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Three Oscar Inspirations

Published: 3/30/2011

What do The King's Speech, The Killing Fields, and Stand and Deliver have in common? If you guessed that they're award-winning biopics, you're right. All three films were nominated for Oscars, but that's not the only thing that links them.

March 30 marks the death anniversaries of three individuals who inspired these great films: Queen Mother Elizabeth, featured in The King's Speech, died March 30, 2002; Dith Pran, subject of The Killing Fields, died March 30, 2008; and Jaime Escalante, inspiration for Stand and Deliver, died March 30, 2010. On this anniversary, we look at their lives and the movies that tell their tales.

Queen Mother Elizabeth (Wikimedia Commons)Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was known as the Queen consort of King George VI while he lived, and then as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother – to avoid confusion with her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II – after her husband's death. A reluctant royal, Elizabeth was unsure she wanted to marry Prince Albert, as he was then known (he would assume the royal name 'George' when he took the throne), even though he wasn't first in line to become king. When Albert's brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth ascended to the throne she didn't much want.

Yet with the classic British stiff upper lip, Elizabeth accepted and made the best of her fate, becoming a much-loved queen. She was known for her unflappability, her dry sense of humor, and her extravagant lifestyle. As the matriarch of the British royal family, she was, at times, one of the few royals that the public liked all that much. From her youngest days as "The Smiling Duchess" to her final years as a centenarian, she remained well-liked – eclipsed in popularity during her lifetime only by, perhaps, Princess Diana.

The King's Speech tells the true tale of Albert's agonizing stammer and the work he did to overcome it. In the film, as in real life, Elizabeth – played by Helena Bonham Carter – urged him to work with speech therapist Lionel Logue and assisted him with Logue's exercises. The performance won Bonham Carter the BAFTA for best supporting actress and an Academy Award nomination, in addition to the film's Oscar wins for best picture, director, actor and other accolades.

Dith Pran (Wikimedia Commons)Dith Pran was a Cambodian photojournalist who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, a regime that in the late 1970s killed about 1.5 million people – one fifth of Cambodia's population – in a genocidal attempt to stamp out intellectualism and create an agrarian Communist society.

Pran, along with U.S. reporter Sydney Schanberg, covered the fall of the capital, Phnom Penh, to the Khmer Rouge forces. As the regime clamped down on the country, foreigners like Schanberg were allowed to leave, but Cambodian native Pran was forced to stay. He was sent to a labor camp, where he spent four years enduring starvation and torture and came face to face with the killing fields, where the regime sent millions to die.

Pran escaped and eventually made it to the U.S., where he became a photojournalist for the New York Times and founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to educate the world about the Cambodian genocide. The movie The Killing Fields also helped with this mission, dramatizing the story of Pran's imprisonment and escape and ensuring that the horrors and heroism of that time won't be forgotten. Pran was portrayed by Haing S. Ngor, himself a survivor of the Cambodian labor camps who had never acted before. Ngor's performance earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Jaime Escalante (Wikimedia Commons)Jaime Escalante was a native of Bolivia who became a math teacher in East Los Angeles. As a new faculty member at inner-city Garfield High School, Escalante was discouraged by his students' poor performance and lack of preparation. He nearly left the school, but changed his mind when he found 12 brave students who were willing to give algebra a try. He moved on to offering calculus and encouraging his students to take the Advanced Placement exam.

After the first few students succeeded under Escalante's guidance, things started to snowball. More and more students took his advanced math classes, and greater percentages of those students passed the AP calculus exam, earning college credit. Yet Escalante often faced criticism from his administration and suspicion from outsiders who found his students' test scores fishy.

The movie Stand and Deliver, starring Oscar-nominated Edward James Olmos as Escalante, brought nationwide recognition to the teacher and his program. Enrollment in his classes grew, perhaps due in part to high-profile visits from President Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet his clashes with the administration continued, and in 1991 he moved on to another school. When Escalante was diagnosed with cancer and medical bills were decimating his finances, Stand and Deliver cast members, along with former students of Escalante's, raised funds to help cover his treatment costs.

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