The Great Screen Impressionists, Part Two: The Cinematic Experience
While the first part of this study discussed the various types of comedic impressions found on television, the following will focus on those actors and actresses who exemplify what it is to perfect the dramatic impression, many of whom have received the ultimate acting accolade, an Oscar, for their efforts. The Oscars are not the most accurate way to judge cinematic talent; indeed it is clear that for every deserved win by Cate Blanchett, for example, there is a puzzling success for Marisa Tomei. The very fact that Leo Dicaprio does not hold an Oscar is a sin unto itself, considering how many breathtaking movies he has been a key part of. I wonder sometimes, is he going to be the Peter O’Toole of our generation?
What is most evident, however, is that the Oscars love a historical impression. Critics love a historical film. It is difficult to envision more than two years going by at the Oscars without an actor or actress nominated for playing someone else. While this year Wolf of Wall Street was a prime player, as was Dallas Buyers Club, previous years have seen Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love, and Midnight in Paris snag major acting, directing and a whole host of other awards.
These films are not carried on the back of actors. They come about with the dedicated work of cinematographers, costume and set designers, editors, production assistants and CGI gurus, not to mention screenwriters, directors and producers. However, one bad actor, one bad impression, can utterly ruin a film. If your lead is wrong, if your love interest is flat and useless, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your scenery is, people will notice. Audiences aren’t that stupid (most of the time), and as I will talk about later, they know when someone doesn’t belong.
So, what makes a great historical impression? What makes certain actors and actresses streets ahead of the competition in terms of likeability, authenticity and sheer entertainment value? It would be easy to say it comes down to direction and costume, but the people on this list need to gaudy jewels or crowns to be their characters, they simply are (to sound terribly pretentious). I think it is a number of aspects, each of which I have detailed below, exemplified by one key actor/actress. I have limited this list to those that portray significantly famous historical entities, rather than those created from fiction or are the stuff of autobiographies, not because they are in any way better, critically, but because they more clearly emphasise the points I attempt to clarify.
Cate Blanchett: Majesty and the ‘Quiet Moment’
Great impressions often happen not at a climactic moment, with guns blazing and trumpets blaring, but in a second of quiet, in the calm before the storm. Cate Blanchett is not only an accomplished actress, but one of the finest impressionists of her generation. Aside from her Elizabeth, which we will look at in a moment, her nuanced takes on Katherine Hepburn and Bob Dylan are superb. In Aviator, Blanchett seamlessly wove her character into the narrative, bringing the bombastic and oft over-exaggerated character of Hepburn to heel.
In Elizabeth, Blanchett has plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery. However, as much as she allows costume and set to speak for her in times of pomp and circumstance, it is her quiet intensity in scenes not well known to historians that show her prowess as an actress and impressionist. Elizabeth Tudor is lauded as an English heroine, as the herald of the Golden Age- and she deserves each one of those accolades. However, she was also flighty, flirtatious, jealous, clever, curious and sarcastic: elements that many other actors fail to bring out. When famous icons are filmed, it is commonsense to focus on, or build to, climactic moments in their lives. However, far too many actors and filmmakers seem to believe that these moments define us, that they are who we are meant to be.
In one memorable scene, Elizabeth is about to be taken by the royal Guard to be imprisoned at the Tower. Rather than portraying a false sense of bravado that has been pushed upon Elizabeth’s historical character, you can practically feel the fear coming off her in waves. She shudders and shakes, finding courage only in the touch of long-time confidante Robert Dudley. Perhaps it would be truer to the collective memory of Elizabeth if she was constantly brave, constantly courageous and true, but Blanchett’s terror rings far truer, and connects the viewer far more closely to the story.
Without these quiet moments, historical domain characters can appear no more three dimensional than the history books in which they star, many of which showing far more well rounded visions than those that make it to screen. In Blanchett’s capable hands, Elizabeth is a well-rounded human being, capable of terror, majesty and childish jealousy within the space of a breath. It is in these quiet moments, rather than those of ceremony, where her portrayal shines brightest.
Helen Mirren: Respect with Truth
I used to be quite the improvisation aficionado. In my schooldays, I loved pretending to be someone or something that I was not, whether that was a role in the spotlight or as a particularly effervescent anthropomorphic lamp. I did notice, however, that during my theatre sports years, the most difficult people to impersonate were those that were still alive. Let’s forget for a moment that those impersonated might feel offended by the critique, as in my case I highly doubt famous celebrities saw my school improv performances, and focus on the audience.
What happens when the impersonated is highly valued by your audience? In Australia, where I hail from, this isn’t too much of an issue considering our laid back attitudes towards politicians and celebrities. However, one trip across the pond to the USA and you can see a far stricter dichotomy between what is ‘okay’ to satire and what isn’t. Shows like Saturday Night Live forever straddle this line between toothless and inoffensive, and biting and slightly cruel. It seems that, in many cases, we can either completely satirise and expose the underbelly of humanity, or we can present a sepia-toned and squeaky clean representation of their life that has no relevance to our modern society. Unless, of course, you are brilliant. Unless you are Helen Mirren.
The Queen wasn’t a perfect movie. I felt that, at times, it dragged slowly through ceremony and shied away from Charles’ role in those tragic hours before and after Diana’s accident. However, I believe Mirren deserved every accolade she received for her reserved, and yet somehow well-rounded, portrayal of Elizabeth II. Like Blanchett, Mirren finds her character’s humanity in small, quiet moments. There is no great breakdown, no moment when her seeming-impenetrable façade shatters, but we do see cracks. Like old, tired foundation, we can see slivers of what lurks underneath the crown. However, unlike Blanchett, Mirren has to consider another, difficult layer- that the character she portrays is still living, and while not universally loved, has a highly positive reputation. What about those who want to see a more relatable monarch, regardless of whether that is who she truly is or was? What about those who believe she had a role in her ex-daughter-in-law’s death? How do you please both monarchists and republicans alike?
