Wednesday 18 July 2018

Perfect imitations and character assassinations

As another Churchill film arrives in cinemas, Frank Coughlan looks back on the political biopics that worked - and those that didn't

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln
Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln

Frank Coughlan

That bulldog scowl, the chewed cigar and the vowels that have been dragged through gravel. It can only be Winston Churchill. Again.

Last year it was Brian Cox. This time it's the turn of Gary Oldman, an actor who has come a long way since he played Sid Vicious over 30 years ago. But then, perhaps the old warhorse and the punk have more in common than meets the eye - insatiable egos and a talent for destruction, for starters.

Helped by layers of prosthetics and a natural acting talent for playing the garrulous, Oldman might just pull it off in Darkest Hour - he's already picked up a Golden Globe for his performance. But there is more to good acting than make-up, props and mannerisms. Some of the best historical recreations have been by actors who look nothing like the characters they play. And vice versa.

Playing political shape-changers, the men and women who have made and unmade nations, is a hard one to pull off. According to director John Huston, 90pc of the success of such a film is down to the casting. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth might not have seemed obvious at the time, but it proved to be inspired. And Liz Taylor, the hottest star in Hollywood in her day, did seem like a perfect fit for Cleopatra. Instead it turned out to be the flop that nearly brought down a studio.

Here's our ranking of poll toppers and lost deposits from the big screen...

Alan Rickman, Michael Collins, 1996

The late English actor manages to capture the essence of De Valera and despite director Neil Jordan's attempts to portray the Long Fellow as a one-dimensional Bond baddie, Rickman instils the austere revolutionary with a certain amount of dignity and gravitas. His anti-Treaty rally speech should be the stand-out but a weeping, pathetic Dev at the denouement jars and undoes much of the finely-tuned authenticity Rickman has earlier brought to the part. For many, his portrayal has come to define debate about the War of Independence and the Civil War that follows.

Alan Rickman (De Valera) in Michael Collins
Alan Rickman (De Valera) in Michael Collins
Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth) in The Queen
Meryl Streep (Thatcher)
Liz Taylor as Cleopatra
Bruno Ganz (Hitler) in Downfall

Bruno Ganz, Downfall, 2004

Hitler is easy to mock but virtually impossible to portray as anything other than a mass-murdering Chaplinesque caricature. But Ganz manages to give us a glimpse of what it might have been like in those bleak final days in his Berlin bunker, without straying into cliché or falling back on lazy mannerisms. Defeated, resigned but unrepentant, Ganz's Hitler is a flesh and bone human being. A German film, it became part of an overdue discussion about this shameful period in the nation's history.

Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady, 2011

Despising Margaret Thatcher is de rigueur for self-respecting liberals but Streep will help you understand her at least. Far more to this portrayal than big hair and Tory absolutism with Thatcher's declining years brilliantly recreated. Streep seems to inhabit the Iron Lady rather than simply portray her. Earned Streep a deserved Oscar and while it didn't convert anyone to Thatcherism, it did show us her humanity and vulnerability.

Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln, 2012

If Academy Awards were handed out for dullness, this Steven Spielberg dirge would have won at a canter. But Day Lewis, an actor who lives, eats and breathes his roles, is the glue who keeps it all together. He gives a towering, brooding, Oscar-winning performance in a film that has many merits as a piece of historical re-enactment but lacks drama and emotional pull.

Helen Mirren, The Queen, 2006

The insensitivity and bungling that characterised the response of the dysfunctional Windsors to the death of Diana became a defining moment in the long reign of Queen Elizabeth. Mirren's intelligent and deft portrayal of a monarch caught between the old ways and modernity deservedly saw her crowned with an Academy Award. A performance credited too in humanising a respected but unreachable and remote monarch, long before Netflix's The Crown.

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon, 2008

Richard Nixon and Langella don't look much alike but they do share a lugubrious countenance. Based on the famous David Frost interviews that unmasked the disgraced president three years after his resignation over the Watergate scandal, it is riveting stuff. Langella seems to inhabit the dark and troubled soul of Tricky Dicky effortlessly. A character actor, he never got the credit he deserved for such an adept performance. Nixon too, alas, remains unappreciated.

Richard Harris, Cromwell, 1970

The most hated man in Irish history and an admired republican prototype in England, Oliver Cromwell was a curious role for Limerickman Harris to take on. But playing opposite Alec Guinness' sly King Charles, he dominates the film and plays the 17th century anti-royalist as a fanatical man of principal. Ironically, Harris's son Jared played King George VI in season one of The Crown.

Ben Kingsley, Gandhi, 1982

Grand, epic and expensive, Richard Attenborough's film redefined the Gandhi legacy in the world primarily due to the astonishing performance of Kingsley, a mixed-race Brit. It won a bag of Oscars, the most deserved going to the leading man who knits this sprawling movie together in the performance of a lifetime. A film that could also be about Britain's perpetual obsession and guilt about the consequences of empire.

Martin Sheen, Kennedy, 1983

The best films about John F Kennedy don't have him in them (JFK, 1991 and Parkland, 2013) so we have to do with a TV mini-series that has stood the test of time. It traces his life from childhood to the White House and through to that fateful day in Dallas. Sheen, who went on to draw heavily on this series for his subsequent work on The West Wing, seems born for the part.

Richard Harris as Cromwell
Richard Harris as Cromwell

And some infamous duds…

Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra, 1963

The most costly film of its time, it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Taylor got through 65 costumes, chewed a lot of scenery and proclaimed the whole enterprise vulgar. But it was another performance on the set which garnered the more enthusiastic reviews: her scandalous affair with Richard Burton who plays a dashing Mark Antony. If nothing else, the film set the scene for the great love affair of the following decade.

Clark Gable, Parnell, 1937

Sandwiched between Mutiny On The Bounty and Gone With The Wind, Gable was at the height of his powers when he played the great Irish reformer. But it looks like he's already in rehearsal to play Rhett Butler in this portrayal and if he proclaimed 'frankly, Gladstone, I don't give a damn', it wouldn't seem out of place. Unsurprisingly his biggest flop and his American fans stayed away in their millions.

Madonna, Evita, 1996

The pop diva never had any trouble cracking the charts on either side of the Atlantic, but movie respectability has always eluded her. This musical was regarded as the perfect vehicle for her talents and while she hits all the right notes, her portrayal of Perón, the adored and loathed Argentinian power-broker, lacks any depth or insight.

Irish Independent

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