Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The 10 Best Movie Portrayals of Historical Characters

Being an actor seems like the perfect calling for people who really aren't that interesting on their own. Rather than spending every day being boring old you, you can take on the personality of a character who is much more exciting than you are. Some of the luckiest actors get to portray historical figures; imagine getting to feel like the president or a king for the length of filming. While some of these people may fall short of the important parts they are playing, several have risen to the occasion and really stepped into the shoes of the prominent figures they represent. These 10 actors changed the way we see history with their versions of people we'd previously only read about.

  1. Colin Firth as King George VI, The King's Speech

    For a movie that received 12 Oscar nominations, including a win for Colin Firth for Best Actor, it should come as no surprise that Firth's portrayal of King George VI, or Prince Albert as he was known at the time, would top the list. Albert, a lifelong stutterer, was never supposed to become king of England; his brother Edward is in line for the throne. But Edward wants to marry a divorced woman, which would make him ineligible for the position. Albert goes to a speech therapist to overcome his problems so he could take on the power if he needed to since radio broadcasts were so important during the time. Firth plays the role to perfection, with the right mix of anger, regalness, and neuroses that come with playing second fiddle in the royal family for a lifetime. It doesn't take long for you to start cheering for Albert, even though you know he will succeed in becoming King George VI.

  2. Ben Kingsley as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Gandhi

    When casting one of the most beloved peacemakers of our time, you've got to get the right man for the job. Luckily for audiences, Ben Kingsley, who is of English and Indian descent, pulled it off beautifully. He understands something that many actors may not have grasped if given the chance to play this man; Gandhi wasn't perfect or supernatural, just a man with convictions. It probably doesn't hurt, either, that Kingsley looks very convincing as Gandhi, the man who effectively employed civil disobedience to gain independence for India. The film's lengthy but it gives great insight into Gandhi's life, with Kingsley bringing relatable and inspiring life to the now-deceased figure.

  3. George C. Scott as General George S. Patton, Patton

    The personalities of actor George C. Scott and of the World War II general for the U.S. work together so well that you begin to think you are seeing George S. Patton himself in the movie. Patton was a man who loved war and was in his element on the battlefield. This made up his identity and he often had trouble fitting in when he was in the civilian world. Scott, who had done a stint in the military, seemed to understand this idea of an outsider who is great at his job — he was well known for not belonging to the Hollywood crowd or buying into the culture. Scott's performance, which eludes to a depth in the seemingly shallow, proud character, won him an Academy Award, which he sent back because he didn't want it. He did, however, want to play Patton again, and did so 16 years later in The Last Days of Patton.

  4. Paul Giamatti as John Adams, John Adams

    Fine, this isn't technically a movie, but there's no doubt that Paul Giamatti's depiction of President John Adams in this TV miniseries deserves a mention. And basically a miniseries is just a movie franchise where you don't have to wait two years to see the next film, so that makes it even more awesome. Giamatti takes on the role of our second president with ease and gives him a personality that helps bring the legendary revolutionary down to our level. He's passionate and stubborn and often impatient, but his loyalty shines through and the audience is left wondering why he doesn't receive more recognition. Giamatti helps give us a personal connection to a forefather that has largely been forgotten. We should also give due credit to the brilliant acting of Laura Linney, who plays the ever-devoted Abigail Adams.

  5. Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, Elizabeth

    If you play the queen that heralded England's Golden Age and win an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, you know you've done a good job. In 1998's Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett impressed the English organization and won Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of The Virgin Queen. She later reprised the role in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Some critics thought Blanchett, under the direction of Shekhar Kapur, played too far from the true queen's personality, but her rendition of the royal was somewhat modern and much more relatable than most British monarchs have come across in movies before. Blanchett brings a lively attitude to the young queen and show's Elizabeth's transformation to strong ruler beautifully.

  6. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Capote

    It can be hard for an actor to take on the role of a real-life character who has so many idiosyncrasies. Author Truman Capote is known for his short stories and novels, many of which were made into films, like Breakfast at Tiffany's. He is also famous for his distinct appearance, marked by his short frame and peculiar way of dressing, and his high-pitched voice. He had a knack for making up stories about his life, including affairs with men who were thought to be heterosexual. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes on the curious role, not only nailing Capote's mannerisms, but finding a way to be likeable enough to the audience while still holding on to Capote's deep vanity and self-obsession.

  7. Meryl Streep as Julia Child, Julie and Julia

    Chef Julia Child brought French cooking to American kitchens with her cook books, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She also became a recognizable TV personality, standing tall over her kitchen counters as she taught viewers how to cook in her unique tone of voice. While Dan Aykroyd does a pretty great impression of her on Saturday Night Live (one that Child herself is said to have loved), Meryl Streep really embodies her in the 2009 movie, Julie and Julia. Streep has the movements and vocals down and captures a spirit that is essential in a portrayal of the joyful chef. Streep finds the strong woman behind the silly habits, shows the love Child and her husband share, and gives us the story of the chef's life in a way that makes us feel as if we're watching Child herself.

  8. Frank Lagella as President Richard Nixon, Frost/Nixon

    Though Michael Sheen does a bang-up job as David Frost, a British journalist taking on the enormous task of interviewing pardoned President Richard Nixon, Frank Lagella's portrayal of the former president was more fascinating. Maybe it's because we love scandal or because Watergate will always intrigue us; whatever the reason, all eyes were on Lagella when this film came out, and he didn't disappoint. The movie covers the drama surrounding a series of interviews between Nixon and Frost, a risk for the reputations of both men. Nixon historically isn't viewed in the most favorable light and you'd probably expect to hate him in the film, but Lagella's depiction is so well done that you really sympathize with him. Instead of just seeing a corrupt leader, you'll go back and forth over whether you're watching a broken man or one who knows how to work an audience.

  9. Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, The Aviator

    Sure, we all loved Leonardo DiCaprio as a heartthrob in Titanic and Growing Pains, but his grown-up roles have earned him a spot among the acting greats. In The Aviator, DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes, a man who furthered the aviation industry and produced hit films while simultaneously starting to come off his rocker. Hughes battles obsessive-compulsive disorder even though he enjoys wild success in film and has obscene amounts of money. DiCaprio finds the balance between charming millionaire romancer and fixated madman and makes them both believable. His boyish looks work to his advantage during the part of the film portraying Hughes' younger years, but it's DiCaprio's acting chops that really bring the character and his downward spiral to life.

  10. Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler, Der Untergang

    You may not know the name of this film, also known as Downfall in English, but you've definitely seen at least part of it. The scene in which Adolf Hitler reacts to bad news has been an incredibly popular meme during the past few years, changed to have Hitler get upset over news about football, pop culture, and basically anything you can think of. Despite this now-silly segment, Der Untergang is actually an excellent film tackling Hitler's last 10 days before his death. Not an easy topic or character, Bruno Ganz gives a jaw-dropping performance. Rather than giving a simple caricature of the depraved dictator, Ganz brings us into the world of a man who is at once terrible and human. Hitler was facing his destruction and living with the early stages of Parkinson's disease; Ganz researched Parkinson's patients and brought deep emotions to the outward portrayal of what was a very troubled mind. He doesn't ask you to feel sorry for Hitler, but gives you more realistic insight into how this very real person met his end.

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