Michelle Williams is already getting Oscar buzz for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, which opens in theaters this Wednesday. “She channels every facet of the legend’s persona — her seductiveness, her neuroses, her candle-in-the-wind vulnerability and sometimes breathtaking naïveté — while keeping her feet planted firmly on the ground,” writes Rene Rodriguez at the Miami Herald. “Williams makes Monroe simultaneously seem larger than life and heartbreakingly human.” Even critics less impressed with the film as a whole — like Ronnie Scheib at Variety or David Rooney at Hollywood Reporter — seem enamored of her performance.
But Williams is just one of many actors who have portrayed iconic stars — some to universal acclaim, and others to widespread derision. Click through as we examine some of the most noteworthy examples.
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest
Probably the most infamous instance of an actor playing another actor, Faye Dunaway tore up the screen as Joan Crawford in the 1981 film based on the memoir by Crawford’s daughter, Christina.
Critical reaction: In the ’70s, Dunaway had completed a decade of stellar acting work, culminating in an Oscar for her role in Network. Then she starred in Mommie Dearest, and her career all but skidded to a halt. For those not familiar with Dunaway’s hysterically campy portrayal of the Crawford, let Variety describe it for you: “Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all.” Physical resemblance: Dunaway molded her look to fit Joan Crawford’s appearance. She has her distinctive thick eyebrows, high cheekbones and, let’s face it, crazy eyes. At 5 foot 7, Dunaway is two inches taller than Crawford, but this added height made her seem even more imposing and frightening in the film.
Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin
Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of one of America’s first movie stars in this 1992 biopic. The all-star cast included Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks and Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard.
Critical reaction: This was Downey’s first serious bid to be considered a dramatic actor, and it worked. He received better reviews than the movie, earning praise for fully embodying both Chaplin and his iconic Little Tramp character, while the film was criticized for being calculated Oscar bait. Physical resemblance: A resemblance to The Little Tramp is pretty easy to emulate. A short mustache, shabby suit, cane, and bowler hat is all it takes to emulate Chaplin’s most famous creation, at least on the surface. But Downey Jr. also captured how Chaplin was able to bring The Little Tramp to life. As The New York Times’ Stephanie Zacharek explains, “He doesn’t just recreate Chaplin’s physical genius, he suggests that that famous balletic, bowlegged walk might have been one man’s way of staying safely balanced on the knife edge of emotional anguish.”
strong>James Franco as James Dean in James Dean
Before he was James Franco, the actor/student/performance artist/reviled Oscar host was just an up-and-comer fresh off the cult hit Freaks and Geeks, looking to raise his profile. This 2001 TV movie did the trick.
Critical reaction: Franco earned a Golden Globe for his depiction of Dean, a success that nabbed him film roles, including a supporting part in the Spider-Man franchise, and helped him move up in the Hollywood ranks. Physical resemblance: Franco looks a lot like the movie star he portrayed, thanks to his angular frame and a steely, intense gaze. In an interview with USA Today , Franco revealed he went method for the role, including smoking, learning to ride a motorcycle, play guitars and bongos, and cutting off communication with family and friends in order to channel Dean’s feelings of alienation.
Michael Chiklis as John Belushi in Wired
This might be one of the strangest biopics ever filmed. Chiklis’ John Belushi is a ghost who wakes up on the autopsy table wondering how he he ended up dying from an overdose. He revisits his life with the help of a guardian angel, and inexplicably, reporter Bob Woodward. No wonder Rita Kempley at the Washington Post called it “the silliest celebrity bio since Mommie Dearest.”
Critical reaction: Chiklis was mostly trashed by critics along with the 1989 film. A different reviewer for the Washington Post opined “Despite a histrionic outpouring of growls, snorts, yells and re-creations of familiar Belushi shticks, from Jake Elmore to Joe Cocker, Chiklis seems to miss every opportunity to redeem himself.” Because the movie’s producers didn’t have the rights to any of Belushi’s famed SNL skits, Chiklis had to act out imitations of these sketches to middling effect. That probably didn’t help. Luckily, his career survived the bad notices, and he went on to win an Emmy for The Shield. Physical resemblance: Even though they derided his performance, some critics thought that Chiklis looked and sounded like Belushi, from his portly physique to his voice and mannerisms.
Jennifer Love Hewitt as Audrey Hepburn in The Audrey Hepburn Story
Not only did Jennifer Love Hewitt star in this 2000 made-for-TV movie, she also served as a producer. It’s worth nothing that Emmy Rossum and Modern Family‘s Sarah Hyland each played younger incarnations of Hepburn in the movie.
