10 Memorable Cinematic Alter Egos


This week Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary opens across the country. Based on an early novel by the good doctor of gonzo journalism, the role of Thompson’s stand-in, journalist “Paul Kemp,” is being played by Johnny Depp — who has, with this film, pretty much planted is flag for good on the island of “cinematic portrayals of Hunter S. Thompson.” After the jump, we’ll take a closer look at Depp’s ongoing onscreen personification of the late Thompson, and nine more actors who became the cinematic avatars for distinctive writers and filmmakers.

ACTOR: Johnny Depp WRITER: Hunter S. Thompson FILMS: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , The Rum Diary

In addition to the aforementioned Thompson book adaptations, Depp-as-Thompson also made a quick and clever cameo in the 2010 animated comedy Rango, stumbling across the title character during the desert drive that opens Fear and Loathing. Depp wasn’t the first actor to play Thompson in a film; the 1980 comedy Where the Buffalo Roam featured Bill Murray as the Rolling Stone columnist and pioneering “gonzo journalist.” But that picture was unloved by both audiences and critics, and while Thompson praised Murray’s work (and, to be fair, he’s pretty great in it), he hated the movie. He had kinder words for the adaptation of Fear and Loathing that was released nearly two decades later, and became fast friends with Depp, who lived in Thompson’s home for four months while prepping the movie — studying him, driving his car, and borrowing his clothes. The men were friends for the rest of Thompson’s life, and when the writer took his own life in 2005, Depp paid for the elaborate funeral (in which Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a custom cannon, per his wishes).

ACTOR: Harvey Keitel FILMMAKER: Martin Scorsese FILMS: Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Who’s That Knocking (1967), and his third, Mean Streets (1974) were in many ways his most personal; he co-wrote the scripts, and based them on his young adult years in Little Italy. Who’s that Knocking began as a student film, later expanded to feature length (and amended with a somewhat nonsensical sex scene, in order to sell it on the exploitation circuit); Scorsese returned to many of the same themes in his breakthrough film Mean Streets. Both pictures starred Harvey Keitel in the Scorsese surrogate roles (“J.R.” in Who’s That Knocking, “Charlie” in Mean Streets) — the responsible Catholic boy trying to do right by himself and his church. Keitel would continue to work with Scorsese over the years (in Taxi Driver, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and The Last Temptation of Christ), though never in roles as close to the filmmaker as these.

ACTOR: Ben Stiller WRITER: Jerry Stahl FILM: Permanent Midnight

Jerry Stahl was a fiction and humor writer turned TV scribe, best known for shows like ALF, Moonlighting, and thirtysomething, when he wrote Permanent Midnight, a blunt and darkly funny memoir of his dangerous drug addiction. The book was a sensation when it was released in 1995, and was quickly optioned for a film adaptation by Natural Born Killers producers Jane Hamsher (best known these days as founder of the FireDogLake blog) and Don Murphy, with Killers co-writer David Veloz adapting and directing. As the self-destructive, yet undeniably talented Stahl, Ben Stiller turned in a live-wire, sharp-edged performance that’s perhaps his best work to date — he was still in his indie, Your Friends and Neighbors period, before surrendering to a lifetime of Greg Focker repeats and variations.

ACTOR: Timothy Hutton WRITER: Stephen King FILM: The Dark Half

King has frequently told stories about novelists — The Shining and Misery leap to mind — but seldom has his main character felt as close to the man himself than in his 1989 novel The Dark Half. The novel’s story of a writer whose pseudonym takes on a grisly life of his own was clearly inspired by King’s own non de plume, Richard Bachmann; he wrote several books under that assumed name while in his initial flush of fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in order to maintain his preferred productivity level without watering down the King “brand.” The Dark Half was published in 1984, after Bachmann was “outed” as King; it was turned into a feature film in 1991 (though not released until 1993) by Night of the Living Dead director and occasional King collaborator George A. Romero. Though the film received mixed notices, Timothy Hutton’s starring turn as Thad Beaumont (and “George Stark”) was singled out, and for good reason — this is one of the underrated actor’s most intriguing performances. (Also, sidebar: a year or so after The Dark Half, King wrote a novella called Secret Window, Secret Garden that revisited the story from another angle. It was turned into a 2004 film called simply Secret Window, with the King avatar played by… Johnny Depp.)

