Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Discussion of the actors, directors and film-makers who 'made it all happen'

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phil noir
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Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by phil noir »

I've recently watched Peter Bogdanovich's disappointing The Cat's Meow (2001) which purports to tell the pretty much discredited 'true story' of the mysterious death of Thomas Ince aboard W.R. Hearst's yacht in 1924. Playing film stars Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin are Kirsten Dunst and Eddie Izzard, neither outstandingly well as far as I was concerned. There are a couple of Charleston sequences in the film (maybe more, which is funny in itself, since it's as though the film-makers were thinking, What was everyone doing in the 'twenties? Oh yes: Charlestoning and drinking bootleg liquor), and if you watch Eddie Izzard, he can't really dance at all, whereas Chaplin, judging by his deftness in his comedies, surely must have been a good dancer - or at least able to mimic gracefully good dancing.

Anyway, this set me thinking. Are there any films in which contemporary actors have successfully played stars of a previous era? Although I wasn't a huge fan of Richard Attenborough's Chaplin biopic, I do think Robert Downey Jnr. was remarkably good in it. Also, in that film Kevin Kline was - to me - well-cast as Douglas Fairbanks Snr. Changing fashions in female body shapes however meant that Penelope Ann Miller as Edna Purviance was just too thin to pass as Chaplin's plumptious Edwardian co-star.

I haven't seen The Aviator, but I know Cate Blanchett got good reviews as Katherine Hepburn. Wooden Kate Beckinsale as sultry Ava Gardner though... what were they thinking? And the non-acting Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow.

Has anyone seen Too Much Too Soon in which Errol Flynn played John Barrymore? I could see that working. And I hear that Anne Hathaway is being lined up to play Judy Garland which, having seen her performance in Rachel Getting Married, sounds promising.

The reason it seldom works, it seems to me, is that the biggest stars have a unique presence which is, by definition, impossible to duplicate. So I think the makers of film star biopics are usually on a hiding to nothing: fans of the original performer will pick flies and those unfamiliar with the subject probably won't be interested.
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MichiganJ
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by MichiganJ »

I actually liked The Cat's Meow (as a film, not as "history") and while he looks nothing like Chaplin, I though Izzard's performance was pretty good and certainly an interesting casting choice. Sure, he's not Chaplin, but...

I saw (and also liked) The Aviator, too. Blanchett is very good as Hepburn (she's even better as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There--does that count?) I also thought Beckinsale was fine in her small-ish role as Gardner and Stefani's Harlow is only really a cameo.

How about Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. in fact, you may as well list the entire cast (with standout Jeffrey Jones as Criswell and Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles.)

James Cagney as Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces

Ian McKellen as director James Whale in Gods and Monsters (there's a cameo by someone playing Karloff, which is fun, too.)

Ben Afleck as George Reeves in Hollywoodland

While not a great film, Norma Jean and Marilyn has an interesting concept by having Ashley Judd playing Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino playing Marilyn (neither is great, but, again, the idea is good.)

Another interesting casting choice for Marilyn was Theresa Russell in Insignificance. (Okay, she plays "the actress", but it's Marilyn. Great movie, by the way...)
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stuart.uk
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by stuart.uk »

I don't know if anything became of it, but Kisten was tipped to play Debbie Harry in a movie

Doris Day-Ruth Etting
James Cagney-George M Cochan
Julie Andrews and Janet McTeer-Gertrude Lawerence
Donald O'Conner should have had his finest hour as Buster Keaton, but a highly romantisized script put pay to that
Ollie
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by Ollie »

I wonder if actors consider this a Supreme Chore? Playing historical characters is considered a great challenge, and especially if they're still living. But playing a star with so many images to fulfill? I thought Cate Blanchett was excellent in her performance but I still never knew about the factional quality of that film, and Pudge - er, Leonardo - never made me forget this was Leonardo, not HH.

On the exactly opposite argument, however, I'm a fan of Ben Affleck's performance in HOLLYWOODLAND as George Reeves. I think he does a solid job re-creating what we surmise to be The Reeves Truth, but the film's most interesting point is the possibility of how the shooting death occurred. Rewatching this film, however, brings up a lot of segments that bore me, though, and if a good film needs to be rewatchable for me, then this film's ratings slip. George occupies such an important place in my American boyhood that I'd probably favor any explanation that alleviated a "bad mood day" for Superman.

