Film actors who play well known historical figures face many challenges

Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), left and Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn) in The Aviator. Picture: Supplied
Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard Hughes), left and Cate Blanchett (Katharine Hepburn) in The Aviator. Picture: Supplied

Coming up soon is Misbehaviour, about the 1970 Miss World contest, in which Greg Kinnear plays comedian Bob Hope. It can be jarring when an actor - especially one well known in his or her own right - plays a well-known person, and the more we have seen or heard the person, the more jarring it can be.

Judging from the previews, Kinnear, while not looking especially like Hope, captures many of the man's mannerisms such as his amiable but slightly distant demeanour and his glib, breezy style of delivering jokes. It might help that Kinnear, while a good actor and a fairly familiar face, is not a superstar as Hope was and that the comedian died in 2003. Hope is being depicted at a time when older audiences might remember him well and younger ones likely won't: it would be interesting to compare their responses to the performance.

Nobody knows what, say, Roman emperors such as Julius Caesar really looked, much less sounded, like, so having them played by different actors in different ways feels OK. We have statues and coins, sure, but only historians might nitpick at how closely actors resemble these.

Someone like US president Abraham Lincoln, whose appearance is well known from photographs, still gives leeway to actors who can present a reasonable facsimile. Daniel Day-Lewis, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey - all these actors and others have played Lincoln to acclaim.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Picture: Dreamworks/Twentieth Century Fox.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Picture: Dreamworks/Twentieth Century Fox.

But later, when people were captured on film, things became trickier. We're far more familiar with how people like British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher looked, spoke, moved and behaved. Having Gary Oldman and Meryl Streep play them, respectively, was impressive but slightly disconcerting. Onetime French president Francois Mitterand said of Thatcher, "She has the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe". Streep did not have such a steely (to put it more kindly) glint in her eyes. As for the mouth, I'm not sure what Mitterand was trying to convey there.

The recent US presidents Richard Nixon ( Anthony Hopkins) and George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) have also been portrayed to similar ambiguous effect: the viewer has to become absorbed in the story rather than mesmerised by the portrayal and the actor. While that's possibly true of many films, the circumstances make it trickier, since watching an unknown character brings less baggage.

Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus are interesting cases. The not terribly well-known actors were playing historical figures but Peter Shaffer was not pretending to write history, more a meditation on genius and creativity and on whom such gifts was bestowed. The less well-known actors meant it was easier to get into the story. Getting hung up about the American accents seems beside the point, especially when British accents seem less often to be an issue: do British accents of non-British characters make for any greater authenticity than anyone else's? This is especially arguable when the characters would not be speaking English anyway.

One person who genuinely does speak the Queen's English is Queen Elizabeth II. Helen Mirren played her in The Queen and managed to convey both the somewhat detached public persona of the monarch and a believable personal side when dealing with crises in the country and her family. And the performance overcame the far from identical likeness. The royal household was reportedly impressed - Mirren and others involved received a lunch invitation from the Palace.

Michael Sheen made for a convincing Tony Blair and in fact has played the former British prime minister two more times in films by The Queen's screenwriter, Peter Morgan. Here's one case where an actor's look and manner was deemed very convincing but did not prevent him getting other roles or constantly having the Blair comparison raised. He also played another well-known public figure, David Frost, in Frost/Nixon opposite Frank Langella as the former president.


Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Picture: Supplied

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Picture: Supplied

For film buffs, Katharine Hepburn is a familiar screen presence with her distinctive voice and look. Cate Blanchett in The Aviator evoked Hepburn's voice and patrician manner without trying to ape her predecessor identically. Leonardo DiCaprio arguably had it easier: although Howard Hughes was a well-known name, he wasn't as well-known in the flesh. Photographs show a certain boyishness about him which make the eternally youthful-looking DiCaprio shrewd casting despite relatively little physical resemblance.

Sometimes a role seems to define an actor or get them typecast. Jesse Eisenberg was a success as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network but it began to feel like elements of the character - nerdy, socially awkward, abrasive, arrogant - popped into many of his other film characters. At least in The Double where Eisenberg played two (fictional) people only one was like that.

James Franco made a brave stab at playing Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist. However, despite an elaborate makeup and wig, Franco wasn't quite able to capture the distinctive look, presence and Eastern European voice of the auteur of legendary bad movie The Room. Franco was simply too good-looking and Wiseau too unusual for it to be more than a stunt, albeit an entertaining one.

Imitiation or essence? Heavy makeup or subtle? These are just some of the choices actors and directors, quite apart from the script, have to make when a well-known figure is being portrayed.

This story When the famous do the famous first appeared on The Canberra Times.