ACTOR: Catherine Keener FILMMAKER: Nicole Holofcener FILMS: Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money, Please Give

Holofcener is one of the most bewilderingly unappreciated filmmakers working today; we can only explain it by the fact that her last name is so difficult to pronounce. But in the 15 years she’s been making feature films, she’s turned out a quartet of keenly observed, whip-smart comedy/dramas, and every single one of them has featured the great Catherine Keener, who has clearly become something of a good-luck charm for the filmmaker. By this point, Keener’s been working with Holofcener’s dialogue for so long that the words are like second nature to her — she gets this filmmaker’s style, voice, and worldview, and fronts the pictures with tossed-off, natural ease.

ACTOR: Peter Weller WRITER: William S. Burroughs FILM: Naked Lunch

William S. Burroughs’ 1959 Beat classic had been an object of desire for filmmakers since its publication — in spite of the fact that its episodic nature and non-linear narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to the cinema. But none landed until 1991, when the ever-innovative David Cronenberg hit upon an adaptation idea: his screenplay combined characters and incidents from the novel with bits from other Burroughs works and biographical elements from his own life (including his accidental shooting of his common-law wife). As a result, the film’s protagonist William Lee is even more of an alter ego than the author had intended. Cronenberg cast Peter Weller — then still best known for playing the title roles in Buckaroo Banzai and Robocop — as Lee, and the actor received some of the best review of his career in the process (Janet Maslin, The New York Times: “The gaunt, unsmiling Mr. Weller looks exactly right and brings a perfect offhandedness to his disarming dialogue”).

ACTOR: Jean-Pierre Léaud FILMMAKER: Francois Truffaut FILMS: The 400 Blows, Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run

Few actor/director combinations have proven as biographical or as fruitful as that of French New Wave hero Francois Truffaut and his favorite leading man, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Their collaboration began in 1959 with Truffaut’s seminal film The 400 Blows, in which the young actor played the character of Antoine Doinel, a troubled young boy whose experiences were drawn from Truffaut’s. The duo returned to the character for a short film (Antoine and Colette, part of the anthology feature Love at Twenty) and three additional features over the next twenty years, crafting a long-running chronicle of one young man’s life and loves.

ACTOR: Nicolas Cage SCRENWRITER: Charlie Kaufman FILM: Adaptation.

Charlie Kaufman was still a struggling writer mostly known for his television work when he was hired in 1997 to pen a film adaptation of Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief. Understandably, he found himself seriously short on ways to transform the book into a cinematic narrative; frustration and writer’s block ensued, and mostly out of desperation, Kaufman ended up writing a brilliant meta-screenplay about the futility of trying to adapt Orlean’s book into a screenplay. As a result, the main character of Kaufman’s story was Kaufman himself — and his entirely fictional brother Donald, who also received a screenplay credit. When Kaufman’s earlier screenplay for Being John Malkovich became an art house hit, his weirdo Adaptation script suddenly became a hot commodity, and Nicolas Cage signed on to play the dual roles of Charlie and Donald. His terrific work — creating a nervous, sweating, insecure Charlie and a free-wheeling, gee-whiz Donald — marked one of the increasingly infrequent occasions of Cage finding a quality vehicle to harness his strangeness.

ACTOR: Annette Bening FILMMAKER: Lisa Cholodenko FILM: The Kids are All Right

Cholodenko based her 2010 Oscar nominee The Kids are All Right (which she co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg) on her own experience as a lesbian mother who used an anonymous sperm donor. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play the couple at the center of the story, and presumably both characters have elements of Cholodenko’s personality (good writers put a little of themselves into everyone they write, of course). That said, even a momentary listen to this Fresh Air interview with Cholodenko indicates that the filmmaker may have seen a bit of herself in Bening; the actor and director have an aural similarity that is downright eerie.

ACTOR: Marcello Mastroianni FILMMAKER: Frederico Fellini FILMS: La Dolce Vita,

Though the character Marcello Mastroianni plays in Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita is a journalist — and rather a laid-back one at that — one can’t help but feel that he is functioning as the director’s stand-in, wandering through a haze of hijinks and angst in Rome with a detached, filmmaker’s eye. Fellini took the next logical step in their subsequent collaboration, , in which Mastroianni played… a celebrated Italian filmmaker.