But why couldn't I buy into Pudge-Leo as HH, yet Ben-As-George seemed just about perfect?

Well, I think Ben-As-George conveys far more personal history as Ben The Star and that translates easily into George. Pudge-as-HH, however, as Adventurer, as Manic, as Genius - hmmm - those are significant challenges and I never made that leap of accepting him as HH. I kept waiting for E. G. Marshall to pop up with his frazzled hair and all those cockroaches.

MichiganJ also brings up the "like as film not as history" aspect, and that's often a criticism I share. The Oliver Stones-Mel Gibsons who beat their chests bragging about the truthfulness of their tale, only to later have them crab-walk backwards and confess all of their "interpretations" angers me. TITANIC angers me because because it aims for history-telling, but then the writers refuse to see 'enough' drama in 1600 deaths at sea, but feel they REALLY need a love-triangle with a villain and his henchmen. Good grief...
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charliechaplinfan
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by charliechaplinfan »

Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, no,no, no. He's so wrong, perhaps they expect the movie going public to be niave as to what Chaplin looked like out of his costume, not like Eddie Izzard that's for sure. I don't know who I would cast these days but certainly as Phil says someone graceful and someone who could dance. Chaplin was meant to have been an excellent dancer.

I did like Robert Downey Jnr as Chaplin, he looked enough like him to get away with his portrayal and his talent helped him give a good performance. Chaplin to me just tells his life story but sanitizes Chaplin a little. I think Richard Attenborough's script missed the arrogance and the brilliance of the man. It is a film I like and was my introduction to Chaplin, around the time of the films release there were Chaplin films played on the BBC and I was captivated from then. At the time I thought that Kevin Kline was a good Doug Fairbanks but now I've watched his silents I'm not sure.

Cate Blanchett was a very good Kate Hepburn but she was the only one to give a convincing performance. Kate Beckinsale looked nothing like Ava Gardner, far too thin of body and face and a bit wooden. Jude Law as Errol Flynn, that's film makers having a laugh. Where was Cary Grant, he was his best friend. Leo Di Caprio was better than I thought he would be but not good.

Anyone remember Valentino starring Rudolf Nureyev, the only similarity is in first name although Michelle Phillips does have a look of Natacha Rambova.

Other performances I have enjoyed are Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison (better looking than the original but still very good) in The Doors, Joaquim Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray.
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself - Charlie Chaplin
stuart.uk
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by stuart.uk »

Alison

Wasn't Cary seen sitting on a deck chair, in costume, while filming Sylvia Scarlet, when Howard Hughes flew in to ask Kate if she'd like a game of golf in The Aviator
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MichiganJ
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by MichiganJ »

Well, if we're simply judging on "looks", then Eddie Izzard as Chaplin is a "no-no." But if that's the criteria, most of the actors "fail". Joaquim Phoenix looks nothing like Johnny Cash, Cagney nothing like Chaney, Kline nothing like Fairbanks, etc.

For me, it's whether or not the actor captures the person--or at least the person as I "know" them. In that way, Izzard's Chaplin is even better than Downey's, for he portrays Chaplin as far more "human". (Downey is brilliant, the fault is in the ambitious script, which makes Chaplin one-dimensional). By the way, the reason I like The Cat's Meow is it at least tries to help restore poor Marion Davies' reputation, which has been pretty much destroyed by Welles' Kane. It didn't do much, I'm afraid, but every little bit helps.

As for "truth", that's what documentaries are for (and even they aren't "truth"--Nanook wasn't even really named Nanook!) Stone certainly takes many liberties in his films, but he does cop to most of them. Like his politics or not, his films are generally entertaining. (By the way, to include in the theme of the thread add:
Joan Allen as Pat Nixon and Josh Brolin as George Bush in W).

I'm not sure that Cameron "aimed" Titanic as history, per se. Sure the love triangle is goofy, but so was the soap opera that made up the story in the 1953 Titanic (or the propaganda that makes up the 1943 German film Titanic) In all cases they were just characters to identify with when the tragedy struck. Cameron's film goes over-board (pun intended!), but it does include the framing story (itself a bit dodgy) that explains how the ship actually went down, so that when we experience the ship's final moments, we know what's happening. (The whole "MacGuffin" thing about the necklace was hooey, but at least it got Gloria Stuart out of retirement!)

