Features and Columns · Movies

A Brief History of Casting Talent Over Resemblance for Biopics

By  · Published on April 7th, 2017

How important is resemblance, really?

As we mentioned in our newsletter yesterday, Christian Bale is reportedly in talks to star as former vice president Dick Cheney in an Adam McKay helmed biopic, alongside Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. The news, broken by Variety, has lead to a host of reactions across the internet, including a number of Dark Knight and American Psycho related jokes because, you know, duh. Front and center in many of these reactions is speculation (though in some cases, anticipatory salivation might be more accurate) over how Bale will transform for the role.

After all, Christian Bale is known for physical metamorphoses that rank just below those of caterpillars on an impressiveness scale; he famously lost 60 pounds for his role in The Machinist (bringing the 6′ actor to a skeletal 120-ish pounds), and afterwards went directly to Batman Begins, eating and weight-lifting his way to 220 pounds, which was, as the story goes, a little too much, so Bale slimmed down a bit before filming started because that’s practically his superpower. With all the talk of weight gain and prosthetics and wigs that has gone on since this news started making the rounds, one gets the sense that if Bale doesn’t end up within spitting distance of being Cheney’s twin, people will be disappointed.

The King of Metamorphosis: Christian Bale in ‘The Machinist’ and ‘American Hustle’

But might this focus on likeness miss the point? In fact, the question of likeness as a value only really comes up when we talk about biopics when the subject’s image is one with which the public is highly familiar. After all, no one really comments on the fact that Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe have very little resemblance to Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, because most people didn’t even know they existed, not to mention what they looked like, before Hidden Figures was released.

However, if Eddie Redmayne didn’t actually look remarkably like Stephen Hawking, you could probably expect a few more grumbles, because Hawking and Albert Einstein (and perhaps Neil DeGrasse Tyson) are about the only scientists a sizable portion of the general public would be able to identify in a line up. So if biopics about relatively unknown subjects can be easily enjoyed without the question of resemblance coming into play, why should we let it be such a distraction when it comes to more familiar faces?

As incredible as it is to see Daniel Day-Lewis practically resurrect Abraham Lincoln or Marion Cotillard’s transformation into Edith Piaf, are there occasions when a passing resemblance might work better than an uncanny likeness? Besides, as anyone who’s ever met someone who reminded them of someone else, without actually resembling said person, knows, the most significant elements of capturing the likeness (or essence, if you will) of a person can have little to do with things like height, weight, or facial structure.

That said, here are thirteen examples of casting choices for current or historical figures that worked in spite of limited physical resemblance (in no particular order), in honor of the 13% approval rating Dick Cheney had leaving office:

The main cast of ‘I’m Not There’

Why They’re Here: Six very different actors play six characters, none of whom are named Bob Dylan but whom are all nonetheless Bob Dylan. It’s frequently featured on lists of the best biopics ever made. Cate Blanchett’s performance in particular is nothing short of legendary.

Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson, ‘Love and Mercy’

Why They’re Here: The actors do not especially resemble Wilson – or each other, for that matter. Yet the movie works nonetheless.

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, ‘Jackie’

Why She’s Here: Director Pablo Larraín has been very vocal in interviews that Portman was the only actress he could imagine playing the former First Lady – not because she particularly resembles her, but because of a certain je ne sais quoi; a mysterious aura that Larraín considers fundamental to Kennedy’s persona which Portman shares. While the originally cast Rachel Weisz (way back in 2010, when Darren Arronofsky was slated to direct) easily bears a closer resemblance to Kennedy, after seeing the finished product it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the role quite like Portman, resemblance be damned.

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, ‘Walk the Line’

Why He’s Here: If you look up “best biopic performances” you’ll get a number of lists, many of which will feature Phoenix as the iconic musician. None bother mentioning that Phoenix only bears a passing resemblance to the singer, or that it’s far from Phoenix’s most transformative role – he looks far more like himself as Cash than he does in, for example, Her. Again, though, his performance is brilliant, so who cares?

Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, ‘Walk the Line’

Why She’s Here: Ditto.

