12 of the Most Memorable On-Screen Impersonations

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Last week, we took a look at a few of Hollywood’s stranger casting decisions for previous (and upcoming) biographical films. But with the Oscar-winning Iron Lady out today on DVD and Blu-ray, we thought we might also take a look at some of the more successful actor/biographical subject match-ups—with a particular eye on those that most convincingly embodied the figures they were playing.

Playing a well-known and well-documented actor, musician, or public figure can’t be easy, even for the best of actors — they not only have to assemble a serviceable performance in the conventional sense, but must also work up a convincing impersonation. They’re playing people that we’re used to seeing, whose look and speech have become familiar and distinctive, and must thus be replicated. The great performances in biographical movies must also then transcend the mere imitation, and create a compelling character beyond that. After the jump, we’ve assembled a dozen of the actors who memorably got into someone else’s skin; add your own in the comments.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady

AWARDS: Academy Award, BAFTA award, SAG award nomination, Golden Globe THE CRITICS SAY: “Streep’s performance is so true and so uncannily accurate, so full and so complete in its understanding, that she is fascinating every second she is onscreen… Through meticulous study, Streep gets every external detail of Thatcher’s expression and movement and then, through some profound gift of intuition, she gets everything else, the thoughts, the inner life, the strengths and limitations, even the unconscious motivations of the character.” –Mick LaSalle, The San Francisco Chronicle WE SAY: Streep’s studiousness and skill at mimicry has become so renowned as to provoke something of a backlash these days from those who say she’s all technique and no soul. And though she is technically magnificent here — her accent is sharp, her physicality is flawless, and she’s equally convincing in middle and old age — she also gives a welcome bit of humanity and insight into the personality of a particularly divisive figure.

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, My Week with Marilyn

AWARDS: Academy Award nomination, BAFTA nomination, SAG award nomination, Golden Globe THE CRITICS SAY: “Michelle Williams plays Monroe, and she’s a wonder. Working opposite a suitably florid Kenneth Branagh as that high thespian Sir Larry, a platinum, sultry Williams knows exactly how to throw the switch that turns on MM’s movie-star incandescence, then flick it off to reveal the vulnerable young woman in the dark.” –Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly WE SAY: Plenty of eyebrows were raised by this bit of casting — could Williams, so masterful at disappearing into small character roles, play one of the most iconic figures in all of movies? But she dominates the film from its first scene, performing “Heat Wave” (Williams does her own singing, and well) in a manner that indicates that she’s not going to be intimidated by the iconography — she’s just going to become the character and get on with it. She does, and masterfully; she gets both Monroe’s delicateness (her eyes are perpetually wet) and her sprung comic timing. You can’t take your eyes off her, and when the movie insists that a room changes when she walks into it, you believe it.

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, Malcolm X

AWARDS: Academy Award nomination, Golden Globe nomination THE CRITICS SAY: “What fuses the film’s disparate parts is Washington’s riveting, impeccably controlled performance. Everyone who has a stake in Malcolm’s legacy will argue about aspects of his character that seem overblown or skimped, but none can deny the conviction and grace of Washington’s portrayal. He burns on a low flame.” –David Ansen, Newsweek WE SAY: Washington had played the controversial Muslim leader early in his career, in the off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. The years he’d spent studying Malcolm showed; he had the familiar speech cadences and rhetorical flourishes down to a tee. But the epic scope and length of Lee’s biopic allowed him to push deeper, into Malcolm’s early years, to show the full range of how he became the forceful, confident figure familiar from documentary footage.

Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf, La Vie En Rose

AWARDS: Academy Award, BAFTA award, César award, SAG award nomination, Golden Globe THE CRITICS SAY: “This is no mere instance of mimicry. She inhabits the character, bringing life and passion to the role. When we care about Piaf, it’s because of Cotillard’s work, not because of the haphazard approach of the screenplay. Although Cotillard has perfected Piaf’s mannerisms and exhibits flawless lip-synching, there’s more to her acting.” –James Berardinelli, ReelViews WE SAY: The technical achievement of Cotillard’s performance — in which the actress (then around 30) convincingly portrays the songstress from teenage years to death (at 47, though she had lived hard enough to look much older) — is astonishing. But the heart and soul of her work is what leaves a lasting and indelible impression.

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Ray

AWARDS: Academy Award, BAFTA award, SAG award, Golden Globe THE CRITICS SAY: “Assuming the persona of Ray Charles as if it were always his, (Foxx) becomes the singer in such an evocative way, you’re not sure which one’s the real Ray anymore. When the movie concludes with footage of the actual Ray Charles toward the end of his life (he died in June at age 73), there is almost no jarring feeling — no reminder you’ve been watching an actor before that.” –Desson Thomson, The Washington Post WE SAY: The awards and accolades Foxx earned were richly deserved — this is a tremendous, accomplished performance, one that surpasses imitation and becomes an embodiment, a reincarnation, a riveting piece of acting and musical skill. (If only the film surrounding this performance were as loose, funky, powerful, or dangerous as Foxx’s show-stopping turn.)

