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Hollywood loves a biopic, and the Academy, in turn, has a history of honoring the actors brave enough to portray a beloved (or at times reviled) figure from recent history — in recent years, the acting prizes have gone to Daniel Kaluuya (Fred Hampton in this year’s Judas and the Black Messiah), Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland in 2019’s Judy), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody) and Olivia Colman (Queen Anne in 2018’s The Favourite).
But the job of playing a real, recognizable person from recent history has its burdens. Nailing the look, mannerisms and voice of a public figure has always been part of the gig, but in the social media age — when snap judgments can dominate the discourse long before a movie is even released to the public — there’s more pressure than ever for an actor to prove skeptics wrong and deliver a compelling, truthful performance.
Nicole Kidman has received a heap of social media criticism since her casting as Lucille Ball in Amazon’s Being the Ricardos was announced in January. One could sense the relief on the actress’ face during a Nov. 13 post-screening Q&A — she earned a standing ovation from the audience of primarily SAG members. Aaron Sorkin’s drama, which follows Ball and husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) as they manage rumors of Desi’s infidelity and Lucy’s alleged Communist ties over a rocky week of production, was never intended to be the shot-for-shot adaptation of I Love Lucy many may have expected. Instead, the film shows the real-life actors largely out of character, making the point that the players we see on television are not the same people when we turn off that dial.
While Kidman’s Ball purposefully doesn’t look like a facsimile of the real woman, Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye Messner — as seen in Searchlight’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye — is meant to be indistinguishable from the infamous televangelist. With the aid of prosthetics, wigs and Messner’s trademark eye makeup, the actress completely transforms into the role as she brings humanity to an ’80s tabloid punching bag. But Chastain has said that acting through those heavy prosthetics was the biggest challenge — the character is visible, but it took some heavy lifting to bring her inner life to the screen.
Lady Gaga may have had an advantage when she took on the role of Patrizia Reggiani — the scorned wife of Maurizio Gucci, who ordered his 1995 murder — in MGM’s House of Gucci. Reggiani is not as well known as Ball or Messner, and even Gaga has admitted that she avoided reading too much about her character because she wanted to approach the role without judgment of the woman she was playing. What makes Reggiani so compelling, however, also veers dangerously into camp territory — fun for viewers (and likely for Gaga, too), but possibly too over the top for Academy voters.
While none of these actors had the benefit of knowing the women they play onscreen, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson had a close kinship with Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul hand-picked the actress to play her in MGM’s biopic Respect. The film also received the blessing of Franklin’s family and incorporated much of the singer’s greatest hits (two things Nat Geo’s limited series Genius: Aretha did not do, although it still earned Cynthia Erivo an Emmy nomination). Hudson’s connection to Franklin no doubt heightened her performance, and her vocal talents bring an extra layer to the role.
Kristen Stewart may be the best actress frontrunner for her performance as Princess Diana in Neon’s Spencer. Despite critically acclaimed performances in recent years — and being the only American actress to win a César Award, the French equivalent to the Oscar, for Clouds of Sils Maria in 2015 — Stewart might have the most to prove among this lot of actresses: The Twilight franchise still casts a shadow over her achievements. Pablo Larraín’s unconventional biopic gives her ample room to challenge anyone who dismisses her talent, and her fictionalized Diana may prove that the most distance from a real-life figure is the biggest asset to delivering a transfixing performance.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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