Delicate Balance About Playing With Real People – The Hollywood Reporter
Hollywood loves biopics, and the Academy, in turn, has a habit of honoring actors brave enough to portray a beloved (or sometimes vilified) figure of recent history – in recent years the awards have ‘actor went to Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton in this year Judas and the Black Messiah), Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland in the 2019s Judy), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury in the 2018s Bohemian Rhapsody) and Olivia Colman (Queen Anne in the 2018s The favourite).
But the job of playing a real and recognizable person from recent history has its burdens. Nailing down a public figure’s appearance, manners and voice has always been part of the gig, but in an age of social media – where instant judgments can dominate discourse long before a movie even goes public. – there is more pressure than ever for an actor to prove the skeptics wrong and deliver a convincing and truthful performance.
Nicole Kidman has received a lot of social media criticism since casting as Lucille Ball in Amazon’s Being the Ricardos was announced in January. Relief could be felt on the actress’ face during a post-screening Q&A on November 13 – she received a standing ovation from the audience made up mostly of SAG members. The Aaron Sorkin drama, which follows Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) as they deal with rumors of Desi infidelity and Lucy’s alleged Communist ties during a hectic week of production, does was never intended to be the adaptation plan for plan I love lucy many expected it perhaps. Instead, the movie shows real-life actors largely out of character, pointing out that the players we see on TV aren’t the same when we turn that dial off.
While Kidman’s Ball purposely doesn’t look like a facsimile of the real woman, Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye Messner – as seen in Searchlight’s Tammy Faye’s eyes – is said to be indistinguishable from the infamous televangelist. Using prosthetics, wigs and eye makeup from Messner, the actress completely transforms into the role as she brings humanity to an ’80s tabloid punching bag. But Chastain said that ‘acting through those heavy prosthetics was the biggest challenge – the character is visible, but it took a lot of work to bring her inner life to the screen.
Lady Gaga may have had an advantage when she took on the role of Patrizia Reggiani – the despised wife of Maurizio Gucci, who ordered his murder in 1995 – in MGM’s Gucci House. Reggiani isn’t as well-known as Ball or Messner, and even Gaga admitted that she avoids reading too much about her character because she wanted to approach the role without judging the woman she was playing. What makes Reggiani so compelling, however, is also heading dangerously towards camp territory – fun for viewers (and probably Gaga too), but perhaps too much of a stretch for Academy voters.
While none of these actors had the benefit of knowing the women they portray onscreen, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was closely related to Aretha Franklin: The Soul Queen Chose. the actress to play her in the MGM biopic. The respect. The film also received the blessing of Franklin’s family and incorporated much of the singer’s greatest hits (two things that Nat Geo’s limited series Genius: Aretha didn’t, although it still earned Cynthia Erivo an Emmy nomination). Hudson’s connection with Franklin undoubtedly upped his performance, and his vocal talents add an extra layer to the role.
Kristen Stewart is possibly the best favorite actress for her performance as Princess Diana in Neon’s Spencer. Despite critically acclaimed performances in recent years – and being the only American actress to win a César, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for Clouds of Sils Maria in 2015 – Stewart might have the most to prove among this bunch of actresses: the dusk the franchise always casts a shadow over its accomplishments. Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic gives him ample room to challenge anyone who rejects his talent, and his fictional Diana can prove that the greater distance from an actual figure is the greatest asset to delivering a gripping performance.
This story first appeared in the December 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.