08 May 2010

You're History! Great Cinematic Portrayals of Famous People

One of the great challenges for any actor is to portray a character well known to audiences through real life deeds. The actor must create his or her own interpretation of someone who audience have either seen on film, read about or perhaps even met.

The actor risks doing an impersonation, which may recall the figure they're playing but adds nothing to the film and fails to cast the character in a new light. A convincing performance has us thinking that actor looks and sounds like Mr. or Ms. Famous. But a great performance obliterates such relative trivialities and we become lost in the story.

Here are ten such performances. I could easily have doubled, tripled even quadrupled the total. But I sought a representative sampling from both recent years and the past, men and women. And yes, I may compose a second part in the future.

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006). This role was an amazing challenge for an Englishwoman and it required someone of Ms. Mirren's stature and talent to pull it of. Any portrayal of a reigning monarch could easily, despite intentions to the contrary, slip into parody. But Ms. Mirren was up to the task. It was probably not meant to be a sympathetic portrayal (just an accurate one) and yet it reminded audiences that QEII may be royalty, but she is also human.

Bruno Ganz as Adolph Hitler in Downfall (2004). This performance was controversial to some who felt it humanized Der Fuhrer. To me that was the beauty of it. Hitler was after all, a human being. As awful a one to walk the face of the earth, but still it is important to remember that he is akin to the rest of us humanoids.Asfar as monsters do exist, they are humans. As someone who has read a lot about the Third Reich and its leader, I became totally lost in Ganz's portrayal, as it seemed to be at once a true depiction of Hitler in his last days and a tour de force performance.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008). Watch Milk and you quickly become enraptured in a wonderful film with a superb cast led by Sean Penn in the title role. See the late great Mr. Milk in the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and you marvel at how Penn magically embodied the man. If I ever dared something so stupid as ranking acting performances, this would have to be at or near the very top of my list.

Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). It can probably be said that this was the part Ms. Ross was born to play because her acting career shows nothing of note preceding or following this film. I never thought she did very much to be Billie Holiday, but she did one helluva lot to create a remarkable character that enhances our understanding and apprecitation of Lady Day.

Jamie Foxx as Drew "Bundini" Brown in Ali (2001). While Will Smith in the title role deserved kudos, as do many of the other cast members portraying familiar figures of recent history, for me it was Foxx who practically stole every scene he was in. Bundini, along with trainer Angelo Dundee, was the man Muhammad Ali's career for most of The Greatest's career and so is familiar to Ali devotees such as yours truly. Foxx presaged what is already an excellent acting career with this powerful performance.

Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997). All right, so none of has ever seen any film footage of America's sixth president and few of us know very much about him. But for crying out loud somehow Hopkins was Adams (then an ex prez serving in Congress). This one is impossible to explain but I swear to Allah that Hopkins had me thinking that he had brought Adams to life. Certain things just can't be explained. But they can be marveled at. This is one of them.

Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein in All the President's Men (1976). People who knew the Bernstein claimed that Hoffman captured virtually every detail of the Washington Post reporter. Most of us hadn't seen a lot of Bernstein on the telly when this film came out, but we imagined that this surely was what the man was like. By the strength of such such performances, the film added to our appreciation of the Watergate investigation in particular and newspaper reporting in general.

Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn in Aviator (2004). It was an incredible challenge for Ms. Blanchett to play someone on the screen who so many of us have seen so often on the screen. It was impossible to look "just like" her. But Ms. Blanchett managed to sound like Hepburn, walk like Hepburn and fully remind of us Hepburn while creating her own character. In other words she pulled off the double feat of being someone we knew in her own way.

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). There's not so much as a photograph (though often there are portraits) for an actor to go by in portraying historical figures of the more distant past. The challenge then is to create a character who seems to be what so much of the audience will imagine that person was like. Especially with so well known a figure as QEI. Many have done a fine job of portraying her, such as the aforementioned Ms. Blanchett, but no actress can outdo Davis when it comes to regal bearing. Perhaps it is a matter of my own prejudice, but I think Davis looks so good in the role because she has come to embody cinematic royalty. Anyway, acting is not just emoting, it is being. Bette Davis had that aspect of her job down to a science.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). I don't know a lot about Cohan but I do know a transcendent performance when I see one and this fits the bill. More than "play" Cohan, Cagney threw himself into the role and created a version of the great showman that we can all appreciate and enjoy. It was a totally uninhibited performance that wowed everyone then and still does today. No doubt, Cohan is still beaming.

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