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When actors play actors

From Downey Jr. as Chaplin to the Emmy-nominated 'Feud', there's a long Hollywood tradition of actors playing other actors on screen

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and (right) Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in the TV series ‘Feud’.
Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and (right) Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in the TV series ‘Feud’.

I don’t know if any tasteless coffin jokes were made when veteran actor Martin Landau was laid to rest last month, but in his Oscar-winning role in the 1994 Ed Wood, Landau played another real-life actor who was interred in a black vampire cape. This was Bela Lugosi, forever associated with the role of Dracula, which enshrouded him – so to speak – in an image he could never escape.

Films like Ed Wood – or the acclaimed new TV series Feud, the first season of which was about the antipathy between Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) – are reminders that a dream factory like Hollywood doesn’t just create mythologies for the screen; it also constructs behind-the-scenes legends about itself.

Jude Law as Errol Flynn and Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Aviator’.

■ One terrific behind-the-scenes Hollywood story has producer-aviator Howard Hughes gatecrashing a waterfront shoot—in his aeroplane!—to ask Katharine Hepburn out. That scene is lovingly filmed by modern myth-maker Martin Scorsese in The Aviator, with Cate Blanchett as Hepburn. Given the latter’s flamboyant real-life personality, Blanchett’s performance might easily have been an exercise in mimicry, but apart from a golfing scene (where you wonder if Blanchett is playing Hepburn drunkenly auditioning for the part of a self-absorbed heiress), she brings depth and sympathy to the part; I especially enjoy the scene where a nervous Hughes visits the Hepburn family’s large country home. And the lovely split-second shot of two actors portraying Cary Grant and director George Cukor on the beach, watching as Hughes gets off his plane.

■ Here’s a trivia question: Which minor-league actor has played both Cary Grant and (in a major film) Julius Caesar? The answer is the blandly handsome John Gavin, who had a supporting part as young Caesar in the 1960 Spartacus—and then, 20 years later, played Grant in one of the weirdest biopics ever made, the TV film Sophia Loren: Her Own Story. Weird because here was a misty-eyed film in which Loren—in her late 40s at the time—reverently played both herself and her own mother! The results include scenes like the one where a middle-aged Grant (played by a middle-aged Gavin) proposes to the young ingénue Sophia (played by the middle-aged Sophia), mushily drawing “C" and “S" in a coffee cup’s froth. Bizarre, but fun for the Old Hollywood buff.

Robert Downey Jr as Charlie Chaplin in ‘Chaplin’.

■ Many years before he played Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man, there was this bright young thing named Robert Downey Jr who bravely took on what must have been a daunting role for a 26-year-old actor: Charles Chaplin in a film (Chaplin) directed by Richard Attenborough. Unlike thousands of Little Tramp imitators over the decades, Downey Jr mostly played Chaplin as he was in regular life, from his 20s to his 80s. This means he didn’t have to live up to an audience’s preconceptions of a legendary screen persona, but he did have to create a bridge from man to genius. In one scene, Chaplin, fooling around with cutlery and buns at a dining table, casually improvises one of his famous visual gags; though Downey Jr doesn’t at all look like “Charlie Chaplin" here, something clicks immediately and you sense that a legend is being born.

Mira Sorvino (left) and Ashley Judd (both as Marilyn Monroe) in ‘Norma Jean & Marilyn’.
Mira Sorvino (left) and Ashley Judd (both as Marilyn Monroe) in ‘Norma Jean & Marilyn’.

■ Nothing stirs the biographer’s imagination as much as a beautiful young actress who had a tragic or shortened life. There were two separate films about Jean Harlow in 1965. Jessica Lange, who plays Joan Crawford in Feud, gave one of her best screen performances as Frances Farmer, suffering from mental illness, in the 1982 Frances.

The Marilyn Monroe biopic Norma Jean & Marilyn is a decent entry in this subgenre, but it uses a terrific device, somewhat reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire: Ashley Judd plays the young, pre-stardom Norma Jean, and Mira Sorvino takes over once Norma becomes Marilyn Monroe. It sounds gimmicky, but this casting conceit recognizes how Norma Jean was transformed by the movie camera into a persona so dazzling that popular culture has never stopped being fascinated by it—and one that she could never herself control.

Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier in ‘My Week With Marilyn’.

■ Another Monroe film My Week With Marilyn had Michelle Williams in a sympathetic performance in the lead. More amusing, though, was the appearance of Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier (who starred with and directed Monroe in The Prince And The Showgirl). It’s hard to say whether this was pitch-perfect casting or a lazy contrivance. Almost from the moment Branagh bounded on to the British stage in the 1980s—and then made a film version of Henry V—he was seen as the natural successor to Olivier. So a Ken-as-Larry performance was always on, and Branagh does a fair job of conveying Olivier’s bewilderment, annoyance and fascination with Monroe. You can almost hear the acting giant sing “How do you solve a problem like Marilyn?" in his head.

(from left) Spencer Tracy, Jean Simmons (as Ruth Gordon) and Teresa Wright in ‘The Actress’.

■ Going a little further back in time, some of the earliest actor biopics were about silent-screen stars whose careers had ended or peaked years earlier – take the 1947 The Perils of Pauline (with Betty Hutton as the tomboyish Pearl White) or The Buster Keaton Story (starring Donald O’Connor, almost as balletic a physical presence as Keaton had been). But at least one high-profile biopic was made while its subject still had much of her career ahead of her: stage and screen thespian Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby, a full 15 years after the release of The Actress (1953), about her initial struggles! Jean Simmons played the young Gordon as a woman fighting social mores and parental expectations, and it’s a solid film that never pretends to be a summary of a career – it is about looking forward, not looking back.

James Cagney as Lon Chaney in ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’.

■When an old-time actor is played by a much younger actor, it is usually the case that the former had a very distinct persona—while the latter slips, chameleon-like, into different sorts of roles. The 1957 Man Of A Thousand Faces overturns this hypothesis. Here, James Cagney—known for his forceful personality—played the silent-screen master Lon Chaney. Unlike Cagney, Chaney was a tabula rasa: He specialized in playing freaks and monsters with make-up that rendered his real face and personality anonymous. As a result, Man Of A Thousand Faces is, almost by default, a James Cagney film that also just happens to pay tribute to an earlier legend.

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