Did you ever think about the fact that when little-known actors portray characters with attributes similar to their own, doubts are usually raised about how much (or little) acting was actually required to do so, but when well-known actors portray characters with attributes similar to their own, they are usually celebrated for having the courage to confront their shortcomings in the public arena? Let’s take a moment to examine this phenomenon…
When little-known actors portray characters with attributes similar to their own, doubts are usually raised about how much (or little) acting was actually required to do so. Consider the actors who played the title characters of two critically and commercially successful films, “Juno” and “Precious.”
In 2007, Ellen Page broke into the public’s consciousness as a smart, quick-witted teenager in “Juno.” In reality, Ellen Page was a smart, quick-witted teenager, as she demonstrated during a lengthy publicity campaign that began prior to the film’s release and continued throughout the awards season. Voters were charmed by Page both on and off the screen, and nominated her for the best actress Oscar, but ultimately threw their support behind another previously-unknown young actress: Marion Cotillard, whose movie “La Vie En Rose” featured subtitles and earned only a fraction of the money that “Juno” had, but for which she had physically transformed herself from a beautiful and vibrant young 32-year-old into another person altogether. Whether it was true or not, voters believed that Cotillard had to dig deeper as an actress than Page to formulate her performance, and so they voted accordingly.
This year, Gabourey Sidibe has earned rave reviews for her big-screen debut as a significantly overweight young woman who endures numerous hardships (low self-esteem, illiteracy, physical and sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies, AIDS) in “Precious.” In reality, Gabourey Sidibe is a significantly overweight young woman, but apparently one who has led a very happy life. Consequently, publicity strategists have been working overtime to subvert the assumption that befell Ellen Page’s Oscar hopes and now threatens Sidibe’s: that the actress didn’t have to dig very deep to formulate her performance because she was essentially portraying herself. Recently, Gabourey Sidibe began going by the much happier sounding “Gabby” Sidibe. She began making a string of upbeat TV appearances, dancing on “Ellen,” discussing pop-culture on “The Jay Leno Show,” and cracking jokes on “The Late Show” and “The Tonight Show.” And her co-stars began mentioning in interviews and Q&As how impressed they were with Sidibe’s ability to morph from a regular young woman (painting her nails and chatting about “Gossip Girl”) into her character (with a completely different voice, posture, walk, and “energy”) and then back again. Will voters buy the notion that Sidibe is not Precious? Time will tell.
When well-known actors portray characters with attributes similar to their own, they are usually celebrated for having the courage to confront their shortcomings in the public arena.
Last year, the veteran actor Mickey Rourke gave a critically-acclaimed performance as a has-been who comes to realize that he made terrible mistakes in the past and was now hoping for another chance to try to make up for them. At the time of the film’s release, Mickey Rourke was a has-been who had come to realize that he made terrible mistakes in the past (essentially throwing away his promising career and good looks for foolish reasons) and was now hoping for another chance to try to make up for them (by getting a good role, making the most of it, and reviving his career). Rourke’s performance was strong enough that it would have been well-received even if his own story did not resemble his character’s, but the fact that it did — and in such a revealing way — made it all the more moving. Publicity strategists realized this, worked with Rourke to emphasize the parallels, got him a best actor Oscar nod, and very nearly the best actor Oscar itself, so in that case there’s no question that the actor was helped by playing someone similar — indeed, uncomfortably similar — to himself.
This year, George Clooney, arguably the biggest movie star in the world, finds himself in a somewhat similar situation. In “Up in the Air,” Clooney plays a dashing, witty, charming, wealthy bachelor who elects to maintain few meaningful relationships in his life. In reality, Clooney is a dashing, witty, charming, wealthy bachelor who elects to maintain few meaningful relationships in his life. Clooney’s director Jason Reitman (who also directed Page in “Juno”) has said that after reading the script for the first time, Clooney recognized the connections between himself and his character and “wanted to stare it straight in the eyes,” something that others are now promoting as a courageous decision that was well executed and deserves to be rewarded. Will voters agree? Time will tell.
Photo: Ellen Page in “Juno” (2007). Credit: Fox Searchlight.