Here's some recommended reading for anyone looking to make a biopic about a famous person in the near future (I'm looking at you, whoever thought it was a good idea to cast Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs). At Movie Morlocks, Greg Ferrara writes a smart piece on the uphill battle biopics face in the acting department, particularly in the case of movies about movie stars. It's not enough, if you're playing W.C. Fields for example, to be funny, charming, moving, and whatever else the role demands: you have to look and sound like W.C. Fields too. You could give the greatest performance in the history of motion pictures in a biopic, but if you don't resemble that famous person you're supposed to resemble, it's all meaningless. Ferrara writes that this dilemma is particularly applicable to movies about the movies:
"The problem actors have portraying their own is that the person they’re portraying is famous precisely for their face and voice. General George S. Patton was famous for his exploits as a military commander so no one much cared when George C. Scott, an actor with ten times the commanding voice and stature of the actual general, was cast in the lead. The same goes for most historical figures. Most people don’t know how T.E. Lawrence sounded and how he looked can only be culled from still photographs so few people care one way or the other if Peter O’Toole is giving an accurate impersonation or not. On the other hand, anyone familiar with classic cinema knows how Carole Lombard looks and sounds and can’t help but immediately place that information in the field of play when they see Jill Clayburgh playing her in 'Gable and Lombard.'"
It's an obvious point, I suppose, but one I'd never really considered before. In the case of a biopic of an actor, It's not simply that we're used to seeing that famous person, but that we're used to seeing that famous person in this exact environment. It's easier to make a biopic about a musician, even an instantly recognizable one like Ray Charles (a role that won Jamie Foxx an Oscar), because their natural habitat is the stage instead of the silver screen. To put it another way, Joaquin Phoenix could do Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" but he couldn't do Johnny Cash in a concert tour of America. He's movie Johnny Cash, he's not live music Johnny Cash. In an actor's biopic like "W.C. Fields and Me," Rod Steiger can't be movie W.C. Fields, because W.C. Fields is already movie W.C. Fields.
Ferrara's pick for the best famous actor performance of another famous actor is Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood," another Oscar winner and a very strong choice. My favorite recent example would be Christian McKay as Orson Welles in "Me and Orson Welles." Ferrara sort of rejects McKay's performance in his piece (writing that it's "not a full biographical portrayal, more of a supporting player in a story that has nothing much to do with Welles,") but I disagree. McKay pulled off the Holy Grail of Biopic Performances: he convinced you so utterly that he was Orson Welles that you stopped judging the performance minute by minute ("Oh he looks like him a lot now... oops, his accent slipped a little bit") and simply accepted that you were watching the genuine article. And though Welles is a supporting character in the story, it's still a more complete portrait of Welles' genius and egomania than any other filmed version of his life I've seen (and i've seen a lot of them).
The famous person biopic is a high risk, high reward situation. When it works, the results almost always yield Oscar nominations. When it doesn't, the results invariably lead to grumpy critics and disappointed audiences. If you're not absolutely certain you can pull off the performance, you probably shouldn't even try. Something for Ashton Kutcher to keep in mind. He's not playing an actor, but we've all seen Jobs' Apple presentations on the Internet dozens of times.
Read more of Greg Ferrara's "Biopics of the Stars: When Does the Look Matter?"