Acting and Impersonation

By Leo BraudyFebruary 22, 2015

Acting and Impersonation

[…] you should never give an acting award to actor or actress for playing an insane person. There was never an Ophelia who was bad in the mad scene.

— Rouben Mamoulian

AS THE OSCARS roll around again, the question of what constitutes acting worthy of such high recognition emerges once again from the shadows. So many of the now-acknowledged great actors and actresses of the past, the ones whose films we still watch with pleasure, even though they are decades old, never got the ultimate accolade from their peers in the profession: Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Joseph Cotten, Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, Charles Chaplin, William Powell, Myrna Loy — the list goes on.

The historical truth is that the surest way to win a Best Actor or Best Actress Oscar is to play some injured, warped, crippled, misshapen, or just different version of your basic movie-star self. Unlike the supporting actors and actresses, where winning roles usually emphasize the ability to command a single or small group of scenes by a performance that completely grounds a fictional character (in which the personal nature of the actor is submerged), star turns are often explicit disguises that contradict whatever we know about the off-screen person. So, let’s say, handsome matinee idols like John Barrymore and Fredric March not only play the handsome, matinee idol Dr. Jekyll but also the loathsome as possible Mr. Hyde. And March did win Best Actor in 1932 for his portrayal, the first and only person to win for a role in a horror movie until Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, almost sixty years later, whose character managed to escape from capture by wearing another person’s face.

Some other examples of this general proposition would be Cliff Robertson in Charly, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Al Pacino in Scent of Woman, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Geoffrey Rush in Shine, and others. The tendency seems more marked with men, although Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda and Joanne Woodward in Three Faces of Eve certainly follow the form, while Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God gives it an added twist. (Whether or not Charlize Theron in Monster fits the bill is up to your judgment.)

Let’s call this mode “acting otherness,” where the performer shows how much he or she can stretch their craft by becoming someone we know — from gossip, fan magazines, the internet, or some other form of media — they’re not. This is acting at the extreme edge of things, not becoming a character at the service of plot (like a supporting performance), but standing out, usually for some kind of physical or mental strangeness. These are the extreme but familiar-at-Oscar-time versions of a continuum that on the milder end could include more nuanced forms of difference — as in the case of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and perhaps Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry.

So we have two categories into which fall so many Oscar-worthy performances in the last several decades: playing someone the audience knows you’re not either because the character you are playing is obviously damaged or because you are playing someone the audience knows you’re categorically not.

This year the contenders to make their mark in this Oscar tradition are Julianne Moore in Still Alice, in which the clear human possibility of developing early onset Alzheimer’s is close to hand, and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, which not only stresses extreme physical disability but also fits into the other prominent Best Actor category of othering: imitating a famous person.

I’ve been told I’m cranky on the subject, but I still think it’s worth pointing out how often a performance signals a special Oscar-enticing glow through what I would call not acting so much as impersonation. This occurs when the award goes to an actor masquerading as a real historic person. This mode is of course directly connected to the genre of biopic and started with a bang in the 1930s with George Arliss as Disraeli (1930), Charles Laughton as Henry VIII (1933), Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur (1936), Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan (1938), and Gary Cooper as Alvin York (1941). Muni especially was the go-to guy for impersonating great men, with Émile Zola and Benito Juárez also part of his repertoire. The trend didn’t end then either, and so we have Ben Kingsley as Gandhi (1982), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (2004), Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (2005), Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin (2006), Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (2008), Colin Firth as George VI (2010), Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln (2012), and Matthew McConaughey as the lesser-known real person Ron Woodroof (2013). Best Actress awards also reward impersonations: Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich (2000), Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in (The Hours, 2002), Reese Witherspoon as June Carter (Walk the Line, 2005), Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II (The Queen, 2006), Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf (La Vie en Rose, 2007), and Sandra Bullock as the again lesser-known Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side (2009).

These are all real people. Some, however, are not visually familiar to us, while others may be overly familiar. George Arliss made himself look a lot like the paintings, photographs, and even caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli, as Charles Laughton did with Henry VIII. But who in the movie audience was really so familiar with the face of Alvin York or even Louis Pasteur, let alone Erin Brockovich or Ron Woodroof? In the history of Oscar, however, the number of quasi-familiar faces tends to overwhelm the less familiar.

I suppose what I’m after here is the urge of stars to impersonate and the Motion Picture Academy to reward them for mimicking real people, whose look, way of speaking, and even walk is embedded in our consciousness already. Certainly impersonation has long been part of the acting tradition, and the skill required in building a character from the outside in is equal to the skill that builds a character from the inside out. My question instead is why the outside-in version, particularly when it involves miming an extreme ailment or an actual person, has become the default for Oscar voters.

The Paul Muni of the current explosion of impersonation is Meryl Streep. In 2011 her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady beat out Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. Since Williams is an actress noted more for her low-key roles, while Streep is the doyenne of the “watch me act” school of performance, it made for an interesting stylistic clash.

Although nominated some 11 times before her Thatcher won a second Oscar to match the one for Sophie’s Choice, Streep makes everyone’s best actress of all time list. But it’s remarkable how many of her roles, even when she is playing a fictional character, partake of impersonation rather more than acting, or, I should say, the externals of performance rather than the internals. In so many of her roles, I feel an invisible frame around her, which proclaims: “I am doing a great job.” With different accents and different looks, playing people from different countries and different classes, she always does a perfect job, even while she also projects “I am doing a perfect job.” Is that what is so admired about her work? That she underlines the craft of acting with such explicitness? Michelle Williams had a vocal coach for My Week with Marilyn, a movement coach, and of course a makeup and hair person. She doesn’t seem a lot like the Marilyn I remember, and she was surrounded by the lame impersonations of Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier and Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller.

But why should I care? Because when people whose images I have seen umpteen times appear on the screen I want either a good facsimile of that person or, better still, a riff on the real person that creates insight.

Why are performers attracted to such projects? Perhaps, as in the case of Streep’s actorly self-consciousness, to impersonate a real person creates a frame against which to play, and relieves the anxiety of creating a character from the ground up. In a sense, the real person is like a genre that allows variations, rather than a character who must be constructed from more ambiguous and perhaps less tractable materials.

But why do the voters over the years give the nod to such performances? Is there something about our current era that makes this kind of impersonation compelling? In some part, I think, it is due to the fact that, although the Actors Branch nominates, the entire Academy membership votes. And what portends “real” acting more than not being yourself, becomes, most obviously, other? Sure, I know that Marlon Brando wasn’t a longshoreman and Judy Holliday not a dumb blonde, Ernest Borgnine not a sad Brooklyn guy looking for love and Susan Hayward not a habitual criminal. But for the duration of their films they convinced me. That’s the other tradition of Oscar acting, the inside-out, which runs a distant second behind the outside-in, especially lately. Intriguingly, four of the five nominees for best actor this year are for actors playing real people, whereas only one in the best actress line-up is. We’ll see what happens tonight and whether Oscar’s penchant for rewarding extreme examples of otherizing yourself continues.


Leo Braudy is a Professor of English and History at the University of Southern California.

LARB Contributor

Leo Braudy is a Professor of English and History at the University of Southern California.


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