Critical reception: Hewitt’s stardom was on the decline when the TV movie aired, and the general public felt indignant that she was daring to portray one of Hollywood’s most revered actresses. Critics were kinder, noting that she was decent in the role. As Robert Pardi at TV Guide perhaps put it best, “while Hewitt may lack Hepburn’s incandescent je ne sais quoi, possessing instead the rather more pedestrian quelquechose de TV star, she nonetheless acquits herself admirably throughout her impossible task.” Physical resemblance: On paper, they’re a lot alike: Hewitt and Hepburn were both skinny-slender brunettes with long, graceful necks, and Hewitt even attempts Hepburn’s delicate Dutch accent. In the end, though, J. Love looked and acted like a girl dressed up as Audrey Hepburn for Halloween.
Judy Davis as Judy Garland in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows
Judy Garland’s life was depicted in this 2001 two-part TV movie based on daughter Lorna Luft’s memoir, with Tammy Blanchard portraying her travails as a precocious child star and Davis taking on her stormy adult years.
Critical reception: Both actresses received Emmys for their roles, while Davis went on to also score a Golden Globe and SAG Award as well. She was largely viewed as having given the performance of her career. Physical resemblance: Davis inhabited the role in a spine-tingling, gorgeously authentic way, capturing Garland’s fragility, gravelly voice and unique gait. As Phil Gallo at Variety wrote at the time, “Seldom in a biographical television made-for does a star so expertly inhabit another’s skin as Judy Davis does here with Judy Garland.”
Loni Anderson as Jayne Mansfield in The Jayne Mansfield Story
The biggest blond bombshell of her era was cast at the biggest blond bombshell of the 1950s. The 1980 TV movie also featured Arnold Schwarzenegger(!) as Mansfield’s husband, Mickey Hargitay.
Critical reception: We couldn’t find any reviews of the movie online, but it was named one of the “100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made” in The Official Razzie Movie Guide. That probably tells you enough. Physical resemblance: Anderson has big blonde hair, a blinding perma-smile, and a ditzy, high-pitched voice — and yet, it was simply not enough.
Sean Hayes as Jerry Lewis in Martin and Lewis
The Will and Grace star teamed up with British actor Jeremy Northam to depict the rise and fall of legendary showbiz team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in yet another TV movie from the early 2000s.
Critical reception: Hayes earned a SAG award nomination for this role, but some critics, like Robert Pardi at TV Guide , chided him for channeling his “Jack” character when playing the legendary comic actor; as he wrote, Hayes “captures Lewis’ arrested personal development, but flounders when called upon to conjure up his manic performance style.” Physical resemblance: Hayes has Lewis’ go-for-broke energy, facial expressiveness, and voice down pretty well. Still, Pardi is right; it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching Jack McFarland doing a Jerry Lewis impersonation.
Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer in Frances
The 1982 biopic featured Lange playing one of the biggest actresses of her era, in a semi-fictionalized account of Farmer’s troubled life.
Critical reception: 1983 was a banner year for Lange — she won Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie and was nominated for Best Actress for playing Farmer. She received near universal acclaim for the latter from the country’s top critics, and by showing her dramatic chops she cemented her movie stardom. In his review, Roger Ebert said, “Jessica Lange plays Frances Farmer in a performance…that contains so many different facets of a complex personality, that we feel she has an intuitive understanding of this tragic woman.” Physical resemblance: Lange was classically beautiful in a way similar to Farmer, but it was her depiction of the actress’ breakdowns and wild mood swings that made her truly convincing in the role.
Ashley Judd as Norma Jean Dougherty and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn Monroe in Norma Jean & Marilyn
In this unusual 1996 TV biopic, the two actresses depict the “before” and “after” of an ordinary girl’s transformation into the legendary screen siren. In one scene, Norma Jean actually shares the screen with Marilyn, with the former self judging and influencing the actress’ choices, eventually driving her to suicide.
Critical reception: Both Judd and Sorvino scored Emmy nominations for their work, and critics enjoyed the way they played off each other in the film. Physical resemblance: Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Neither strives for an exact duplication of Monroe, yet each has a distinct softness, strength, and an unself-conscious sexiness that keeps our eyes on them.” Of the two, Judd’s All-American beauty makes her more Norma Jean-like, though Sorvino does a credible portrayal of the vulnerable, breathy-voiced Marilyn.