By the way, I'm well aware that A Night to Remember is the Titanic movie. (And the A & E Documentary is pretty definitive.) Now, should we tackle George C. Scott's Hindenburg?

Back to the thead:
Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace in The Insider
David Strathaim as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck (another one who looks nothing like Murrow but "becomes" him instead.
"Let's be independent together." Dr. Hermey DDS
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charliechaplinfan
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by charliechaplinfan »

I never noticed Cary Grant in The Aviator, I'll have to look out for him if I ever feel like watching it again.

Eddie Izzard has been around on the comedy circuit here for a few years, he's funny, not my favorite comedian and totally at odds to how I think Chaplin should be. I'm prepared to put the film on my list and give it a go. How did Marion come across? I agree about Marion's reputation, I think the film was meant to slur Randolph Hearst but the biggest thing that stuck was Susan Alexander.

I agree to about the film Chaplin, it was an ambitious project and Chaplin's life has enough in it to fill 5 films. Was there once a serial set around his childhood years ago?
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself - Charlie Chaplin
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Professional Tourist
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by Professional Tourist »

In Cradle Will Rock I think Cary Elwes did a good job as John Houseman. :)
stuart.uk
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by stuart.uk »

Alison

Ian McShane played Charles Chaplin snr and Twiggy, Hannah

Before Ian was cast I thought Tommy Steele was offered the role, but that might not be true
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charliechaplinfan
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by charliechaplinfan »

Is this the serial set around his childhood? The start of his autobiography would make a brilliant series.
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself - Charlie Chaplin
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phil noir
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by phil noir »

charliechaplinfan wrote:Eddie Izzard has been around on the comedy circuit here for a few years, he's funny, not my favorite comedian and totally at odds to how I think Chaplin should be. I'm prepared to put the film on my list and give it a go. How did Marion come across? I agree about Marion's reputation, I think the film was meant to slur Randolph Hearst but the biggest thing that stuck was Susan Alexander.
Marion Davies was portrayed sympathetically - the film dramatized her wanting to play comedy in the face of Hearst's opinion that it would be a low and undignified way of presenting her to the public. There was a scene where the yacht party were watching the rushes of her latest project - I think, judging from the costumes it was probably meant to be Yolanda - bored and respectful, until at the end of it, Marion on screen started pulling faces and fooling around behind the director's back. Then everyone erupted into laughter whilst Hearst scowled. The fooling Kirsten Dunst was doing wasn't up to Marion Davies standard. However, I do think KD was always going to struggle, being only 19 at the time of filming and perhaps not quite up to portraying a sophisticated, conflicted woman eight years her senior.
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by Garbomaniac »

Well, as bad or good as Carol Baker was in Harlow, she skyrocketed me into the world of old movies. I was a sickly child: asthma, pneumonia, every child illness know to man, so I was aware of old movies. I used to watch TV in the Fifties and the only movies they had to play were from the Thirties and Forties. I knew some of the stars, but when I saw that Harlow film at the movies, I was dumb struck. I went Harlow MAD! Then, GARBO, and the rest is history. So, for this young lad, thank goodness they made that horrible film!
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by Lzcutter »

I just watched The Cat's Meow. I know Bogdanovich heard the Thomas Ince story from Welles. Which I found interesting in regards to Edward Herrman's portrayal of Hearst as a doddering, foolish old man.

Given that the story of Ince's "murder' has been totally discredited over the years, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not felt like Bogdanovich had an axe to grind against Hearst.

Kristen Dunst was a tad too young to play Marion but she probably gave the best performance of the cast.

I think the thing that amazes most in all of this, is the arc of Bogdanovich's career. Still trying to mine the friendships he made forty years ago for all their worth.

As I get older I appreciate Billy Wilder's comments about Bogdanovich, in the wake of the opening flop of At Long Last Love, more and more.

Does anyone know why he thanked Ken Burns and Quentin Tarantino in the end credits?
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JackFavell
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Re: Stars and other actors playing stars - does it ever work?

Post by JackFavell »

I don't know what Wilder said about Bogdanovich?

I actually enjoyed Cat's Meow, loved Edward Hermann, who is a really underrated actor, and thought only Chaplin was miscast.

I would be willing to bet that Tarantino and Ken Burns helped him get funding for the movie, or the job itself.
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