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The Actors Rumored to Star in the Beatles Biopics Look Nothing Like Them. Good.

Back in February, music and movie fans were shocked to hear that “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes was going to be making separate full-length biopics about each of the Beatles. Whether or not you thought that was a good idea, it certainly was unprecedented—and it immediately started speculation about who would play the band members in the separate films.

This past week, a rumor started circulating of who the fictional Fab Four would be: Harris Dickinson would play John Lennon, Paul Mescal was slated for Paul McCartney, Charlie Rowe would portray George Harrison, and Barry Keoghan was set to be Ringo Starr. There were debates about whether those were the right actors to bring the lads from Liverpool to life, but a comment a friend made stayed with me: “They don’t really even look like the guys.”

Hair and makeup can do wondrous things, but I tended to agree with my buddy—and then I thought about it. Why has that become part of evaluating whether an actor is “right” to play a famous person? Why do we require them to look like their subject?

Biopics are a Hollywood staple—especially during awards season—so we’re frequently greeted by interviews with actors explaining how they “immersed” themselves in the world of the person they were portraying. How they “channeled” this world leader or superstar pop singer, took on her mannerisms, watched all his interviews, etc. If the actor “disappears” into the role, he is praised for his brilliance—it must have been hard to become someone else so completely. The craft of performing becomes the act of mimicry.

I say none of that with scorn or sarcasm. Certainly, terrific performances have come from such chameleonic methods: Val Kilmer conjured up Jim Morrison in “The Doors,” and Cate Blanchett both skewered and paid homage to “Don’t Look Back”-era Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” They both submerged themselves in their roles until you didn’t see them anymore. (I realize that some dislike Blanchett’s performance, which they find gimmicky, but those complaints prove my larger point: That process of channeling, whether invisible or showy, is meant to wow us with how close to the real thing the actor became.)

But while there’s no doubt an astounding amount of technique required to pull that off—as well as, sometimes, prosthetics—we’re all susceptible to overvaluing such an accomplishment. And I get it: Especially if you’re very familiar with what the famous person looks like, it can be jarring (and feel plain wrong) if the actor doesn’t resemble her. But because we put a premium on verisimilitude, I feel like sometimes viewers aren’t impressed enough when an actor doesn’t look like the person they’re playing and is nonetheless terrific in the role. Maybe expert mimicry isn’t the only way to gauge such performances.

A few years after Oliver Stone made “The Doors,” he released “Nixon,” which starred Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced 37th president. The Oscar-winning actor did the cursory work of changing his countenance and voice to appear more Tricky Dick-esque, but this was hardly an instance of someone “disappearing” into the role. In the film, he looks like Anthony Hopkins. But it didn’t matter that Hopkins didn’t resemble Nixon, because he took on the man’s volcanic anger and insecurity in such a way that he articulated Nixon’s essence. Eschewing the typical lookalike concerns, “Nixon” offered another way of thinking about Nixon—as an ambitious, fatally flawed but also oddly tragic and poignant figure destined to bring about his own ruin. As great as, say, Jamie Foxx is as Ray Charles in “Ray,” that performance was a facsimile of the celebrity we know—a perfect copy—whereas “Nixon” is arguably going for something more elemental than how he looked or sounded. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other, but one is certainly given more respect in Hollywood. Put it this way: Foxx won the Oscar, and Hopkins did not.

That opportunity for discovery allows the actor the space to suggest his subject rather than impersonating them. Cillian Murphy somewhat resembles J. Robert Oppenheimer, but his Oscar-winning role in “Oppenheimer” benefited from the nuance he brought to understanding a complicated, tormented genius—it was a spiritual channeling more than a physical one. Will Smith doesn’t look like Muhammad Ali, but he understood the champ’s swagger, bringing a core element of himself to “Ali.” In “Spencer,” Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana is as much Stewart as it is Diana—you can make the actress blonde, but you cannot hide the melancholy alienation she exudes in every role, which was crucial for the film’s depiction of an isolated woman in a gilded cage. Hopkins isn’t even the only great Nixon actor—Philip Baker Hall in “Secret Honor” doesn’t even try to recall the president’s features but digs deep into his rage and paranoia. Each of these performances (and so many others) confronts us with new ways of thinking about a famous figure we thought we knew. Rather than the comfort of familiarity, there’s the shock of the new.

I wish to take nothing away from actors who throw themselves into the process of becoming their subject. To use but one example, Meryl Streep’s Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” isn’t just an incredible imitation but also a lived-in portrayal of the beloved chef’s spirit and vulnerability. But I want to gently push back on our collective knee-jerk reaction to casting announcements, judging the choice almost solely on how similar the actor looks to the celebrity. 

I’m not as familiar with Charlie Rowe’s work as I am with the other three actors tipped to play Beatles, but I like Dickinson, Keoghan, and Mescal a lot—it really shouldn’t matter how much they resemble their counterparts. Likewise, Timothée Chalamet shouldn’t be graded solely on how much he looks like Bob Dylan in the forthcoming James Mangold-directed biopic. Rather than expecting actors to perfectly mimic their real-life characters, we should ask them to enlighten us about those famous figure’s inner selves. Our fascination with iconic individuals is never skin-deep—why shouldn’t biopic performances be similarly penetrating?

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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