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10 Surprisingly Good Portrayals of Iconic Figures

10 Surprisingly Good Portrayals of Iconic Figures

By Christopher Campbell

Many critics will no doubt rip apart Robert Pattinson’s performance as Salvador Dali in “Little Ashes” this weekend, but the truth is that it’s a surprisingly good portrayal of the artist. That is to say that given our expectations, combined with Pattinson’s own celebrity, added to the fact that anyone would look ridiculous sporting Dali’s signature mustache (even Dali), the “Twilight” actor does as well in the role as is possible. Is the performance Oscar-worthy? Certainly not, but it is deserving of some level of praise.

Pattinson’s Dali follows a long tradition of surprisingly good portrayals of iconic figures. Movie stars are constantly cast as famous persons they barely resemble, and often it’s difficult to shake off our identification with the player in order to accept him/her as the depicted individual. Some of these performances are better than others, and most have been honored by the Academy, but each actor and actress listed below either initially seemed like a wrong choice for the respective part or he/she was at least understood to be taking on a difficult task in attempting to portray such a familiar personality.

David Bowie as Andy Warhol in “Basquiat” (1996)

Warhol, like Dali, is an artist who is ripe for caricature, mainly because his public persona was as manufactured as his paintings, and his image is distinct enough to allow any actor to be recognized as him simply through the wearing of a wig. But Bowie had the handicap of being nearly as iconic as the figure he was cast to play. So, when watching the pop star portray the pop artist, we primarily see him as David Bowie doing Andy Warhol. Yet the performance is a success because it’s not as much of an impersonation as we’d come to expect from Warhol portrayals. The fact that Bowie’s persona is so hard to let go of allows him to make the character his own, and while that doesn’t make this an entirely faithful representation, it’s also very far from being the same old cartoonish imitation.

Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh in “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” (1990)

Unlike with Warhol, we have no TV or film footage of Vincent Van Gogh to know what he sounded like, but we can be sure that he didn’t have a New York accent, like that of Martin Scorsese. The “Taxi Driver” director at least looks like the famous Dutch painter, thanks to some hair dye and facial hair, and ultimately it doesn’t matter that he speaks like a Queens-born Italian American from the 20th century. In a way, it’s not really meant to be Van Gogh so much as an interpretation of Van Gogh in a dream Kurosawa had about the artist’s work. Still, who would have ever thought Scorsese could pull off such a portrayal as well as he does?

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in “Frida” (2002)

Dali had a mustache, Warhol had a moptop, Van Gogh had a red beard and Frida Kahlo had a unibrow. Get three friends, and you all could go out for Halloween as these four artists with the simple application of some fake hair. But it takes more than wigs and whiskers to really be convincing as any of these painters. Before “Frida,” Salma Hayek had done nothing to show that she was an Oscar-worthy actress. And as far as looking the part, she even seemed too beautiful and buxom to merely adhere some hair to her brow and upper lip and hide her cleavage. She really delivered, though, at least enough to get the nomination (Nicole Kidman would win, only because it’s harder to wear a false nose than false facial hair), if not also other prestigious film roles.>

Rod Steiger as W.C. Fields in “W.C. Fields and Me” (1976)

Like Scorsese’s Van Gogh and Hayek’s Kahlo, Rod Steiger’s Fields required facial transformation, because nobody can get away with playing the comedy legend without wearing a prosthetic nose. However, Steiger’s “mask” almost makes the portrayal worse, because it doesn’t really make the actor look enough like Fields anyway. It just makes him look silly. But if we can ignore the necessary yet distracting attempts at physical and vocal resemblance, as difficult as that is with this nearly forgotten biopic, we can see that the Oscar-winner gives another strong performance here, as usual.

Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin in “Chaplin” (1992)

It is one thing to apply a person’s signature nose or facial hair, and it is another thing to be authentic in depicting that person’s public persona, but it is a real achievement to portray an icon’s distinguishable talents. Downey would have been fine as Chaplin with the look and some mannerisms down, yet he went all out by successfully imitating some of the silent comedian’s famous stunts. The only thing the actor could have done to be even more convincing as Chaplin was to impregnate an underage costar.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” (2004)

DiCaprio is a decent actor, but he’s often handicapped by his baby face. Like Robert Pattinson as Dali, DiCaprio never quite looks old enough as Howard Hughes. But his acting skill allows him to overcome that fault in “The Aviator,” and he’s able to make us forget that he’s a young-looking movie star enough to come across as, ultimately, an obsessive-compulsive 42-year-old industrialist.

Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in “Ali” (2001)

After years of being little more than an enjoyable action hero, Smith proved that he had real acting chops by taking on the very, very recognizable boxing icon Muhammad Ali. While he doesn’t exactly deliver the kind of portrayal that makes us temporarily forget our mental image of the original (a la Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison and Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash), nor does he ever really seem like anyone other than Will Smith, movie star, he does give a remarkable performance. And like his “Wild Wild West” costar, Hayek, he surprisingly became an Oscar nominee.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in “Milk” (2008)

When Penn was cast as Harvey Milk, the Internet was abuzz with jokes about how the Oscar-winning actor had found his most difficult role yet. Milk was always grinning ear to ear, while nobody could recall Penn ever smiling in his life. Such is the effect of iconic stardom: people have trouble shaking a certain image they have in their heads. Yet Penn proved us all wrong by showing up onscreen with grins galore, and the apparent stretch of his mouth muscles was also seen as a stretch of his talents, and he won a second Oscar as a result.

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” (2007)

Even those of us who’d seen Cotillard in a film before, French or American, accepted her as just another beautiful young European actress, hardly distinguished enough to garner high praise or notice from mainstream critics in the U.S., let alone to be seen as having Oscar-caliber talent. Then she put on the ugly-face required for Academy attention and hit a home run as legendary singer Edith Piaf. Aside from rendering herself unrecognizable by putting on the aging makeup and sporting a receding hairline, though, Cotillard also amazed us all with a fiery performance that finally commanded us to remember her name.

Justin Long as George Harrison in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007)

Yes, even comedic biopics can feature surprisingly good portrayals, as evidenced by Justin Long’s performance as “the quiet Beatle,” George Harrison. While Paul Rudd, Jack Black and Jason Schwartzman ham it up with terrific, hilarious impersonations of, respectively, John, Paul and Ringo, Long is the straight man in their scene. And he comes off fairly convincing as a result. We were surprised enough by his portrayal that we’d be okay if he reprised the role for a serious feature about Harrison’s life.

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