Navigating these waters was never going to be easy, but I think Mirren does it with the practiced ease of an Olympian. Never leaning too far on either side, Mirren’s Elizabeth is prim, tetchy, and altogether aware of her high status, as shown quite humorously in her interactions with Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair (yet another brilliant impressionist). However, she genuinely cares not only for her family, but also for her country. The moment when she hears of the fatal accident is near-heartbreaking in its simplicity, as are her familial interactions afterward. She is cold and detached in her address to the nation, but not only was Mirren working from real stock-footage, she was staying true to the reserved character she was playing. After all, when have we ever seen a broken Elizabeth Windsor?
There is a lesson to be learned here. If you are going to portray someone who is still alive, there is no point in doing so if you are not prepared to show them, perhaps not as they truly are, but as an amalgam of what they seem.
Midnight in Paris: Fill Your Movie With The Best
It doesn’t matter how brilliant your lead is, I believe that if they are surrounded by sub-par actors, the movie will suffer. Imagine The Queen without Michael Sheen, or The King’s Speech without Helena Bonham-Carter; neither are the focus of, nor do they make the films, but they are imperative to creating a strong, authentic atmosphere. Authenticity is not solely the product or realm of costume and set designers, the casting department also has a clear role to play. Like it or not, there are certain actors that do not belong in period or historical film, mostly because they are simply too ‘of the moment’. While not strictly in the realm of films I am discussing, the most prominent example I can think of is the inclusion of Shia LaBeouf in the near-universally panned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Look, the film had more problems that just casting (ALIENS), but could any of you really picture LaBeouf as a late 1950’s greaser? So, in order for a film not to be LaBeoufed, as we shall not call it, every actor chosen must suit the tone and the time period down to their soul. I can think of no greater example of this than Midnight in Paris.
For the uninitiated, Midnight in Paris takes place in two (later three and, briefly, four) different time periods, as Wilson’s stalled American author time-travels from modern day to 1920’s Paris. The film succeeds in making the classic American Wilson stand out in the 1920’s crowd due to its effortless recreation of the time period. Unlike the champagne soaked nightmare that was The Great Gatsby, Midnight (in my opinion), emphasises the loose living and let-the-good-times-roll attitude of the era without resorting to cheap gimmickry or unnecessary flesh flash. The actors who populate the world are no less authentic, with standouts (amongst a strong cast) being Tom Hiddleston (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Alison Pill (Zelda Fitzgerald) and Adrien Brody (Salvador Dali).
I will have you know that the reason I focus on Hiddleston rather than Corey Stoll’s superb Ernest Hemingway is only 20% because of the former’s impeccable cheekbones. Stoll (deservedly) received accolades for his portrayal of the troubled Hemingway, but it is Hiddleston’s understated performance that blows me away every time. With less than 10 minutes of screen time, he highlights the character’s struggle with his writing and legacy without directly having the reference either. He is assisted in this by Pill, whose troubled Zelda steals every scene she is in, hiding her deep internal struggle with booze and outlandish behaviour. She is a breath of fresh air in a film that often trends towards pushing non-leading women into the angel/whore archetype. Finally, I have to mention Brody, whose one scene as Dali not only encapsulates the latter’s twisted, colourful, absolutely mental outlook on life, but does so without becoming a caricature of himself. I won’t spoil his scene, but I would watch a movie that was purely him and Wilson discussing art . . . and I am not an ‘art’ person.
Without these actors, without these characters, these movies fail. It is a big call to make, but I can’t help but think that setting becomes little but window-dressing without the right people do make it come alive. Great historical films practically breathe with you, and invite you into their world with every intake of air. Midnight in Paris may not be perfect, but it is certainly great.
When in Doubt: Daniel Day-Lewis
I’ve never met a person with a bad comment about Daniel Day-Lewis (Or DD-L, as nobody calls him). He is one of those people who it is very difficult to hate, or criticise. Some manage to do it of course, by nitpicking and exposing their pedantry to the world, but all-in-all his historical performances tend to be near-flawless, predominantly due to the level of dedication he affords to each role.
Not many men could get away with playing Abraham Lincoln. Something about the beard and stovepipe had scream humorous, seems cliché. For many men, the role would be nothing more than the costume and some soapbox preaching about slavery. Not for Day-Lewis. He threw himself into the role with aplomb, humanising the man until one almost forgot his fame and focused on the person behind ‘four-score and twenty’. Was it the most exciting movie? No particularly. However, I can’t find fault with his personal performance.
This type of focused control is brought to each of the historical roles he has played, from his mad butcher in Gangs of New York, to Christy Brown in My Left Foot, has left him the pinnacle for what method acting is all about. Though not strictly historical drama per say (even though he was a real person), his John Proctor near singlehandedly saved The Crucible from being unwatchable. I would argue that it is his presence which lends the air of credibility the film so sorely lacks.
I just get the feeling that if Day-Lewis was case as the back half of a donkey in a Christmas play, he would do months of preparation living as a donkey. He might even get the tail surgically applied. Thus, the final point about historical drama casting and impressions? If in doubt, get Daniel Day-Lewis. Playing George Washington? Day-Lewis. King Henry VII? Day-Lewis. Emmeline Pankhurst? Screw it, Day-Lewis.
There we have four key actors and the primary methods through which they create the authenticity and believability of their portrayals. It is, of course, by no means a comprehensive list, instead working more as a guide, or a list of attributes. How could any list of impressions that does not include Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman be truly complete? Did I miss any egregious examples?
What do you think? Leave a comment.