"I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."
That was Marilyn. But what about Michelle?
You can feel the question mark hanging in the air: Is she going to pull it off? For anyone who's sat through the My Week With Marilyn trailer in which Michelle Williams plays our Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous movie stars in the world, you know what I'm talking about. Williams all blonded, powdered and dolled up à la Monroe looks fashionably fantastic and she's a wonderful actress but... is she as wonderful as Marilyn? Is she even remotely approaching the nature of Marilyn-ness? I'm going to assume she's too intelligent an actress to do MM a disservice, but still, how can you capture the essence and power that were distinctly owned by Marilyn? Is it even worth trying?
The reports are mixed, and some are discussing Oscar nomination, but who knows. I'm curious to see (and Kenneth Branagh as an apoplectic Olivier). So while waiting, I've taken a look at six other stars who decided to step into shoes more famous than their own -- always a risky predicament. Some soared, some sank, and some, well, the shoes almost fit too well. Faye Dunaway you are a genius...
Faye Dunaway -- Joan Crawford: Mommie Dearest
The granddaddy (or grand-mommy) of all films with icons impersonating icons, Mommie Dearest is not just a movie but something of a milestone for both the stars playing and being played. And also for many viewers. How can anyone come out of that movie the same? How does one ever look at a wire hanger as a normal object again? The movie, based on the iconic Joan Crawford and adapted from her adopted daughter Christina's famous tell-all biography, became an almost immediate camp classic after a mostly negative critical reception. The story, in which the child-hungry star adopts Christina, only to make her life a series of hellish showdowns, was not a flattering portrait of Crawford and probably unfair, but Faye Dunaway (who will not discuss the part, alas) matched her with divine diva relish. Dunaway must have understood Crawford on a deeper level, far deeper than simply relating to another actress (Dunaway, like Crawford, also worked with Bette Davis for chrissakes... and Davis didn't like Dunaway either!).
She channeled Crawford, from her hunter's-bow lip liner to the inner tumults of the troubled star. Though the performance is large and sometimes hilarious, Dunaway understood Crawford enough to give her moments of vulnerability and pathos. Though Dunaway is reportedly not proud of the role, and too many viewers saw Crawford as a woman who goes insane with the Comet cleanser (and not as the often brilliant actress of Rain, Mildred Pearce, A Woman's Face, Humoresque and Autumn Leaves among so many other pictures), it's a movie that, if you watch it enough, is strangely on Crawford's side. The performance is just too fantastic, too operatic, too iconic -- you have to respect both Dunaway and Crawford by the end.
James Cagney -- Lon Chaney: Man of a Thousand Faces
Playing the genius Lon Chaney is one thing; having another genius -- and a genius for very different reasons -- portray him is quite another. Like Chaney, James Cagney was a superb physical performer. The man could say as much with the rage in his eyes as he could while casually tap-dancing down a flight of stairs. His migraine meltdown in White Heat is so powerful, it's almost infectious -- you feel that damn headache from torment.
And yet, as touching and lovely as Cagney is to watch depicting Chaney, one of the greatest and most innovative screen actors of all time (From The Phantom of the Opera to Hunchback to The Unknown to The Unholy Three and more and more... who sadly, only made only one talking picture), the entire film falls a bit flat around him. Never mind that the movie takes quite a few liberties regarding the facts; it just doesn't convey the brilliance and, no doubt, haunted inner life of Chaney. You can tell Cagney reveres Chaney, and that does feel, at least, good (every actor should). And to be fair to Cagney -- let's see if any modern actor could star in a biopic about him...
Carroll Baker -- Jean Harlow: Harlow
Though Carroll Baker did a fine job as the beautiful, talented and distinctive blond bombshell Jean Harlow, the picture is a rather tepid affair. Released only a month after a more quickie, low-budget version of Harlow was seen on-screen (starring Carol Lynley and directed by Bill Sargent), Joseph E. Levine's version is superior but still lacking. The 1930s icon, with her troubled, sometimes bizarre family and love life (one of her husbands, producer/director/screenwriter Paul Bern, committed suicide two months after their marriage, amid mystery and nasty rumors) and her early death at 26, presented a passionate tale to tell, but, alas, the movie is just there. A lifeless script, a shallow treatment and a weirdly cast Peter Lawford as Bern hurt Harlow.
