so she understood that character in an incredibly visceral way. But we also worked on the idea of starvation -- that boxing was her food and that if she didn't box, she'd die. And Hilary could identify with that hunger: She's been really poor and is really sensitive and strong and a survivor."
As Moss suggests, this year's masterpieces of mimicry only underline the blood, sweat and tears that actors go through for any part, and how remarkable it is when they never let you see the sweat and tears -- only the blood surging through their characters.