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen

AWARDS: Academy Award, BAFTA award, SAG award, Golden Globe THE CRITICS SAY: “The resemblance is not merely physical, but embodies the very nature of the Elizabeth we have grown up with — a private woman who takes her public role with great gravity… She finds a way, even in a ‘behind the scenes’ docudrama, to suggest that part of her character will always be behind the scenes. What a masterful performance, built on suggestion, implication and understatement.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times WE SAY: The Queen is one of the most recognizable faces in the world, but you don’t doubt Mirren for a moment — she is incapable of sounding a false note, her performance both unquestionably regal and remarkably human. In one of her best moments, she tells Tony Blair, “That’s the way we do things in this country — quiet, and with dignity. That’s what the rest of the world admires about us.” It’s a good line, but in Mirren’s hands, it’s sheer greatness.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Capote

AWARDS: Academy Award, BAFTA award, SAG award, Golden Globe award THE CRITICS SAY: “Hoffman goes beyond impersonation to something close to possession. He replaces our latter-year memories of Capote — a bloated, gossipy talk-show staple — with the image of his younger, fiercer self: a figure of great talent, soon to be both a tragic victim and the engineer of his own downfall.” –Steve Murray, Atlanta Journal-Constitution WE SAY: Hoffman stands a half-foot taller than Capote, and his physical presence is far more imposing than the man he was playing — part of why he hesitated before accepting the title role in Bennett Miller’s excellent 2005 film. He found his way into the character by focusing on that famous voice, and that became the key to the role. By making that oft-imitated vocal register seem second nature, Hoffman was able to both do an imitation and surpass it; after a time, the actor and the icon become immeasurably intertwined, and you’re no longer watching an impression of Capote, you’re just watching Capote.

Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, Ali

AWARDS: Academy Award nomination, Golden Globe nomination THE CRITICS SAY: “Frankly, I didn’t think anyone could pull off the role. Who could live up to that charisma, that motormouth wit? Who could possibly capture the beauty of the young Cassius Clay? Often, actors playing real people uneasily straddle the line between impersonation and inhabitation. Smith crosses it as much as the script and direction allow… He confers gravity on Ali without deifying him or cutting the life out of him. Smith reminds us of how Ali went from delighting us to moving us.” –Charles Taylor, Salon WE SAY: Smith had proven himself as a movie star when he was cast in Ali, but he had yet to really show he could act. That question was put to rest here, even amidst the widespread reservations about the film itself; Smith sounds like Ali, looks like him (thanks, in part, to a special mold that held Smith’s distinctive ears closer to his head), and fights like him. But he also manages to convey the intense private contradictions of this very public figure.

Martin Sheen as John F. Kennedy, Kennedy

AWARDS: Golden Globe nomination THE CRITICS SAY: “Sheen and (co-stair Blair) Brown display an authentic depiction of each character, and a genuine chemistry. It’s likely what lead to Sheen’s presidential role in The West Wing.” –Stephen Baldwin, National Post WE SAY: Sheen’s marked resemblance to JFK made his casting in this three-part 1983 made-for-TV movie something of an inevitability. But he doesn’t just look the part, or nail the New England dialect; he merges his unique power as an actor with the charisma of the President, crafting an unforgettable performance in an otherwise flawed mini-series.

Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon

AWARDS: Golden Globe award, SAG award nomination THE CRITICS SAY: “Jim Carrey’s performance is an impersonation on the level of genius (he literally brings Kaufman to life), but what makes it indelible is its joy. His Andy is an exuberantly neurotic shape-shifter driven by a freaky split between childhood and manhood, fey softness and brute aggression, Latka Gravas and Elvis Presley.” –Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly WE SAY: Carrey has always had a gift for impersonation, but that skill was never more astonishing than in his outright personification of Kaufman, who was a renowned chameleon in his own right. And because of that, he became a tricky character to play; some actors would get hung up on the void that seemed to exist at his center. Carrey, instead, recognized something of himself in that conundrum, and played to that void, making that the center of this extraordinary performance.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Milk

AWARDS: Academy Award, BAFTA nomination, Golden Globe nomination, SAG award THE CRITICS SAY: “Penn is present in nearly every scene. His marked resemblance to Milk — hawkish profile, mask-of-comedy smile — is matched by an understanding of his gregarious character’s political gifts. The Mayor of Castro Street was a son of the Borscht Belt — a wise guy, a tummler, part self-deprecating nerd, part infectious showoff. (Like Harvey, Penn has no difficulty milking it.)” –J. Hoberman, The Village Voice WE SAY: Penn not only locked in on Milk’s easily-imitated voice — what is remarkable in viewing the performance side-by-side with the wonderful documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is how he replicated the man’s sheer joy. That positivity — his understanding of not just the need, but the possibility of positive change — informed the performance, and gave it much of its indisputable power.

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, I’m Not There.

AWARDS: Academy Award nomination, BAFTA nomination, SAG award nomination, Independent Spirit award THE CRITICS SAY: “The Jude scenes are so well done they make you giddy with delight and unease. Blanchett disappears into the role as eerily as she became Kate Hepburn a few years back: The pipe-cleaner legs, the masklike shades, what critic Janet Maslin once called the ‘fabulous corona of unkempt hair.'” –Ty Burr, The Boston Globe WE SAY: It’s hard enough to play a figure as iconic as Bob Dylan (it took six actors to do it in Todd Hayne’s wonderfully esoteric 2006 biopic); it’s presumably even tougher to play a well-known figure of the opposite sex. But the endlessly inventive Blanchett does just that, playing “Jude” (Dylan in his Don’t Look Back, switch-to-electric period) with both asexually and hyper-sexually — in a strange yet undeniably potent way, she’s neither man nor woman, likable nor loathsome, sincere nor fraudulent. She’s Dylan: all and none of the above.