The news must have had every paid up member of the Conservative Party choking on their breakfast cup of tea. In a thousand Home Counties bungalows, men called Jeremy or Brian must have reached for their writing paper and fountain pens to compose a strongly worded letter to the Telegraph. The reason behind their outrage was the actress Meryl Streep. Or to put it more precisely, not Meryl Streep herself. Jeremy and Brian probably quite like Meryl Streep. What they can’t tolerate is the idea of Meryl Streep, American as crippling medical bills, donning a wig, putting on an accent and playing Margaret Thatcher.
The Iron Lady opens in cinemas this week. Opinion on Thatcher as a person might be divided, but opinion on Streep’s portrayal of the woman who invented Mr Whippy icecream and kicked the Argies out of a sodden little pile of rock called the Falklands, is unanimous. Streep, for all she comes from the wrong side of the pond, has the Iron Lady nailed.
Which all goes to show that portraying a national icon on screen can be difficult: you not only have to look and sound right, you have to get across the essence of a person who epitomizes not only themselves, but also a period in history. It’s a tall order. Here are five who, like Streep, have made that attempt, with varying degrees of success.
Anthony Hopkins as Nixon
If an American playing a Brit sticks in the national throat, how does a Brit fare playing an American President? In Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113987/), Welshman Anthony Hopkins essays the role of Tricky Dicky in his final weeks in office, as Watergate thunders towards him like a Chieftain tank with “Crisis” stenciled on its steel plate side. Stone originally wanted Tom Hanks for the role, but he was far too likeable. Hopkins on the other hand, specializes in playing characters whose appear to have a sheet of inch thick glass between them and the world, so he made an obvious candidate for the role of a man whose strongest emotional connection was with a good bottle of bourbon.
Hopkins does a reasonable job even if he looks nothing like Nixon himself. The biggest challenge the actor faced was getting Nixon’s unctuous delivery right: Paul Sorvino (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113987/trivia) – who played Henry Kissinger – took Hopkins aside and offered advice on how to replicate Nixon’s accent, a gesture which backfired when Hopkins promptly quit the production, presumably unconvinced that Nixon should sound like he came from a close knit Italian family located somewhere in New Jersey. Hopkins was coaxed back in front of the camera by Stone,
Simon Ward as Churchill
Cross cultural boundaries aside, here’s an example of a Brit playing a Brit. Actually of a Brit playing one of the most famous British politicians of all time: Winston Churchill.
The Young Winston, made by Richard Attenborough in 1972, tells the story of Churchill’s early life: from being farmed out to a boy’s public school which makes Guantanamo seem like a holiday camp, to his work as a war correspondent in Africa and ending with his first election to Parliament. Fair haired, wide browed Simon Ward was an unknown when Attenborough picked him for the role of Churchill as a young man. It was a wise choice: although Ward is substantially better looking than Churchill (who in later years looked exactly like a large, irascible baby) his resemblance to the real man is much stronger than the others in this list, making it that much easier for the audience to believe in the character. Ward also supplied the voice over for the film, which was based largely on Churchill’s own memoirs, and does an uncannily good job of replicating Churchill’s instantly recognizable growl.
Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln
From probably-the-most-famous British politician to probably-the-most-famous American president, none other than the chinstrap bearded Abe himself and another film which takes the early life of the politician as its subject. While Attenborough’s film came under some fire for idealizing Churchill’s youth, particularly his time as a journalist in Africa, at least it had a hold, if only a weak one, on reality. Young Mr Lincoln – directed by John Ford in 1939 – can’t even lay claim to a toehold on the truth. Even though Lamar Trotti received an Oscar for his screenplay, it wasn’t because the script gave us a better understanding of how Lincoln rose above his humble beginnings to become Leader of the Free World. Young Mr Lincoln is the type of slushy melodrama which went down a treat with wartime audiences: rousing speeches, women in bustles dabbing their eyes, syrupy violins telling us when to get out our hankies – and this from the man who gave us such muscular fare as Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath. I can only imagine that when Ford took this project on, he was suffering from an uncharacteristic and fortunately unrepeated attack of hormones.
As for Fonda’s performance, hampered by a prosthetic nose which gives him an uncanny resemblance to Sam the Eagle from The Muppets, he looks stiff and uncomfortable throughout the film. And his vocal delivery – close your eyes and what you hear is pure John Wayne. Maybe Ford wasn’t being that prissy after all.
Josh Brolin as George W Bush
Oliver Stone seems to have a fancy for taking totally unlikeable Presidents and devoting millions of dollars of good money to confirming our opinion that there wasn’t much to admire about them. He did it for Nixon and in 2008’s W he does it for Dubya, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1175491/ giving us a result which while it isn’t a hatchet job, doesn’t exactly portray it’s subject in what anyone could call a flattering light.
In casting the actor who would capture his vision of Bush, Stone chose Josh Brolin an interesting decision given that Brolin is a card carrying Democrat, but perhaps not all that surprising when you remember that Stone is as well. Like Hopkins and Fonda, Brolin looks nothing like his subject. In an interview he admitted “we had to do a lot with prosthetics” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/3562496/Josh-Brolin-on-playing-George-W.-Bush-in-Oliver-Stones-new-film.html, but claimed the Texas accent was a cinch. The result is watchable, but not convincing. The key to Bush’s persona lies in his dull, anxious little eyes and Brolin is way too intelligent to capture the essence of a man who, once out of range of an autocue, had the conversational skills and wit of a Texas swamp rabbit.
Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler
And in the spirit of saving the best until last, the final performance is an untouchable tour de force. In Downfall (Der Untergang) directed by Oliver Hirchbeigel and released in 2004, Bruno Ganz doesn’t so much play Adolf Hitler as become him. Ganz spent months preparing for the role, studying not just the oratory we’re familiar with, but tapes of Hitler in conversation to give his portrayal greater accuracy. The result was so successful that the film came under fire http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6019248/from/RL.1/#.TwrcEYHcCkw for making Der Fuhrer too human. This was the man who was directly responsible for the Holocaust and one of the most violent and murderous conflicts in history and seeing Ganz convey the dictator’s exhaustion and despair as everything he has worked towards falls apart was too much for some critics to stomach. And yet, as others pointed out, it’s Hirchbeigel’s and writer Bernd Eichinger’s refusal to make Hitler one-dimensional which elevates this film to greatness. Even as the screenplay reveals Hitler’s better side, Ganz uses his ruined, corrupt features to never allow us to forget that this was a man whose entire motivation was based on hatred, fear and suspicion. It’s more than well rounded: it’s a compelling, unbeatable piece of work.
With not one but three films about Abraham Lincoln in production, the supply of movies about world leaders shows no sign of drying up. Daniel Day Lewis is sure to do a better job than Fonda in Spielberg’s Lincoln (no one wears a beard with quite the same conviction as Day Lewis) but when it comes to as yet uncovered Presidential subjects, interesting possibilities open up. I’ve always thought Ben Affleck would make a great Ronald Reagan – but looking forward is even better. One day, someone’s going to make a film about Obama and when they do, I’m tipping Will Smith for the part. With Beyonce as Michelle. Don’t forget, you read it here first…
– Cath Murphy