Interestingly, a book by Tom Lisanti about the two movies and their cinematic faceoff has just been published, titled "Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen." Though both movies don't exactly befit the Harlow legend, at least an interesting back story resulted from them. Harlow herself made it look easy and if you want a wonderful depiction of her talents, just watch the woman herself in Bombshell where she managed to play herself and Clara Bow.
Cate Blanchett -- Katharine Hepburn: The Aviator
The almighty Katharine Hepburn? Even the seemingly indefatigable Cate Blanchett had a tall (with long, lean slacks) order with this one. How do you play the iconic Hepburn, she with those unmistakable shaky enunciation's, feminist but feminine viewpoints, practical but madcap mannerisms and distinct unconventionality without becoming a parody of the fearlessly unique star?
We've seen Martin Short do Hepburn's nephew as a hot dog vendor -- at least I hope we've all seen that. If not, you've really missed out -- so we know it's not so hard to venture into Frank Gorshin mimicry (how wonderful it would have been had he added Hepburn to his arsenal). But unlike the other stars in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow? Uh, no...), Blanchett pulled it off, I think... I'm still thinking it over.
Jessica Lange -- Frances Farmer: Frances
Though the movie itself and some its facts are problematic, the torrid, tragic tale of the great Frances Farmer, a superb actress from the 1930s who wound up institutionalized in atrocious, unfair conditions, is drop-kicked into the stratosphere by Jessica Lange. Lange not only looks like Farmer but also embodies everything we've ever read about the talented star. Lange's ferocious, fearless beauty and take-no-prisoners performance saved what could have been yet another studio mangling of the life and legend of a notorious woman.
A chance to really tell her story, a tale straight from Nathaniel West or Horace McCoy, was clearly at hand when the film was conceived (read Farmer's autobiography "Will There Really Be a Morning?" --never mind its questionable veracity, read it -- and you can see why), but through script problems, studio requests, and one strange association with the conspiracy-obsessed ex-convict and probable liar Stewart Jacobson (played in the film as "Harry York" by Sam Shepard), Frances veers into fantasy -- a fantasy Frances Farmer would not have appreciated. Still... Lange is outstanding. Giving us what Farmer was -- an intelligent woman struggling in the often alienating business of show, a woman with soul; natural born talent; a real, thinking, searching brain; an outspoken temper; inner demons; and pure beauty -- Lange crafted one of her greatest roles in Frances, a performance almost as iconic as the actress herself.
Sienna Miller -- Edie Sedgwick: Factory Girl
Though not normally thought of as a movie star, Edie Sedwick was a Warhol superstar -- which makes her more movie star than many actresses working today. Thanks largely to a wonderfully cast Sienna Miller (and with much riding on her from Edie fans like me and millions of others) George Hickenlooper's Factory Girl works in spite of its numerous, annoying flaws. Miller's impressive turn as Warhol muse/youth-quaker Edie Sedgwick, the drug-addled, fabulously fashionable and little, lost decadent girl, saves the picture. No one can really look like Edie, save for the sheared bleached hair, the chandelier earrings, the eyeliner and the black tights, but Sienna channels her look splendidly. And, even better, she gets Edie's intelligent, measured (and sometimes slurred) speaking voice down perfectly. Edie was troubled, but she was no dummy, and Miller grants her this dignity. Still, the film relies too heavily on Edie's relationship with a certain iconic musician (Hayden Christensen doing a covert Bob Dylan) and focuses on Edie chiefly as a victim. Edie was screwed up, obviously, but was she simply a victim?
No way. Edie was something of a Holly Golightly, a fab, endless party who attracted many but eventually wore people out. Instead of hailing from Hicksville (Golightly's secret), Edie was well educated, but she had deeply disturbing family troubles (suicide, probable incest) that she both buried and, in a strange way, extolled by flitting the night away on loads of speed. But she was still a madcap light that burned fast, a drugged-out screwball heroine who didn't get Cary Grant or William Powell at the end of the picture. The woman was an absolute charmer -- electric, the living embodiment of the now. Surely the picture could have given us some of her fearless excitement as well? You can feel it in her still photographs -- and thank goodness we've got plenty of those to look at. And of course, she was a genius just playing herself.
Read the entire list from my story, "Actors as Actors" at MSN Movies.