Though biopics are generally considered catnip for Oscar’s acting categories, few of the films featured on this website had been so honoured in the award’s first 76 years. James Cagney won Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Barbra Streisand won Best Actress for Funny Girl and Martin Landau was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Things picked up at the 77th Academy Awards, when Cate Blanchett won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator and Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for Ray. It was also the first acting Oscar awarded for the portrayal of an African-American in a biopic. The film itself stands as one of the best biopics of either category.
Moulded by the tough love of his mother, Ray Charles is determined to keep his promise to her that he will never let his blindness turn him into a cripple. Though many try to take advantage of him, short-changing his pay or using him as a meal-ticket, Ray’s undeniable talent keeps him afloat till his contract fortuitously falls into the hands of Atlantic Records. There, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler coax him away from mimicking Nat King Cole and help Ray find his own sound by combining Rhythm and Blues with Gospel. It signals the start of a magnificent career that continually pushed musical genres and racial barriers. Yet Ray’s promise to his mother is broken the moment he sticks a needle into his arm.
Stylishly directed by Taylor Hackford, this gorgeous film wonderfully showcases Ray Charles’ music. Bouyed by a brilliant performance from Jamie Foxx, the composition of such hits as “I Got a Woman” and “Hit the Road Jack” are seamlessly woven into the film’s plot while the sublime “Georgia on My Mind” and rousing “What’d I Say” remind us of the star’s versatility. Focusing on Charles’ early career till his 1964 drug arrest, Ray uses the singer’s nightmarish hallucinations to flashback to his hardscrabble childhood and accompanying loss. Newcomer Sharon Warren, as Ray’s dedicated mother, is heartbreakingly effective during these scenes.
Yet while our sympathies may always lie with Ray Charles as he overcomes numerous obstacles, his blindness is never used as a source of pity. Surprisingly, there is much humour in this film as the singer combats preconceived notions. However this is no hagiopic. Charles’ unfaithfulness to his wife and disregard of friends are not glossed over, and the effect of his heroin addiction is unflaggingly depicted. Nevertheless, as noted by a radiant Kerry Washington as Charles’ wife Della, it is his music that trumps all else.
As it does in this film.
as Ray Charles
as Joe Adams
as Fathead Newman
as Jerry Wexler
Ray did try to rescue his brother from drowning but was unable to lift him out of the tub.
Margie Hendricks' cause of death was undetermined.
By the time Ray Charles was honoured by the Georgia state legislature in 1979, he and Della had been divorced for two years.
Biopic does not cover Ray Charles’ limited film career.