|Christian McKay as Orson Welels in "Me and Orson Welles"|
|Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher (L) and the real thing (R)|
This kind of biography has long been ratings fodder for telemovies: think Kurt Russell's Elvis Presley, Poppy Montgomery and Catherine Hicks's versions of Marilyn Monroe, or Judy Davis's hosanna to her namesake, Judy Garland. Now depictions of the living or clearly remembered are becoming commonplace on the big screen, too.
The list of cinematic biographies from the past few years is long, including singers Ray Charles (Ray, starring Jamie Foxx); Edith Piaf (La Vie en Rose, Marion Cotillard); Johnny Cash (Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix); Bob Dylan (I'm Not There, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and others); John Lennon (Nowhere Boy, Aaron Johnson); and Ian Curtis (Control, Sam Riley).
It goes on to take in dictators Adolf Hitler (Downfall, Bruno Ganz) and Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker), guerilla leader Che Guevara (Che, Benicio Del Toro), and the Queen (The Queen, Helen Mirren).
For good measure the list rounds up rock impresario Tony Wilson (24 Hour Party People, Steve Coogan), television interviewer David Frost (Frost/Nixon, Michael Sheen), British soccer manager Brian Clough (The Damned United, Sheen again), and US presidents George W. Bush (W., Josh Brolin) and Richard Nixon (Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella, and Nixon, Anthony Hopkins).
For years the surest way to Oscar success was to play a character with an obvious physical or psychiatric disability, but that route has been supplanted by dramatic impersonations of people who are well within living memory.
That requires special artistry, to convince viewers they are watching a character they feel they already know. Note the number of performances listed that went on to Academy acclaim, as nominations or wins, among them Cotillard who, in La Vie en Rose, had to overcome the considerable disadvantage of being a French actress playing in a French film in her native language.
In the past few weeks the trend for biopics has intensified, with figures such as Bill Clinton, Orson Welles, Tony Blair and rock singers Joan Jett and Ian Dury being incarnated by actors on cinema screens.
The Special Relationship - about the bond between Blair (Sheen tackling the role for the third time) and Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) -- benefits not only from convincing portraits of the two leaders but strong supporting performances from Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton and Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair. While the project originated as a TV production, its distributor clearly thought it suitable for the big screen in Australia.
We've also had an uncannily lifelike performance from unknown British actor Christian McKay as the young Orson Welles in the Richard Linklater film Me and Orson Welles. The film is about the staging of the actor-director's celebrated 1930s theatre production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Watching McKay - who had previously played Welles in a New York one-man stage show - I was immediately struck by the physical resemblance, right down to the hypnotic eyes and baby-fat jowls. As the performance continued I became amazed at the authenticity with which McKay had also managed to capture Welles's voice, phrasing and mannerisms. He also produced something that is difficult for a performer unblessed with immense charisma to fake: Welles's toweringly large personality.
Although the film is set in 1937, before Welles launched his movie career both behind and in front of the camera with Citizen Kane, cinema buffs are bound to approach the Linklater movie with deep familiarity with Welles's image and voice. Yet McKay achieves the kind of total transformation that is likely to meet the standard of even the most sceptical viewer.
We've also recently had The Runaways, the story of the 70s female rock band, with Twilight star Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as the less well-remembered Cherie Currie. And the film chosen to close the Melbourne International Film Festival in August was Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a warts-and-more look at the life of cockney rocker Ian Dury starring Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films).
|Kristen Stewart and Joan Jett|
The theatre has long depicted historical personages - Shakespeare's plays are full of them - and Hollywood kept up the tradition: think John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), or Bette Davis, one of many actresses to tackle Queen Elizabeth I, in Essex and Elizabeth (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955). Because we can't possibly know what the personalities of these historic leaders were like in reality, actors and directors are free to interpret them any way they see fit.
