Keeping it real: stars and turkeys
Portraying a real life character is one of the biggest challenges actors face. Film critic Paul Byrnes gives his view on who gets it right and who doesn't.PT5M21S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-31qi0 620 349 January 31, 2014
Audiences love watching them, but actors quake in fear. Playing somebody who actually lived offers both risk and reward. It is better if they have been dead for a long time, although that is no guarantee. Just ask Colin Farrell or Richard Gere. Farrell botched Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), and Gere as King David (1985) was so bad that people walked out in droves, according to its director, Bruce Beresford.
For somebody in living memory, such as Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, physical resemblance is a must. Singers, in particular, demand a high degree of similarity, but so do presidents. If they lived in the age of modern media, we all have an idea of how they looked and sounded, so actors who can do impressions have an advantage. Some comedians do their best work as a real person: Eric Bana as Chopper Read, for instance. Dustin Hoffman did it the other way round as stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny (1974), an astonishing infiltration of a persona.
There is more freedom in anonymity. Very few people knew what activist Karen Silkwood looked and sounded like when Meryl Streep played her in Silkwood (1983), so Streep was free to give us her interpretation, more than when she played Margaret Thatcher.
Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
In some cases, the performance becomes the way we think of the real person. Peter O'Toole's performance was criticised by those who knew T.E.Lawrence, but adored by the millions who didn't. We preferred O'Toole's myth-making.
My list has both saints and sinners, because those are the twin engines that drive the biographical film genre. We want to believe in the saints, and to understand the sinners.
Counting down to No.1
10. Dr Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields (1984) Roland Joffe's masterpiece is about New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian offsider, Dith Pran, left behind to escape from the Khmer Rouge. Ngor lived through his own hell under the Khmer Rouge, which may explain why he was so good. He won an Oscar for best supporting actor.
9. Sigourney Weaver, Gorillas in the Mist (1988) It helps that the gorillas were real and that she was working with a specialist in films about real people, Michael Apted, but Weaver's performance as zoologist Dian Fossey matched the gravity of the role.
8. Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Well, we have to include this, even with the doubts about the accuracy. It is one of those performances where legend trumps fact.
7. Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006) How do you play someone so famous but unknown in a private sense? Mirren coloured in the black-and-white outline of the Queen. God knows if it's accurate.
6. Bruno Ganz, Downfall (2004) Saints are difficult, but so are devils. Ganz dared to make Hitler a man, not just a monster.
5. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, All the President's Men (1976) The performances of Hoffman and Redford are superb, but in marked contrast. Hoffman looks and sounds like Carl Bernstein, while Redford, as Bob Woodward, is still Redford, taking only what he wants in a more impressionistic performance, but their chemistry is fascinating.
4. Sean Penn, Milk (2008) Penn specialises in losing himself in roles, and he was almost invisible as gay activist Harvey Milk, who was murdered. This is one of the great transformations, and is eerily accurate.
3. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (2011) In a supreme example of the mimicking style, Streep is faultless in voice as well as mannerism, but also internalised. Streep can do no wrong.
2. Koko, Red Dog (2011) OK, this is maybe not second best, but there had to be a dog. To play a dog you need a good dog, and the late Koko was a very good dog indeed.
1. Renee Falconetti, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) When Carl Dreyer cast Renee Falconetti as Joan of Arc, a new style of acting was born. Falconetti was 35 playing a 19-year-old, but her performance is still one of the greatest on film. Much of it is in close-up, with a realism that was new in silent film. The script was based on the trial transcripts. Falconetti killed herself at the age of 54.