Brad Pitt as Jesse James, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’

Why He’s Here: The film remains a career highlight for both Pitt and co-star Casey Affleck, but while Affleck somewhat resembles Robert Ford, Pitt does not resemble James in the slightest, nor were any efforts made to force a likeness – not even the styling of his goatee. However, considering the tale of idolization and envy told by Assassination, having Pitt look like the world-famous movie star he is instead of transforming him into the likeness of an outlaw whose image is far less well remembered than his name is not just a defendable course of action, but arguably the better one.

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, ‘Marie Antoinette’

Why She’s Here: We only have portrait paintings to give us a sense of what the infamous French queen looked like, nonetheless, that’s enough to know she didn’t look at all like Dunst. Love it or hate it, if you think accuracy in any way, shape, or form is the intention of Sofia Coppola’s colorful romp through a decidedly un-fun period of French history, then you either haven’t seen it or entirely missed the point.

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, ‘Steve Jobs’

Why He’s Here: When very similar films released in close proximity, like Jobs (2013) and Steve Jobs (2015), one very often tends to come out on top to the point where the loser very quickly fades from cultural memory. Such is the case here, with Steve Jobs the undeniable winner – even though few efforts were made to make star Michael Fassbender look more like the Apple Inc. co-founder while Ashton Kutcher’s resemblance to the man is decidedly uncanny. Additionally, the limited resemblance didn’t stop Fassbender’s acting from garnering a fair bit of praise.

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, ‘Hunger’

Why He’s Here: Yet another well-crafted biopic in which Michael Fassbender looks like Michael Fassbender. Albeit, thanks to the weight he lost to convincingly portray a hunger striker, a very hungry Michael Fassbender. Though to be fair, most people outside of Ireland (and I’m sure a good number of people in Ireland) have no idea what Bobby Sands looked like. But even as someone was familiar with pictures of Bobby Sands, I didn’t feel like the film suffered at all for it. Besides, Hunger was released back in the pre-X-Men days when most viewers wouldn’t know Michael Fassbender from Adam. A transformation from a relative unknown into another relative unknown would be a lot of work with very little reward.

Colin Firth as George VI, ‘The King’s Speech’

Why He’s Here: If one were looking through an encyclopedia and came across an entry for “Posh British Man,” one would all but expect to see a picture of Firth, and probably Benedict Cumberbatch. That said, Firth doesn’t actually look all that much like George VI, but that didn’t stop him from picking up an Oscar and most of the other movie acting awards known to man for his performance.

Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, ‘The King’s Speech’

Why She’s Here: Considering the sunken-eyed, Victorian Gothic aesthetic of Carter’s Harry Potter character Bellatrix Lestrange, also favored by her frequent collaborator and then-partner Tim Burton, Carter arguably looks more like herself in The King’s Speech than viewers were used to seeing.

Robert Downey, Jr. as Charlie Chaplin, ‘Chaplin’

Why? This might seem out of place, considering Downey’s Chaplin is often featured in lists of most uncanny biopic portrayals, but all of those comparison pictures use scenes in which Downey is portraying Chaplin’s Tramp. Without the iconic mustache and kohl-rimmed eyes, Downey actually doesn’t resemble Chaplin all that much. It doesn’t make the scenes in which Downey is playing Chaplin any less compelling than those where Downey is playing Chaplin playing the Tramp, because what truly makes Downey’s performance phenomenal is the little physical ticks and rhythms he gives Chaplin, whether he’s playing the Tramp or lighting a cigarette.

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, ‘The Prestige’

Why He’s Here: The Prestige is far from a biopic, and Bowie’s Tesla only has a handful of scenes, but it is, in my view, among the most inspired and under-appreciated of casting choices in film history (yes, I realize this is a big statement), so I’m featuring it here nonetheless. In an Entertainment Weekly piece following Bowie’s death, director Christopher Nolan said that Tesla was a particularly challenging role to cast, and that he needed to find someone just as mysterious and other-worldly as Tesla. Ultimately he concluded that only David Bowie would do. The result? One of the most enigmatic rock stars of all time giving a scene-stealing performance as the enigmatic rock star of geek culture. If Nolan had managed to find a brilliant actor who looked the spitting image of Tesla, it still would have paled in comparison to the unique synergy of David Bowie’s persona and Tesla’s character.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.