News that Jane Fonda is probably stepping into the pumps of none other than former First Lady Nancy Reagan in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” feature caused a flap last week — quite predictably, given Nancy’s association with Republican red, and Jane’s with red, as in commies. This comes fresh on the heels of Julianne Moore’s performance as Sarah Palin in “Game Change” this election year, and Meryl Streep’s Oscar win for playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It’s a vintage season for actresses portraying political stars — and in each case, there has been a degree of controversy.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a politically-charged personality for casting to elicit widespread critiques. When stars play stars of any sort, it’s a hazardous business. Let’s face it, Ashton Kutcher’s casting as Steve Jobs has just been announced, and already, you know there are moviegoers poised to shoot him down. Playing someone famous, the risks, the complaints, and the rewards are bigger. For every triumph — ala Michelle Williams in her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” or Jamie Foxx’s Academy Award-winning performance as Ray Charles in “Ray” — there are missteps galore.
You may recall the critical shark bit when the usually-great Kevin Spacey played Bobby Darin in his auteur film, “Beyond the Sea.” Val Kilmer’s portrait of The Doors’ rocker Jim Morrison was too weird for some — perhaps appropriately — and it reportedly took Kilmer months to shake the character. Dennis Quaid got mixed reviews as Jerry Lee Lewis in “Great Balls of Fire!” James Brolin was critically crucified for his performance as Clark Gable in the film “Gable and Lombard.”
However, when actors nail such a performance, the rewards are big. The Academy loves a great star playing a great star. Think Robert Downey, Jr. — nominated for his Charlie Chaplin performance. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who scored an Oscar nomination for him and a win for her, for playing Johnny and June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.”
With Charlotte Chandler’s Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography having focused fresh attention on the film icon (the book is just now being released in paperback), you can be sure actresses are musing about playing her. Who could pull it off? Cate Blanchett, perhaps? She already has an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator.” What a bookend a Dietrich Oscar would be! Or how about Diane Kruger of “Inglourious Basterds”? Chandler says she imagines a European actress in the role.
Coming up this year are “The Drummer” biopic of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, starring Aaron Eckhart; Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” HBO Liberace project with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon; Damon again in the planned Robert F. Kennedy biopic “His Life”; and the competing Linda Lovelace biopics — Amanda Seyfried in “Lovelace,” and Malin Akerman in “Inferno: A Linda Lovelace Story.” Time will tell who’ll get acclaim, and who’ll go down in flames.