Famous Faces, Look-Alike Stars: The Biopic Dilemma As your parents no doubt told you, looks aren't everything. But when a film bio focuses on famous faces — as with the new drama Amelia — it can help to have an actor who looks the part. Even apt casting and accurate costumes can't save a bad story, though; critic Bob Mondello surveys some recent hits and misses.
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Famous Faces, Look-Alike Stars: The Biopic Dilemma

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Famous Faces, Look-Alike Stars: The Biopic Dilemma

Famous Faces, Look-Alike Stars: The Biopic Dilemma

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

One of the selling points for the new movie about Amelia Earhart is an uncanny resemblance. The film's star, Hilary Swank, looks a lot like the real aviator, and that got Bob Mondello wondering: Does it really matter if a biopic's star resembles its subject?

BOB MONDELLO: 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.

(Soundbite of film, "The King and I")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. YUL BRYNNER (Actor): (As King Mongkut of Siam) These are the children you shall teach. Some day, I shall allow you to meet my others.

Ms. DEBORAH KERR (Actor): (As Anna Leonowens) More, your majesty?

Mr. BRYNNER: Children of wives not in favor with king, 67 I think.

MONDELLO: Any actual resemblance strictly irrelevant. So when the producers of "Amelia" bragged that their star looks so much like Amelia Earhart that they could 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?

In TV's "The Tudors," for instance, even this season's aging Henry VIII isn't the fat, goitered, thin-lipped king we know from his portraits. He's pouty and athletic 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 is right but not the look. The real Julia was bubbly and flamboyant.

(Soundbite of television program, "The French Chef")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JULIA CHILD (Chef): Welcome to "The French Chef." I'm Julia Child.

MONDELLO: So Meryl Streep captured the plummy voice.

(Soundbite of film, "Julie and Julia")

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actor): (As Julia Child) I'm Julia Child. Bon appétit.

MONDELLO: Streep didn't have to 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'd played them, virtual twins some 30 years later.

And 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. We've got footage you can compare on the NPR Web site, but just as a sample, here's how Michael Sheen's Clough and Colm Meaney's Revie sound in the film when they argue on TV.

(Soundbite of film, "The Damned United")

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN (Actor): (As Brian Clough) I am a warm man, an idealist. I do believe in fairies, and that's my outlook. Don is slightly different. He's a cold person.

Mr. COLM MEANEY (Actor): (As Don Revie) You don't know me.

Mr. SHEEN: (As Clough) And that lack of warmth, that coldness, was there. It permeated the club when I arrived.

Mr. MEANEY: (As Revie) I totally refute that.

MONDELLO: And here's the real coaches arguing on TV.

(Soundbite of television program)

Mr. BRIAN CLOUGH (Coach): When I went in there, there was friction. There was unhappiness.

Mr. DON REVIE (Coach): What do you mean, friction?

Mr. CLOUGH: There was unhappiness because you'd gone and unsigned contracts.

MONDELLO: Pretty close orally and close in appearance and gesture, as well, and you want downright genetic 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.

(Soundbite of film, "Notorious")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER JORDAN WALLACE (Actor): (As Biggie Smalls) (Rapping) Put the mike in my hand. I know that. You understand, not a fool or a loser, I'm a one-man band.

Mr. JAMAL WOOLARD (Actor): (As Biggie Smalls) (Rapping) (Unintelligible).

MONDELLO: Now, it's worth noting that dramatic effectiveness does not 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 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 it to do too much of the dramatic work. As your parents no doubt told you, looks aren't everything, and as the film "Amelia" will tell you, looks will do nothing at all to brighten a dull script. I'm Bob Mondello.

NORRIS: And you can compare Hollywood stars with the famous people they've portrayed yourself. If you go to our Web site, you can check out side-by-side photos of the look-alikes. That's at npr.org.

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