Art Imitates Life — Sometimes too Well

PUBLISHED: February 22, 2019

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was wise to abandon its notion of a "Popular Picture" award for Sunday’s Oscars, but if organizers wanted a hot new category they might have considered "Best Spitting Image."

Never before have so many acclaimed actors sought to capture not only the style and voice of a real-life character, but also the physical appearance. It goes far beyond makeup—for which there has been an Oscar since 1981—and involves advanced prosthetics and orthodontics, resulting in on-screen images that are virtually indistinguishable from the person being portrayed.

The current raft of look-a-like performances has sent many viewers to Google and YouTube for side-by-side comparisons of the real and the acted. The likenesses are fascinating. But are such precise physical depictions the best way to tell a story on screen—or are they distractions?

Among the many Spitting Image nominees this year would be Christian Bale, for his role as Dick Cheney in the dramatic comedy "Vice," and John C. Reilly, for his portrayal of rotund comic Oliver Hardy in "Stan & Ollie."

But the front-runner in the category is unquestionably Rami Malek for his eerily precise depiction of singer Freddie Mercury from the band Queen in "Bohemian Rhapsody." Even if you don’t watch the film, check out YouTube videos that show, via split-screen, that Mr. Malek and Mercury looked alike, sounded alike and cavorted alike, to a degree rarely seen in biopics.

Mr. Malek used a dental appliance to capture Mercury’s distinctive overbite. Mr. Bale gained 45 pounds to mirror Mr. Cheney’s frame. He also shaved his head, bleached his eyebrows and did special exercises to thicken his neck.

But does all this dazzling mimicry miss the point? Most makeup artists concede that if audiences remain too focused on their craft, they’ve probably gone too far.

Mr. Reilly didn’t resort to dangerous weight gain to play Hardy; he strapped on an old-fashioned fat suit. It was convincing enough to earn him a Golden Globe nomination.

Other restrained approaches came this season from Felicity Jones as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex," and Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong in "First Man." Both employed the requisite hairdo and period wardrobe, but neither sought to remold their entire bodies.

Tom Hanks has played many real-life notables, from Walt Disney ("Saving Mr. Banks") to airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger ("Sully"). Mr. Hanks dons mustaches and toupees, but not much more. Visually, he always remains Tom Hanks, yet he is able to transform himself into the character of his choosing.

Back in 1976 Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman won wide acclaim for their convincing portrayals of Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein without any effort whatsoever to replicate their appearance.

The recent interest in biographies and documentaries, coupled with remarkable advances in makeup and prosthetics, might tempt actors and producers to go too far. Replicating a character’s nose and chin is important, but it isn’t more important than capturing his heart and soul. On the big screen, there’s more to believing than just seeing.

(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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