Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 4, 2012
Recently on my stunningly exciting Twitter feed, I engaged in a conversation about actors in biopics with my previously mentioned friend Bill Ryan as well as with fellow blogger/film critic Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren and The New York Post. The topic, raised by me, was that certain actors didn’t fit well into certain biographical portrayals because despite their physical resemblance, the actor’s demeanor, intellect and personality all worked against him. The actor in this case in point is Rod Steiger in the movie W.C. Fields and Me. Steiger is made to look very much like Fields, sounds like Fields, walks like Fields and delivers lines originally delivered by Fields. Despite all of that, Rod Steiger, a very talented actor, just doesn’t work as Fields, regardless of how much or little he looks like him. Other times an actor nails the portrayal but looks so unlike the figure they’re portraying the performance gets lost among the brain fighting back with, “that doesn’t look like him at all!” When does one matter and the other not?
The curious thing about W.C. Fields and Me is that it also contains a performance by Jack Cassidy (absolutely wonderful actor who tragically died at 49 when he fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand) as John Barrymore that feels exactly right despite the fact that Cassidy doesn’t look or sound nearly as much like Barrymore as Steiger looks and sounds like Fields. But he was right in spirit. Steiger, for me, seemed too calculating, too practiced in his performance. The detailed research and methodology he brought to performances like the lead role in The Pawnbroker and In the Heat of the Night seems to work against the character of Fields. His performance seems too much of a case of a studied performance rather than free-spirited interpretation of Fields. Cassidy, on the other hand, is playing a pompous, egotist who just happens to be named John Barrymore. He doesn’t so much look or sound like him as feel like him, or at least, like what we the audience have a fun time imagining him being.
In the same conversation, or whatever you call 140-character exchanges on Twitter, I brought up Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin in The Cat’s Meow. Again, to me, Izzard barely resembled Chaplin. I could stretch my imagination and convince myself that that was Chaplin but only because I chose to. And I chose to because Izzard played an intelligent character, funny and clever and very perceptive and that character’s name was Charlie Chaplin. He wasn’t trying to play an impersonation of Chaplin and, somehow, I appreciated that more.
When Robert Downey, Jr played Chaplin, it was more of an impersonation, though I felt a damn good one, and Downey looked a lot more like Chaplin than Izzard. But Downey was working with a lackluster script and Izzard was not. In the end, that made the difference. In an ideal world, I’d love to see the two actors reverse roles just to see if I would then like Downey’s Chaplin best or still like Izzard’s in the event he overcame the lackluster script.
The problem actors have portraying their own is that the person they’re portraying is famous precisely for their face and voice. General George S. Patton was famous for his exploits as a military commander so no one much cared when George C. Scott, an actor with ten times the commanding voice and stature of the actual general, was cast in the lead. The same goes for most historical figures. Most people don’t know how T.E. Lawrence sounded and how he looked can only be culled from still photographs so few people care one way or the other if Peter O’Toole is giving an accurate impersonation or not. On the other hand, anyone familiar with classic cinema knows how Carole Lombard looks and sounds and can’t help but immediately place that information in the field of play when they see Jill Clayburgh playing her in Gable and Lombard. For that matter, even most casual movie lovers know Clark Gable and, due to this, James Brolin struggles mightily and courageously but he just can’t compete with the unfortunate fact that everyone seeing the movie in 1976 knew exactly how Gable looked and sounded. But more than that, Brolin just didn’t feel like Gable and that’s a problem increasingly encountered in actors playing actors.
The simple truth is, most good actors have a charisma and charm about them that is uniquely theirs. That’s why they become stars in the first place. So it’s no knock on Steiger, Clayburgh and Brolin to say that their certain charms and charisma were simply of a different kind than those of their characters. And in the case of Izzard and Cassidy, they matched up.
