Stars playing stars: To succeed, these performances should go beyond imitation
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 January 2005)

Katharine Hepburn, the story goes, was the No. 1 girlfriend of Howard Hughes in the 1930s, when he wasn't yet crazy, just a flamboyant young fellow trying to impress both Hollywood and the airline business with nothing but imagination and his late father's fortune. So The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's film about Hughes, had to have an actress playing Hepburn.

Once Cate Blanchett gamely accepted that dangerous assignment, it was inevitable that her performance would be carefully scrutinized. How could anyone who loves movies not be fascinated by an actor trying to reproduce Hepburn, who turned an array of mannerisms into her own patented charisma?

Current movies contain several stars playing stars, celebrities of today breathing life into the illustrious dead. Aside from Cate playing Kate, Geoffrey Rush works through a notorious human puzzle in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Kevin Spacey demonstrates his wild enthusiasm for Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, and Jamie Foxx, in Ray, roots around in the depths of Ray Charles's life.

Depicting someone with a famous public style requires a delicate balance. If the actor too obviously emphasizes a few notorious tics, the audience (reminded of impressionist comedians on TV) may expect satiric comedy instead of a carefully reconstructed character. The process works best when the performance moves far enough beyond imitation to make the subject of the film freshly interesting. The audience demands to see the star we already know, plus something else, something more revealing. That's the point, after all, of a quasi-fictional biography. TV documentaries have told us the life story; now we want to understand it.

While The Aviator may be overlong and underdeveloped, certainly one of Scorsese's least impressive accomplishments, it will absorb the attention of anyone interested in acting, Hollywood and celebrity. Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio (as Hughes) seem to be working on two separate projects. She's pursuing the image of a star, the Hepburn known to most of us from memory or old movies or both; he's trying to dodge a star image, his own, so that he can disappear into the skin of Hughes. He's more successful, but Hepburn admirers will find Blanchett more interesting: Our feelings may combine resentment over her effrontery (this woman is toying with our dreams!) with admiration for her courage.

She gets the sound right but not the picture. Her version of Hepburn's upper-class, Bryn Mawr College bray comes across as familiar, though sometimes it unaccountably disappears, as if she's misplaced it. But Blanchett can't move like Hepburn, no matter how hard she tries, and can't deliver emotional force in the grand manner. She strides briskly but it's not the Hepburn stride. She looks lovingly at her man, but she lacks the Hepburn rapture.

In the Sellers film, which deserved theatrical distribution but played only on TV in North America, Rush sets out to capture the personality of a great comic actor who claimed to have no personality and received his best reviews for Being There, the film about a simpleton whose emptiness allowed him to climb the heights of politics. Even Sellers said Sellers was hollow: "There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed."

All that was nonsense, of course. He ignored the feelings of others, but that doesn't demonstrate the absence of a personality. The fact that no one understood him doesn't prove there was nothing to understand. Sellers was selfish, cruel, chronically insecure and altogether unreliable, the kind of man whose unhappiness spreads over everyone near him. He was also a shrewd observer, a mother's boy and painfully ambitious.

Rush captures all that and more. Because Sellers was happiest when playing someone else, Rush brings him to life when he's inside a vivid character, such as Dr. Strangelove. Sellers was a gifted impersonator, and Rush plays cleverly around the edges of his subject as he mimics the mimic. The film amounts to an imaginative search for an identity that will remain forever elusive.

There's nothing playful about the mimicry in Beyond the Sea, Spacey's tribute to Bobby Darin, a popular ballad singer who died in 1973 at the age of 37. This is in all ways a surprising film. Who could have predicted that Darin, whose fame was fleeting, would be the subject of a movie at this point? And who could have imagined it would be a good movie, a dynamic old-fashioned song-and-dance musical, carrying us through two hours with the force of its energy? Spacey, both star and director, has delivered a brilliant portrait of a not-all-that-great singer.

Spacey charges all of his performances with irony, but in this case he doesn't let it create distance between himself and the subject. He pours irony into Darin's style, instead making him even sharper and more intense than he was. And while paying tribute to that style, he doesn't forget that Darin was also involved in an elaborate act of impersonation.

The woman playing his mother in the movie predicts that her little boy will be "as big as Sinatra," which is the script's way of suggesting the ambitions he'll develop. In fact, Darin became one of the many singers who borrowed Frank Sinatra's freewheeling ballad style. Spacey makes that plain as he sings Darin's favourite songs, manipulating and commenting on the lyrics with an exaggerated version of Sinatra's slightly scary insolence. I'm not the first viewer of this movie to think that Spacey improves on Darin.

No one could improve on Ray Charles, and no one would want to. For several decades he was one of the great popular singers working in the jazz tradition, an original artist with a wonderfully confident spirit. In Ray, perhaps the most completely realized of all these films, Taylor Hackford emphasizes the heroin addiction and promiscuity that poisoned Charles early in his career. That may be too narrow an approach to a life so full of accomplishment, but Foxx's astonishing performance makes the melodramatic script seem reasonable and, by the time the movie ends, entirely appropriate.

Foxx embodies Charles so well that it's easy to imagine we're watching the great man himself. Buried in the part, Foxx plays it with passion and unwavering conviction. When the subject of a biographical film is good enough, you can play it straight.

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