In the past, contemporary entertainers were sometimes irresistible subjects for big-screen treatment, such as band leader Glenn Miller, lionised by Jimmy Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story a decade after his 1944 death , or Jimmy Cagney's embodiment of Broadway entertainer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, released in 1942, the same year its subject died.
|Jimmy Stewart as Glenn Miller|
Today's greater willingness by Hollywood to depict living people may simply reflect the greater role of celebrity in our culture. You may be a star but you're not really a star until someone turns your life into a movie.
Isolating the quality that makes a great screen performance of a real person, well known to the audience, is not as straightforward as some may assume.
Is it an act of impersonation or is something else going on? Does the actor need to come to the role with a natural resemblance to their character or do make-up and costumes do most of the work? Indeed, do the actors need to look like their character at all? Is being as famous, or even more famous, than the person portrayed a plus or a minus? How important is accent and voice? Why do viewers so often buy these performances when they can clearly see the actor is, in effect, an impostor?
Tanya Gerstle, head of acting at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, points out that the actor makes a contract with the audience, which has to agree to suspend disbelief. There are certain things the actor has to do, and if they don't deliver the viewer finds it hard to go with them.
Gerstle says that star quality - a famous actor's own persona, carried from role to role - can be a disadvantage.
"If you've seen an actor many, many times, it gets harder and harder for that actor to create the illusion," she says. "Almost inevitably when the actor is very well known you're aware of them for a while before you start to accept the portrayal. You can't not know the actor. Various people don't have the ability to morph."
Gerstle feels it's easier when we don't know the actor at all or not very well. McKay echoes this view when discussing his portrayal of Welles. He told the SBS website recently that "it was a great help that no one had actually heard of me, so they're not distracted by any 'persona'. People say I look like Welles and sound like him, and in life I don't at all. People will project their own image of Welles on to the performance, if they have one already."
Star quality need not be fatal to impersonation, though. Gerstle greatly admires Judy Davis's Emmy award-winning lead performance in the telemovie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001), despite Davis's familiarity. And Tony Knight, head of acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, observes that Blanchett's star status did no harm at all to her Oscar-winning portrayal of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.
A physical resemblance between actor and subject may not be important. That may sound counterintuitive, but consider actor Sheen and former British PM Blair: the resemblance is less striking when photos of them are placed side by side. What makes people think Sheen looks remarkably like Blair is a certain fresh-faced quality: a boyish demeanour that everyone associates with the politician. So what are we to make of the critical praise Sheen has also attracted for playing Frost and Clough, despite a distinct lack of resemblance to either man?
Neither of the actors who has portrayed Nixon in the past 15 years looks anything like the former US president, yet both give powerful and convincing performances.
|Hopkins in "Nixon"|
|Real Nixon and Langella as Nixon|
Physical likeness, says Knight, is not essential, though it helps the audience invest in the transformation process.
"Do you go about an impersonation or an impression?" he says. "Most actors will go for an impression, which is more of an internal process and more dependent on the character in the script, rather than the real-life person.
"You're making a drama, not making a documentary. With the Queen, we can't possibly know what happened between Tony Blair and [Prince] Charles, so the filmmakers have gone for something dramatic. All these people who have spoken out about [TV crime series] Underbelly and said, 'It wasn't really like that' -- well, of course it wasn't." Knight says "the actor will be looking for the psychological gesture -- an old acting term -- which may reveal something about the inner life of the character."
But if gestures and body language can encourage the audience's suspension of disbelief, so can hair, costumes and voice. Weight too.
Chris Edmund, head of acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, points to Blanchett's startlingly unlikely, multi-award-winning role as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Apart from being the wrong sex, ordinarily Blanchett looks nothing like the singer-songwriter, but she "lost a lot of weight to inhabit that wiry 60s Dylan and somehow she got that wild energy", he observes.
Gerstle stresses the difference between impersonation and a sustained performance. "An impersonation is more like a mask; you put it on for a moment and take it off," she says. "A performance is more mercurial."
As McKay puts it: "It's amazing when people talk about actors doing impersonation - if you do that, you'll never embody that character."