The Capital Repertory Theatre of Albany’s production of ELLA, in which Tina Fabrique offers a spot-on performance as Ella Fitzgerald and Ron Haynes adds a letter-perfect impersonation of Louis Armstrong, brings to mind the challenges of playing celebrated personalities on stage and screen. Simply put, sometimes it works, as it does in ELLA. And sometimes not. When it does work, the effectiveness of the performance has nothing whatsoever to do with the actor’s physical resemblance to the personality he or she is playing.
For example, James Cagney does not look like George M. Cohan, whom he played seventy-plus years ago in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. Larry Parks, whose career was tragically short-circuited by the Hollywood blacklist, does not resemble Al Jolson, whom he played sixty-plus years ago in THE JOLSON STORY and JOLSON SINGS AGAIN. Robert De Niro does not resemble Jake LaMotta, whom he played thirty-plus years ago in RAGING BULL. More recently, Meryl Streep does not look like Julia Child, whom she played in 2009’s JULIE & JULIA, and Michelle Williams does not resemble Marilyn Monroe, whom she played in last year’s MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. In all these instances, however, the actors capture the essence of the person they are impersonating-- the spirit of Cohan, Jolson, LaMotta, Child, and Monroe.
An observation I made while mulling over MY WEEK WITH MARILYN bears repeating here: One inauthentic move on the part of the actress who plays Marilyn Monroe would have allowed the film to wallow in campy caricature. But Michelle Williams plays Marilyn brilliantly, capturing all her moods in a touching and stunningly nuanced performance.
When I ponder the history of cinema, a host of similarly memorable performances comes to mind-- way too many to mention here. But the point is that actors have regularly accepted the challenge of playing personalities who either are familiar to the general population or whose names pop out of the history books. Often, they have earned Academy Awards in these roles. Such was the case with Cagney’s impersonation of Cohan and De Niro’s performance as LaMotta.
In recent times, such performances not only have earned reams of publicity but are sure bets for Academy Award gold. Since 2000, six of the twelve Best Actor Oscars and eight of the twelve Best Actress Oscars have been awarded for playing real-life individuals as diverse as Ray Charles and Truman Capote, Harvey Milk and Idi Amin, Queen Elizabeth and June Carter, Edith Piaf and Margaret Thatcher.
If JERSEY BOYS ever makes it to the big screen, one easily can imagine the young actor cast as Frankie Valli accepting his Best Actor trophy. And one of the few upcoming films I am eagerly anticipating is HITCHCOCK, with stars Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and spotlights the making of Hitch’s PSYCHO.
Of course, such performances do not always work. Three years ago, Hilary Swank played Amelia Earhart in a biopic titled AMELIA. Swank may have looked the part of Earhart, but her performance was strictly one-note.
But if I had to hand out a prize for the all-time worst performance by an actor playing a real-life personality, my choice would be easy. In his day, William Bendix was a fine character actor, but he is sorely miscast as Babe Ruth in 1948’s THE BABE RUTH STORY. Bendix’s impersonation of the Sultan of Swat is laugh-out-loud funny-- this despite the fact that THE BABE RUTH STORY is anything but a comedy.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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