What Are the Best and Worst Biopic Portrayals of Well-Known Celebrities?

What Are the Best and Worst Biopic Portrayals of Well-Known Celebrities?

Oct 10, 2012

After watching the new trailer for Hitchcock, I wondered if I might not be able to enjoy the film because of Anthony Hopkins' prosthetics-enabled portrayal of the iconic filmmaker. Many of you out there are of the opinion that the performance has Oscar written all over it. Others may just think it's a neat impersonation in a fun movie about the making of Psycho. I can't help but expect the fat suit and certainty of Hopkins' voice beneath it to keep taking me out of the big picture. That's not to say I'll have any greater time not seeing Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh rather than Janet Leigh. Or that, as the less famous Mrs. Hitchock, Alma Revelle, Helen Mirren doesn't just look like she's Helen Mirren delivering another incredible show. But it's always tough when you have such a well-known actor playing such a famous figure.

It's not always the actor's fault. Robert Pattinson really does a great job as Salvador Dali in Little Ashes, but he's still always Robert Pattinson and Dali is such a larger-than-life human being, intentionally so, that even an unknown playing the artist tends to come off rather ridiculously. A lot of it is that mustache. The same is true for Andy Warhol, but we might be less taken aback by a then-unfamiliar Jared Harris (I Shot Andy Warhol) than David Bowie (Basquiat). Imagine Tom Cruise or Nicolas Cage trying to play someone so iconic. The bigger the actor, the more of a chance the portrayal will seem like an SNL impression. If the actor is an SNL vet, or even just a comedian, the line is even more difficult to break. 

Now, there are historical biopic portrayals that are all wrong -- John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, for instance -- but, hey, for all we know the Mongolian leader had that distinct drawl of a future American West. But we know what Billie Holiday looked and sounded like, so even an Oscar-nominated performance in and of itself can't make us buy Diana Ross as the uber-famous singer in Lady Sings the Blues. Same goes for Hopkins in other film, Nixon. Good performance, bad portrayal. And you could go the other way with another Oliver Stone movie if you're one who thinks Val Kilmer gives a good portrayal but bad performance as Jim Morrison in The Doors

The best might then be the portrayals that have you fooled. So many fans celebrated Kilmer at the time for looking so much like Morrison. I don't see it, but I buy it. Joaquin Phoenix makes me believe I'm watching and hearing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line that I have to be reminded (even when the soundtrack comes on my Johnny Cash Pandora station, I'm temporarily deceived until I hear the real Man in Black come on after). Same is true for Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (watch Milk and The Times of Harvey Milk side by side by side or at least back-to-back) and to an extent Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin -- a celebrity we know best for appearance rather than voice and true personality.

As we get to know famous people inside and out, visually, aurally and now even emotionally, it will be ever harder for actors to sufficiently pass as them and also give a strong performance that isn't all wax-museum-like physical transformation and mimicry of intonations. Of course, it worked well for the celebrity actor Jamie Foxx portaying the celebrity singer Ray Charles in Ray and the famous actress Helen Mirren portraying the globally, near-godly famous Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Maybe Taylor Hackford is a lucky charm?



What are the best and worst portrayals of well-known celebrities? 

To kick things off, here are some responses received so far via Twitter:











Join the next discussion on Twiter by following Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) and Movies.com (@Moviesdotcom).

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