But that simple truth hasn’t stopped Hollywood from repeatedly giving us biopics of famous stars because what made the star famous in the first place might also make them appealing as a character in a biopic so why not try? In 1965, less than thirty years after the premature death of Hollywood legend Jean Harlow, Hollywood put out not one but two biopics about her and had the amazing ingenuity to name both of them Harlow. One starred Carol Lynley and the other starred Carroll Baker. I’ve never seen the Carol Lynley version so I can’t judge it, although Lynley was excellent in Bunny Lake is Missing that very same year so I don’t doubt she could have played Harlow well. I have seen the Carroll Baker version and while I don’t think the movie is very good, I do think Baker is very good at playing a hard-working, tortured actress, I just don’t think she’s playing Jean Harlow. Her performance, like Steiger’s, seems too measured and precisely drawn. The spirit of Harlow is lost.
But wait, there’s another problem still. The actors being portrayed are most famous for their own portrayals of other characters, not themselves. In other words, for all I know, Baker pegged Harlow exactly right but since I’m judging Baker’s performance against Harlow’s performances as the fictional characters that Harlow played, I can’t really know for sure. At this point, it comes down to what feels right based on the personality of the original actor that shone through when that actor played those fictional roles (everybody got that?). So when I look at Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, even though I feel the movie is an unfair characterization of Joan, dammit, it feels right (the performance, not the movie). I’m not sure how much of Christina’s story I believe in the first place (not a lot, actually) but I do know that whatever really happened in Joan Crawford’s private life, Faye Dunaway plays it precisely how most of us would imagine it really was, for better or worse. I don’t know if the hard-working Crawford ever actually said that famous line to the executives at Pepsi, I just know that I not only hope she did, I believe she did, thanks to both her and Dunaway.
If I had to make my own personal pick for the best famous actor portraying another famous actor ever, I’d give my top prize to Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. I love Johnny Depp in that movie too but it’s Landau as Lugosi that is playing off a much bigger public recognition factor. And Landau plays Lugosi with a flair laced with resentment and bitterness that hits just the right notes for a man that was proud and confident but also, paradoxically, filled with self-doubt. I think Landau had the toughest job of any actor portraying another because I think his character, Bela Lugosi, was operating on many more levels than anyone else.
And if I had to pick my most consistently frustrating, it would be any actor playing Orson Welles. I think a lot of that arises from the fact that anyone familiar with Mr. Welles onscreen is as equally familiar with the man himself from countless interviews, talk shows and celebrity roasts. So an actor playing Welles has a lot to compete with and usually comes up short. The cameo in Ed Wood probably isn’t worth mentioning as a full on portrayal but it still didn’t feel right and this is coming from someone who thinks Vincent D’Onofrio is an excellent actor. I was also quite put off by Liev Schrieber and Angus Macfayden’s portrayals of Welles in RKO 281 and The Cradle Will Rock, respectively. Again, the actors do a fine job, I just don’t see Welles when I watch them. The best, by far, is Christian McKay in the recent Me and Orson Welles. It’s not a full biographical portrayal, more of a supporting player in a story that has nothing much to do with Welles but damned if he doesn’t have Welles down pretty well.
There are so many portrayals of famous Hollywood figures in the cinema, there seem to be new ones each year (especially after Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing Kate Hepburn). Lately, we’ve had additions from James Franco as James Dean to Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and there are plenty more to come. In fact, all of this started weeks before the W.C. Fields and Me conversation when, in another Twitter spasm of 140-character exchanges, I brought up the forthcoming film adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, starring Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh as well as James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. I still cannot get my mind around any of that casting. It seems so crazy to me that they may as well just thrown a basket of actor’s names in the air and cast the first ones they picked up. I mean, do any of those actors bear even the slightest resemblance to their famous subjects? Despite all of that I am prepared to be wrong for one simple reason: Back in the early nineties, when I heard that Martin Landau, from North by Northwest and Mission Impossible and Space: 1999, was going to be playing Bela Lugosi, I shook my head thinking, “Doesn’t anyone know how to cast these kinds of things.” Well, we all know how that turned out. I’ve been a lot more cautious since. Still, while the performance is most definitely the thing, it certainly doesn’t hurt to capture the look and charm of a king.
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