Movies about famous historical characters usually run the gamut between brilliant hair and makeup or work so bad that the poor actor has to surmount layers of latex to overcome it. It certainly helps if the stars and the historical characters they play look alike, and many wonderful character actors could be dead ringers for all kind of historical characters, but since they're not considered stars with boxoffice mojo, they don’t get the roles.
Examples abound. Hank Azaria would have been great as Harvey Milk, but the part in Gus Van Sant's Milk went to Sean Penn, who resembles Milk like I do Marie Antoinette. Or poor, poor Leonardo DiCaprio. Why did he play J. Edgar Hoover or Howard Hughes? Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote? A better choice, with an equally splendid performance, was the appropriately elfin Toby Jones, in the superior movie, Infamous, that almost nobody saw. Because who knows Toby Jones?
This year's Hollywood season, a perfect example of this conundrum is Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, a physical match that could only happen in a surreal world, or in Hollywood. Hopkins looks nothing like Hitch, but he stars as the director in the film Hitchcock, opposite Helen Mirren, who plays his wife.
Other actors could have fit the bill, but they are mostly British and not box office draws: Timothy Spall, perhaps, Alfred Molina or Jim Broadbent. In fact, in another irony of double biopics, Toby Jones plays Hitchcock in The Girl, an HBO original movie in which Sienna Miller plays Tippi Hedren (she wishes).
Still, the lack of physical resemblance did not deter an army of hair and makeup to try to make Hitch happen for Hopkins. It didn’t. Only Hitch’s immense paunch looks accurate. The rest is a bit of a disaster. To be fair, it’s hard for anyone to look like Alfred Hitchcock. Despite a protruding lip, flared nostrils, receding hair line, narrowed eyes, a double chin, Hopkins still looks nothing like the original. But a miracle happens: surging through layers of makeup, Hopkins channels the droll, witty delivery of the original and is in touch with the artist’s clammy, perverse side. Hopkins is fantastic. Mirren, sporting an almost imperceptible shadow of dark upper lip hair and a terrible haircut, is still way too sexy for wife Alma Reville. But as these two acting monsters play together, they make the illusion happen.
On the other end of the spectrum is Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in what many expect to be another Oscar contender for Best Actor in Spielberg's Lincoln. The hair and makeup wizards simply didn’t have to work as hard. Day Lewis's makeup is so inobtrusive that one thinks it must be minimal. Where is the work? In the permanently furrowed brow? The massive sideburns? The weathered skin? Maybe they filled up his nose a little and somehow gave him those famous shallow cheeks. Moody dark lighting helps. Day-Lewis adds a stooped, lumbering gait and a wily, homespun delivery and, presto: major crush on Abraham Lincoln. But he’s not the only one.
This may be the movie with the most epic sideburns in the history of film. The sheer amount of 19th-century hair on all the character actors is staggering: Happily, all hair looks adequately greasy and unwashed. Only Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens looks out of kilter with a particularly unfortunate wig. Jones rocks, though. I loved the casting in this movie. Everybody looks like they belong in the 19th Century.
One of the most egregious makeup jobs in the history of film is what they did to poor Leo DiCaprio in last year's J. Edgar (although some of Tom Hanks’s hair in Cloud Atlas is a close second). DiCaprio’s makeup is so distracting, it was unfair to the actor. As valiantly as he tried to deliver, his makeup virtually ganged up on him. And it seemed he didn't not have the chops of an Anthony Hopkins to overcome it. Alternately, he looked like a cauliflower, or a fascimile of Jon Voight today. None of which helped. Wouldn’t Joaquin Phoenix have been a better physical match for Hoover? Guess we'll never know unless Hollywood takes a second shot.
Of course, this can turn into a fun parlor game for any holiday season: famous historical characters and the actors who look like them. Go!