Art Imitating Life: Celebrities and their Notable Roles
There’s just something about the phrase “inspired by a true story” that makes me sit up and take notice. I know that Hollywood is known for taking creative liberties, and stretching the truth, and tinkering with history as it wants, but there’s something about knowing that what you’re about to see has some ring of truth to it that makes it worthwhile. Whether it be someone standing up for what they believe in, or the life of a misunderstood genius, or even an inside look at another person’s life, historical and biographical dramas can be an exceptional treat if done right.
With the release of Spielberg’s Lincoln, the attention-grabbing Argo, and the trailer for Emperor just being released, I though it might be worthwhile to take a look at some other, less popular, depictions of notable people and the actors who played them.
Almost all of us know something about Marilyn Monroe. Whether it be her tragic death, her Hollywood track record, her famous blustery pinup picture, or her inspiration as an Elton John song, Marilyn Monroe is the ultimate original celebrity. This also makes her the perfect subject of a tragic Hollywood story. There are few things in audience loves more than to feel like they’re part of some kind of historical conspiracy theory (or, as I like to call it, the “DaVinci Code Effect”). When the premise relies so heavily on one star, and becomes the priority of that star to project that figure with confidence and authenticity. Michelle Williams does both in her role as Marilyn Monroe. Although Marilyn as a tragic figure is nothing new, Michelle’s believability brings it to a whole new level of desperation and redemption. Williams plays the role so well that the audience is torn between holding on to the happy and carefree girl they know, or to embrace the possible fiction and disillusionment that the film presents, none of which could be done without the strong performance from Williams.
Russell Crowe got a lot of attention for his performance as John Nash, and it was all well deserved. His performance as the brilliant but mentally crippled genius, along with an excellent supporting cast, made A Beautiful Mind one of the must-see pictures of that year. Sometimes were left to feel that the actor could have done more with the role, could have made the inspiration more believable. One of the prime things that I remember about Russell Crowe’s performance as John Nash was that some had called it to tame. According to biographers of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind sugarcoated many of the experiences and events that occurred. To be honest, I’m not sure I would’ve sat through the film had John Nash’s portrayal been anymore intense. I imagine it would’ve been almost to the point of distraction. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of John Nash was the perfect blend of genius and insanity. If only Russell Crowe could find that version of himself and continue using it in his acting today.
Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be the man you call when you have a real-life adaptation waiting to happen. The man has not only portrayed Howard Hughes, but also J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Abagnale Jr., and King Louis XIV. His role of Howard Hughes, much like that of Crowe’s John Nash, manages to balance the brilliant and the tortured. The strange thing about playing tortured geniuses is that it is not always easy to invoke sympathy. Colin Firth’s King George the Sixth (of The King’s Speech) is an easy character to sympathize with. The struggle to control his stutter, the fear of speaking to large crowds, these are all things that we as viewers can connect with easily. We’ve either had the same experience, or we know someone who has. Connecting to a genius? Not so easy. However, DiCaprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes succeeds with little effort on this front. Like in Firth’s performance, we stop seeing the character as an important or prolific or wealthy figure. We begin to see them as just a man, and this is the area where DiCaprio really shines, not just in this role, but in many roles.
I have two theories about Meryl Streep. One theory is that she’s actually part cyborg. The other theory is that she’s part chameleon. Whatever the case may be, there is no role that Meryl Streep cannot tackle. This especially applies to her portrayals as real figures. Films like Julie & Julia and The Iron Lady show us more of what we already know: that Meryl Streep is, and always will be, absolutely brilliant at what she does. Meryl Streep as Julia Child really is like watching Julia Child. In some instances, you may even think they are the same person. Meryl Streep has this uncanny ability to become the person she’s portraying, and as Julia Child, she becomes that wondrous, trustworthy, slightly quirky cook.
This moving portrayal of the Rwandan genocide is at once heartbreaking and hopeful, thanks primarily in part to the performance of Don Cheadle. His portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina is not that of a man who lives for this fate, whose primary desire is to help those in need. Rather, Cheadle’s portrayal is that of a sympathetic man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and with nowhere else to turn. Cheadle plays Rusesabagina as a man who is part helpless, part brave, and all heart. With Cheadle’s non-hero at the helm, the film was also allowed to portray the subtle undertones of abandonment, something that many countries in crisis deal with. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role so well.
Do you have any favourite portrayals? Drop me a line or fire me a tweet!
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