Famous Faces, Look-Alike Stars: The Biopic Dilemma

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    Hilary Swank's resemblance to aviator Amelia Earhart (left) is a prime — and perhaps the only — selling point of Mira Nair's new biopic Amelia. Click through for a gallery of more historical figures and the look-alike (or not-alike) actors who've played them.
    Popperfoto/Getty Images, Ken Woroner
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    Look-Alikes: Politician Harvey Milk (left), Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in the 2008 film Milk (right). Penn sported a redesigned hairline, a prosthetic nose and a new set of teeth to play the gay activist.
    Terry Schmitt/San Francisco Chronicle via Corbis, Focus Features
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    Look-Alikes: Queen Elizabeth II (left) and Helen Mirren (right) as Her Majesty in 2006's The Queen. Mirren's appearance was so authentically regal that on the set, the crew started standing straighter in her presence and folding their hands behind their backs when speaking to her.
    Dan Chung/AP, Laurie Sparham/Miramax Films
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    Not-Alike: Julia Child (left) and Meryl Streep (right) as Child in the 2009 film Julie and Julia. Streep said no thanks to facial prosthetics, but the 5-foot-6 actress wore platform heels to help create the illusion that she was 6-foot-2 like the famous chef.
    Steve Hansen/Time Life Pictures via Getty Images, David Giesbrecht/Columbia Pictures
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    Look-Alikes: The late rapper Notorious B.I.G. (left) and actor Jamal Woolard (right) shortly after he was cast in the 2009 film Notorious. Woolard reportedly gained more than 50 pounds for the role.
    Courtesy of Bad Boy Records, Scott Gries/Getty Images
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    Look-Alikes: Real-life Leeds United soccer manager Brian Clough (left) and Michael Sheen (right) as Clough in the new film The Damned United. Sheen has won a sort of reality trifecta of late, playing British Prime Minister Tony Blair (whom he resembles a lot) in The Queen, TV personality David Frost (a bit less) in Frost/Nixon and now Clough — who at one point is interviewed onscreen by the real David Frost.
    Press Association via AP, Laurie Sparham/Sony Pictures Classics
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    Look-Alikes: Ben Kingsley (right) resembled Mahatma Gandhi (left) in the 1982 film Gandhi to the point that many Indians are said to have believed him to be Gandhi's ghost.
    AP, CinemaPhoto/Corbis
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    Not-Alike: Nicole Kidman (right) wore a prosthetic nose and a perpetual frown (and even learned to write right-handed), none of which made her look remotely like writer Virginia Woolf (left) in 2002's The Hours.
    Evening Standard/Getty Images, Clive Coote/Paramount/Miramax/Corbis
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    Sorta-Like? Frank Langella (right) may not have looked much like Richard Nixon (left) in the 2008 film Frost/Nixon, but his habit of staying in character on the set had members of the cast and crew referring to him as "Mr. President."
    AFP/Getty Images, Ralph Nelson/Universal Studios
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    Not-A-Bit-Alike: Filmmakers didn't even try to make Johnny Depp (right) look like gangster John Dillinger (left) in the 2009 film Public Enemies. Then again, would you have?
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Peter Mountain/Universal
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    Oh-Come-On-Now: Although the young Henry VIII was thought handsome by his contemporaries, he suffered from obesity, gout and a smelly ulcer on his leg in his later years. Producers of Showtime's The Tudors presumably thought viewers would rather watch ripped, athletic Jonathan Rhys Meyers (right) in the king's love scenes with those six wives.
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Everyone knows what Lawrence of Arabia looks like. He looks like Peter O'Toole. Just as Cleopatra looks like Elizabeth Taylor, and the King of Siam looks like Yul Brynner.

T.E. Lawrence i i

A British military expert on Arab customs, T.E. Lawrence (above) often wore traditional Bedouin robes. Peter O'Toole's lean features made him a good pick to play Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. But one discrepancy was noticeable: O'Toole (below) stood 6 feet 3 inches tall, while Lawrence topped out at 5 feet 6 inches. Hulton Archive/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty
T.E. Lawrence

A British military expert on Arab customs, T.E. Lawrence (above) often wore traditional Bedouin robes. Peter O'Toole's lean features made him a good pick to play Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. But one discrepancy was noticeable: O'Toole (below) stood 6 feet 3 inches tall, while Lawrence topped out at 5 feet 6 inches.

Hulton Archive/Getty
Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" i i
Columbia Pictures
Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia"
Columbia Pictures

Any actual resemblance there, of course, is strictly irrelevant. So when the producers of Amelia boast that their star looks so much like Amelia Earhart that they were able to use 1930s newsreel footage at one point rather than shooting a new scene, you think, "Well, cool, but ... so?" It's lucky casting, certainly. But since when are filmmakers sticklers for authenticity?

On TV's The Tudors, for instance, even this season's aging Henry VIII — we're well beyond the Anne Boleyn years now — isn't the fat, goitered, thin-lipped king we know from his mature portraits. He's the pouty, still-athletic Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a crew cut — easier on the eyes, presumably, as he's bedding those six wives.

Or consider Julia Child. In this summer's Julie and Julia, the hair was right, and 5-foot-6 star Meryl Streep was wearing platform heels to approximate the physical presence of the 6-foot-2 chef. But Streep didn't opt for fleshy prosthetics on cheek and chin. Instead, she nailed the bubbly, plummy voice.

Streep had an advantage: Director Nora Ephron didn't make her compete visually with a shot of the real Julia Child. But films about other famous figures have lately taken to actively bragging about how true to life they are. Audiences sat transfixed through the end credits of the movie Milk last year, as photos of the real people who had worked with gay activist Harvey Milk were matched with the actors who played them. It was as though the filmmakers had found virtual twins, some 30 years after the tragic events portrayed in the film.

A similar impulse seems to have driven the makers of a new soccer-rivalry movie, The Damned United. In this country, we don't know feuding coaches Brian Clough and Don Revie, but in Britain, they're downright legendary. And again, they've nearly been twinned.

Life And Art, 'United'

The big showdown in The Damned United takes place just as soccer-team manager Brian Clough is getting fired. It was modeled on an actual on-air confrontation that took place a bit later — and while the words aren't the same, the argumentative rhythms are:

At one point in the film, Michael Sheen's Clough and Colm Meaney's Revie argue in a TV studio about how their approaches to coaching the Leeds United team clashed. And everything about the shot — the setup of the chairs, their rhetorical rhythms, their postures — seems designed to precisely evoke a famous confrontation between the real coaches in 1974.

And if that's pretty close, it can't compete with a practically genetic sort of closeness. In the rap biography Notorious earlier this year, the late hip-hop artist Biggie Smalls was so precisely captured by actor Jamal Woolard that Smalls' own son was cast to play the rap star in childhood flashbacks.

It's worth noting that dramatic effectiveness doesn't depend on visual accuracy, and in fact, may be undercut by it. If you're lucky enough to get handsome Johnny Depp for your gangster movie, and then you load him down with prosthetics to make him look like craggy John Dillinger, the audience is going to spend the whole movie cursing you and thinking about makeup.

On the other hand, when you're handed not just a look-alike but a look-a-whole-lot-alike, as with Hilary Swank in Amelia, why not take advantage?

Just don't expect that happy accident to do too much of the dramatic work. As your parents no doubt told you, looks aren't everything — and as anything more than a glance at the film Amelia will tell you, looks'll do nothing at all to brighten a dull script.

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