By SUSAN DALY (from last Saturday's Weekend mag in the Irish Independent
WOMEN who look like Scarlett Johansson, wisdom has it, can pretty much do what they like. But even Scarlett might be pushing it with her latest demand. She has decided that she would be just perfect to play wild woman rocker Courtney Love in an upcoming biopic of Love’s tragic husband Kurt Cobain.
Johansson has flirted with a music career previously, recording her breathy vocals on a solo album two years ago. But does that qualify the cushion-lipped actress to play bad girl singer Love? Say what you like about Love but she’s got a wild, passionate energy that it’s hard to imagine the louche, laidback Johansson doing justice to.
Mind you, Love seems to have given her the stamp of approval, already sending the actress the script of the film. But then who – even Courtney Love – doesn’t fantasise about a gorgeous A-lister playing them in the movie of their life? Ozzy Osbourne, for example, recently decided that Johnny Depp is the only man to play him in a biopic. Clearly the drugs have done some lasting damage to Ozzy’s grip on reality.
Who knows? Perhaps Johnny Depp would be on for playing the Prince of Darkness. There is something about movie biopics that is catnip to Hollywood stars. They recognise the whiff of guaranteed Oscar glory if they get them right, as happened for Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Naomi Watts and Michelle Williams must both surely be eyeing the glittering prize when they take on the role of Marilyn Monroe in upcoming rival movies.
Movie bosses are all for the biopic, knowing there is nothing we love more than to watch a famous person play another famous person. When it’s good – Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara, Angela Bassett as Tina Turner – it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad it’s, well, Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart.
Last year’s movie Amelia was a hit – on paper: Oscar-winning actress plays free-spirited legendary aviator. On the big screen, it was a dud, with most of the talk of Berry’s wan performance centering on her bad hair and teeth day.
Miscasting movie roles is easily done – Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist in The World is Not Enough, anyone? – but it’s most embarrassing and obvious when it happens in biopics. The 2008 movie How to Lose Friends and Alienate People had a pop at inappropriate casting when sexpot Megan Fox’s actress character lands the role of a lifetime as… Mother Teresa.
Sometimes the travesty is down to a star’s ego being unable to accept that they are wrong for the role. Madonna kept knocking on Alan Parker’s door until she persuaded him to cast her as Eva Peron in Evita, “the role I was born to play” as she called it. Sadly, although Madonna is a great businesswoman and pop hitmaker, she’s not much of an actress. Evita, a musical, also showed up her limitations as a singer.
It could have been worse. In the 1980s squeaky-clean Olivia Newton John was touted to play the manipulative Peron, as was Liza Minnelli – in a blonde wig.
Wigs and fake teeth don’t necessarily fool an audience. Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose landed her an Oscar as suicidal author Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002) but there surely isn’t enough Latex in the world to transform Kidman into soul queen Dusty Springfield. That idea was put about two years ago but the idea of poker-faced Kidman tackling Dusty’s bisexual, drugs-and-drink lifestyle has subsequently sunk without trace.
That’s the problem with getting white-bread stars to play iconic roles. Invariably your average Botoxed, protein-shake-personal-trainer-regime star is never half as interesting as the exciting life they are being asked to portray. All-American boy
Chris O’Donnell as macho, boozy, bullfighting author Ernest Hemingway? Please. Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as doomed poet Sylvia Plath and womanizing Ted Hughes had, as one critic put it, “all the sexual chemistry of a couple of bored professors”.
Paltrow in particular is guilty of getting ideas above her station. The yoga bunny is being talked about to portray Marlene Dietrich, a bisexual cabaret-cruiser who had more lovers than Paltrow has had wheatgrass shots.
Then there are those actors who can’t bear the thought of ‘uglying up’ enough to accurately portray a real-life person. Hollywood reimagining ‘plain Jane’ Austen as the doe-eyed Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane. Children’s author Beatrix Potter got a bosom-heaving turn from Renee Zellwegger in Miss Potter.
Julia Roberts apparently intended to persuade us that she was feminist icon Andrea Dworkin in a 2005 film. (Yes, Pretty Woman Julia Roberts, whose most famous role insisted that becoming a prostitute was a valid way to bag a rich husband, as a feminist icon.)
When an icon is dead and half-forgotten for long enough, it should theoretically be easier to get an audience to believe in an actor’s portrayal of them. Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace will always be Mel Gibson in a kilt to me, for example.
Even so, it’s remarkable how we know when something is just not right even when a historical figure is hidden in the mists of time. We might be a bit hazy on the feats of Alexander the Great, but we’re fairly sure he wasn’t a mummy’s boy with blond highlights a la Colin Farrell.
The best thing is probably for a star to play it safe and portray someone whose life is extraordinary but largely unknown until a film is made about them. Ms Roberts finally got it right when she won an Oscar for playing single-mom campaigner Erin Brockovich, as did Sean Penn when he portrayed gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
And yet, as sure as Tom Cruise will one day decide he wants to play L Ron Hubbard in Alien 5: The Story of Scientology, there will always be bad casting decisions. We don’t have far to look: Kate Winslet is being tipped to play Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl kidnapped and kept in a cellar for 8 years. Winslet is a good actress but playing a 10-year-old girl? She’s not that good.
SPITTING IMAGE – Who should play who in the movies of their lives…
Who has played him: Morgan Freeman in Invictus (2009).
Who should play him: Morgan Freeman. Invictus was too lacklustre to do the role any justice. We say: give Morgan another script – and another chance.
Who wants to play her: Scarlett Johansson in upcoming biopic of Kurt Cobain.
Who should play her: Courtney Love. There is no-one else wild enough to play her and she has already proven she can bring a real person to life with her electric performance as Althea, wife to porn boss Larry Flynt. Johansson in turn could play Marilyn Monroe – she has the curves that Naomi Watts and Michelle Williams don’t in their upcoming biopics of her.
Who has played her: Madonna in the musical movie Evita (1996)
Who should have played her: Cher. No, really. In movies like Moonstruck and Mask, she was equally able to portray vulnerability and strength, a cocktail of which is what made Peron so charismatic. And it’s easy to picture her belting out Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina from a balcony, albeit in a spangly leotard.
Who has been touted to play her: Nicole Kidman, Amy Winehouse.
Who should play her: Winehouse would be a good choice apart from concerns over her ability to turn up on set every day. Chloe Sevigny does troubled yet kinky very well – and she does look well in a beehive.
Who has played him: Kurt Russell, playing Elvis in a 1979 movie, wouldn’t even have come fifth in an Elvis lookalike contest in Vegas.
Who should play him: He already has – our own Jonathan Rhys Meyers earned plaudits for playing a young Elvis in a TV series recently. Let’s see that curled lip and snake hips on the big screen.